The mantra for the Habs’ European prospects – for the most part – has been the same this season: get over here! With four prospects plying their trade in European leagues, three are running the risk of stunting their development playing in leagues and programs that may not mesh with their needs and styles of play.
The Habs have two players in the Russian league: Alexei Yemelin (3rd round, 84th overall, 2004) and Pavel Valentenko (5th round, 139th overall, 2006). And, in the opinion of Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s Director of Player Recruitment and Development, their style of play won’t be properly developed by staying in Russia.
"Both [Yemelin] and Valentenko need to come over here and get immersed in our culture. They’re both mean, they’re nasty, and that type of game is not prevalent in the Russian League," he said. "They have to come over to improve the style of game they’re playing. They can always develop over there but to develop the style of game they play, they need to come here."
That’s a key point. Timmins has nothing against the Russian league in terms of talent and does consider it a viable developmental option for some players. However, as the league is more finesse-based, players who have more of an edge to their game and play a physical style often run into philosophical challenges with referees and coaches.
"Look at Valentenko. He’s playing in the Russian League and playing an aggressive style," Timmins said. "He’s getting a lot of penalties because of the style he plays, which has the coaches getting on him. The more penalties he gets, the more hesitant he plays."
In addition, Timmins points to an example from within his own organization as a perfect illustration of the benefit of NHL prospects coming as early as possible to North America.
"Take, for example, the Kostitsyn brothers. Sergei is further along in two years than Alexei was because he came over right away," he explained, adding that learning the language and acclimatizing to the North American style of play is easier when you’re younger and can help pave the way to a smoother ride to the NHL long-term.
Yemelin’s numbers dropped from last season with his Tolyatti Lada club. In 43 games, he only scored two goals and added five assists. And reflective of Timmins’ comments, he appeared to play a more hesitant game, dropping from 129 PIM last season to just 74 this year.
Valentenko, conversely, had a breakthrough year. After a stellar performance at the World Junior Championships where he was the tournament’s top defenseman and displayed some offensive upside in leading the Russian squad to silver, he played a solid role with Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik squad. Although only accounting for two assists in 50 games, he played a solid overall defensive game.
Montreal also has one prospect in the Finnish league in Oskari Korpikari (7th round, 217th overall, 2003). The optimist would say that the Finnish prospect tripled his offensive products, the realist would counter that it’s not that hard of a feat when your previous year saw you score only one goal, and the pessimist would look at the situation and say if he doesn’t come overseas soon, any window of opportunity he may have had gets closed.
The truth, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in the middle.
"He played on the championship team and he’s been with Karpat for a number of years, but he didn’t get enough playing time," Timmins said. "That wasn’t the best situation for him."
Korpikari did take to the ice in North America during the preseason with the Habs, but returned to the familiar surroundings in Finland. However, the club has to make a decision about the 6’2, 205-pound defenseman’s future as he needs to be signed this spring. One would assume that a decision to continue his game in North America would be a huge factor in the Habs’ thought process.
The final prospect overseas is netminder Christopher Heino-Lindberg (6th round, 177th overall, 2003). In his second year backstopping Farjestads BK of the Swedish Elite League, Heino-Lindberg still found himself in back-up role to Daniel Henriksson.
In the 18 games, he did play, however, he posted solid numbers: a 2.33 GAA with a .916 save percentage. Unfortunately, for Heino-Lindberg to have a chance at progressing anywhere within a Montreal Canadiens organization that’s deep in netminding prospects, he’ll have to show he has the ability to be the main man in the SEL before getting the same opportunity here in the ECHL or AHL.
Unfortunately, with the elite performances of goalie-of-the-future Carey Price and goalie-of-the-moment Jaroslav Halak – not to mention the eye-opening performance of Hamilton signee Cedrick Desjardins – Heino-Lindberg’s window of opportunity is on the verge of slamming shut.
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