With many locked out NHL stars taking up residence in Europe’s best leagues, the standard of play has risen a few notches. As a result, most of the Penguins prospects based there have been forced down the depth chart and are playing fewer minutes. For others, especially Evgeni Malkin, the influx of NHL players has meant that he can continue his development among better players than he would normally be exposed to.
Malkin has thrived this season for his Russian team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, as he continues to blossom into the dominant player that Penguins scouts have been hoping for since they took him with the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. Malkin has nearly tripled his offensive output this season, even with the added depth in the Russian league. He has also improved his defensive work, earning time on the penalty kill as well as the power play at Magnitogorsk.
When Malkin came up against opposition his own age in this year’s World Junior Championship, he impressed even more. Malkin was one of the most dominant players in the tournament, finishing fourth overall in scoring with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in five games. “I think that he is a more mature player now, he is stronger physically and his skating has also improved since last year” said Penguins scout Mark Kelley during the WJC. “He is also a more all-around player. I mean, we are ecstatic with our choice.”
After the WJC, Malkin earned a spot as the center between two NHL stars, Petr Sykora of the Mighty Ducks and Patrick Elias of the New Jersey Devils. His play has earned rave reviews from both players.
Malkin finished the season with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) from 52 games, putting him 24th in league scoring. The Russian league has now moved into playoff mode with Magnitogorsk coming up against Tolyatti Lada, a team that includes former Penguins draft pick Vladimir Malenkikh.
The Penguins other prospect in Russia is Sergei Anshakov. The talented winger is one of the many players who struggled this season after being forced out of the lineup of his Russian Superleague team after the arrival of the NHL players. Anshakov has plenty of raw talent and his development was stalled at CSKA Moscow, where he only played 11 scoreless games with limited minutes. Mid-season, Anshakov was shipped off to the struggling Salavat Yulayev, where he thrived with the extra ice time. He played out the last 23 games of the season with Salavat Yulayev, scoring nine goals and three assists.
Anshakov continues to be one of the best prospects in the Penguins system, and his nine goals in the latter half of the season shows his potential when given the opportunity. He is still young, turned 21 on January 13, and is expected to continue his development in his home country before making the journey to North America.
In the Czech Elite League, the Penguins have three prospects plying their trade. Perhaps the most impressive of those this season has been goaltender Tomas Duba. The Penguins 217th pick in the 2001 draft had his second consecutive stellar season in the Elite League, where this year he was the starter for HC Lasselsberger Plzen.
Duba played in 35 games, posting a competitive goals against average of 2.48 and an outstanding save percentage of .932. These stats put him ahead of NHL goalies such as Roman Cechmanek and Tomas Vokoun. Despite this good form, there does not appear to be an immediate spot in North America for him at this time with so many quality goaltenders already within the Penguins system.
One Czech player who has had a taste of the North American game is Ondrej Nemec. A second round selection in 2002, the defenseman has spent the majority of his career in his home country. Nemec was invited for a brief stint in the AHL during last season for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins where he played seven regular season and seven playoff games, totalling four points (one goal, three assists). His play was solid, and he is expected to return to North America in the near future.
This season Nemec has nearly doubled his best ever offensive output, scoring six goals and nine assists in 48 games for Vsetin HC in the Czech Elite League. There is no doubt that he has the offensive skills to score more if given the opportunity to quarterback the power play.
Turning to Sweden now where the Penguins have two of their better prospects playing for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League. Johannes Salmonsson was regarded as the best Swedish talent in the 2004 draft, making him a steal when the Penguins took him with the first pick of the second round, 31st overall. Salmonsson is a multi-skilled forward who is very creative in attack, but also responsible defensively. He has struggled in his two seasons in the SEL to score, but seems to thrive on occasions where he is given better opportunities. One such opportunity was this year’s WJC. Salmonsson starred, scoring five goals and three assists in only six games, a great effort considering the poor tournament that the Swedes had overall. That performance brought deserved praise from Mark Kelley. “He has come over here and is playing very well. He works very hard. He’s been very effective on the forecheck, going to the net. He forces things to happen.”
Salomonsson’s performance at the WJC’s seemed to give him some confidence and was a much better player in the SEL during the second half of the season. He posted only the two goals and two assists in 30 games, but earned himself more ice time and showed a lot more of the creativity he is known for. Considering he has only just turned 19, there appears to be a bright future for the young Swede.
The other prospect trying to earn a regular spot with Djurgarden is rugged 6’4 defenseman Daniel Fernholm. The 21-year-old is competing in his second season in the SEL after showing great potential in the Swedish junior leagues. Fernholm has good mobility for his size (nearly 230 pounds) but his main job is to clear the net of pesky opponents. His first call-up to the senior side during the 2003-04 season proved fruitful as he put on 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 37 games, but was an occasional healthy scratch at the beginning of this season as the NHL players arrived. This prompted Djurgarden to loan him to Italian club Bolzano, where he registered two assists in seven games.
Upon his return, he started as a healthy scratch again before cracking the line-up and staying there. He ended up with three goals and two assists in 31 games during the regular season. Both Salmonsson and Fernholm went without a point in Djurgarden’s seven-game quarter final win over Timra to begin the SEL playoffs.
Swiss-born Patrick Bartschi had a frustrating season that was marred with injury. After being one of the Swiss leagues top scorers for the Kloten Flyers over the previous two seasons with 72 points in 84 games, Bartschi battled to just seven goals and eight assists in 28 games in 2004-05. He also added two goals in five playoff games. Czech prospect Michal Sivek chose not to remain in North America during the lockout, instead deciding to play in his home country for Sparta Praha. As the only European-based prospect with NHL experience, his one goal and five assists in 37 games can only be considered a disappointment.
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