Overagers in the NHL Draft

By Mark Schwarz
The NHL Entry Draft is an event which is, first and foremost, about the future. Teams are attempting to bolster their organizational depth and set their organizations on a course which should keep them competitive into the next decade and beyond. The stars of the day are young players who won’t impress themselves into the minds of casual hockey fans for years, if at all. Despite that, winning now will always be the primary issue in the eyes of NHL General Managers, and after the TV cameras are shut off and the National Car Rental Center in Miami begins to empty, teams will have an opportunity to address their current rosters by delving into the ranks of European players they’ve ignored in the past. Players initially deemed too small, too slow, or lacking the skill to succeed in North America continue to hone their skills in their respective domestic leagues, and every year a substantial group will advance to the point at which they’ll merit a draft selection and receive chance to prove themselves in the NHL.

It wasn’t always this way – the top European players were drafted into NHL organizations as teenagers, and those who were passed over would be extremely unlikely ever to get another chance. However, as the NHL reached the mid-1990s, this suddenly began to change. The calibre of the top European leagues was continuing to rise while the pace of the NHL was dropping due to expansion and a diluted talent pool so the gap between the level of play on the two continents narrowed like never before. Those teams on the cutting edge who came to this realization first would be richly rewarded. While simultaneously working as the General Manager of Finnish side HIFK Helsinki, Ottawa’s head European scout Jarmo Kekalainen funneled a horde of top Scandinavian talent into that organization and that group of players was a key force in the transformation of Ottawa from a laughingstock to a (regular season) powerhouse. When healthy fully one-quarter of the Senators’ 2000-2001 roster was brought into the organization through that route (Alfredsson, Arvedsson, Dackell, Salo, and Hurme). Following the Ottawa example, over the past five years, NHL clubs have continued to put more and more emphasis on gleaning the best available talent from the top European leagues.

The 2000 draft was an especially productive one in this regard. Philadelphia, an organization plagued with endless problems in net, rolled the dice on 29 year-old Czech netminder Roman Cechmanek in the 6th round. Cechmanek immediately seized the #1 spot for the club and became an All-Star and Vezina Trophy finalist in the process. Los Angeles 4th rounder Lubomir Visnovsky proceeded to contribute 39 points to the Kings’ blueline attack. Another Lubomir, Sekeras, made a similar contribution to the Minnesota Wild. Alexander Kharitonov, Petteri Nummelin, Jarno Kultanen, Niclas Wallin, and Jonas Ronnqvist all stepped right into regular action for their respective teams as well. Mikael Tellqvist and Jukka Hentunen are good bets to play for Toronto and Calgary, respectively, in the future as well. Scouts will be hoping they can pluck some similar gems in the 2001 draft.

The list contained here comes with one major caveat – aside from players who participated in the most recent World Championships or past international tournaments, I haven’t seen many of these players play. That’s obviously a pretty big opening for criticism, but I’ve tried to be very thorough in researching and compiling this and the rankings and comments are based on discussions I’ve had over the past several months with fans/experts whose opinions I consider credible. Obviously the list won’t be perfect, and I’m very interested in any additional comments from European hockey fans on the players mentioned here, or any other players people feel should have been mentioned here.

I am confident, though, that the list should be a fairly representative one, and should provide some solid insight into some of the most NHL-ready players in the draft. The first overage players should begin to be selected in the third and fourth rounds, and there should be a pretty steady trickle from there :

(note – ± statistics for Czech players are inflated because of the inclusion of PP goals in their stat calculation)

1. Marek Zidlicky D, HIFK (Finland) 5’11” 185 lbs. DOB 2/3/77

2000-2001 51 GP 12-25-37 146 PIM +12

A Czech native playing in Finland, Zidlicky really blossomed in his second full season with HIFK, emerging as perhaps the top defender in the SM-Liiga.. Consistently played 25 + minutes /night and finished the year as the highest-scoring defender in the league. A strong, quick skater who is very attack-minded and loves to join the play. Good puck-mover and outlet passer, although his vision falls short of being elite. Has a big shot and can quarterback a PP. Reads the play well and is above-average in his own zone. Size is obviously a major concern, but what sets him apart from other smaller players and should allow him to succeed in North America is his edge. An extremely hard-nosed, competitive player who throws his weight around with surprising effectiveness and is willing to take a hit to make a play. Led the SM-Liiga with 146 PIM, an astonishing total for a European league – needs to be more disciplined if anything. An additional factor working in his favour for any team thinking of drafting him is that HIFK plays their home games on a North American-sized rink, which should make the adjustment to the NHL an easier one. Consensus amongst Finnish fans seems to be that he’s close to being as effective as fellow smallish defenders Brian Rafalski and Kimmo Timonen were when they were still with HIFK (all three players were brought into that organization by the aforementioned Jarmo Kekalainen), and that he should be able to make a similarly effective transition to the NHL game – probably doesn’t have quite the offensive upside of either of those players, but is better in his own zone. The Toronto Maple Leafs are one team which has apparently already shown interest.

2. Karel Pilar D, Litvinov (Czech Republic) 6’3″ 207 lbs. DOB 12/23/77

2000-2001 52 GP 12-26-38 52 PIM +61

Like Zidlicky, Pilar (pronounced PE-lahsh) lead the defenders in his league (the Czech Extraleague) in scoring, but in his case the stats can be a bit misleading. Although skilled, he’s a more conservative player who takes care of his own end first and who had been considered primarily a defensive defender until this past season. A decent skater, he has a long, gangly stride that isn’t particularly pretty but which gets him around the ice quite effectively. A good backwards skater which coupled with a long reach make him very effective in one-on-one situations. Reads the play well and will finish his checks, but doesn’t have any sort of mean streak to speak of. In nine games at the 2001 World Championships, he was only on the ice for one even-strength goal against. Offensively, his biggest attribute is his outlet passing, which is excellent. Will join the play with a fair degree of effectiveness, and does a good job of getting into shooting positions and putting the puck on net. A very solid all-around player who should probably be able to adapt well to the North American game, and at age 23, his best years are still ahead of him. Will move to Finland next season to play for Jokerit if he doesn’t end up in the NHL.

3. Timo Pärssinen LW, HPK Hameenlinna (Finland) 5’10” 180 lbs. DOB 1/19/77

2000-2001 54 GP 18-31-49 48 PIM -8

Despite piling up points over the past three years in Finland, Pärssinen has been considered too small to have any success in North America. However, his performance against NHL-calibre competition at the 2001 World Championships has likely served as his coming-out party and should see him finally be selected in the 2001 draft. Was amongst the top players on the Finnish squad and his 8 points in the tournament helped carry the team to the gold medal game. Best attribute is his skating – has explosive acceleration and first-step quickness and is very quick and agile. Surprisingly strong on his skates for a smaller player. Sees the ice well and shows impressive creativity and hockey sense. Has pretty good hands but isn’t a great finisher. Obviously isn’t a physical presence but seems to play pretty well in traffic and isn’t afraid to use his stick a bit. Would likely be a solid pickup for a team looking to add some instant offense (which is just about everyone in today’s NHL).

4. Tony Mårtensson RW, Brynäs (Sweden) 6’0″ 190 lbs. DOB 6/23/80

2000-2001 50 GP 15-11-26 20 PIM -10

Unlike most of the players on this list, selecting Mårtensson would be a pick for the future rather than one for the present. He only turns 21 on draft day and is still likely several years away from coming to North America.. Was passed over in each of the last three drafts despite an excellent 2000 WJC and also despite putting up great numbers for Swedish Div. 2 team Arlanda (was rated as high as #72 in Europe in the 1998 CSBs), but a successful move to the Elitserien this year has raised his stock considerably. Was already having a solid campaign until he caught fire over the last six weeks of the season, putting up about half his total point total in that span. A strong, smooth skater and an excellent puckhandler. Has a real goalscorer’s instinct and is an excellent finisher – above average wristshot which can beat netminders clean. Nice hands around the net and very good hockey sense. Problems lie in his game away from the puck – he’s very soft at this point and shies away from playing in traffic. Defensive game needs lots of work as well. Will be joined at Brynäs next season by Björn Danielsson, his former center at Arlanda who had a very successful rookie SEL season in his own right last year with AIK.

5. Petr Cajenek C, HC Zlin (Czech Republic) 5’11” 176 lbs. DOB 8/18/75

2000-2001 52 GP 18-31-49 105 PIM +60

Another player who really upped his stock with an excellent World Championships. A slightly built playmaking center with good hockey sense who is dangerous at the international level. Has played an amazing 53 games for the Czech national team over the past two seasons. A very quick skater – has an awkward-looking upright stride that doesn’t look like it should be very effective but from which he’s able to generate surprising acceleration and speed. However, he doesn’t seem particularly strong on his skates and is knocked off the puck fairly easily. Doesn’t shy away from traffic, though, and is a very slick puckhandler. Not a world-class finisher, although he has a decent touch around the net. Isn’t a physical presence but plays a spirited, aggressive game, and can be a bit of an agitator and is somewhat liberal with his stick. Is a decent faceoff man and is pretty responsible defensively so he might be able to stick in the NHL as a #3 center, even if he isn’t strong enough or a decisive enough finisher to be a top-6 guy. The Florida Panthers have already expressed an interest in adding Cajanek to their roster, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them – or anyone else – use a mid-round pick on him on draft day.

6. Jaroslav Bednar C, HIFK (Finland) 5’11” 200 lbs. DOB 11/9/76

2000-2001 56 GP 32-28-60 51 PIM +10

A player who’s about as one-dimensional as they come, but that dimension is an extremely impressive one. He’s been an offensive machine since moving to the SM-Liiga in 1999, first for JYK and now for HIFK. His 32 goals this season led the league after an even higher total of 34 placed him fourth last season. A pure sniper with tremendous goalscoring instincts and a quick release on an excellent shot. Great hands around the net. Although he looks to shoot first, he still sees the ice well and is a fine playmaker. Decent skater, although he doesn’t have speed to burn. Away from the puck though, he has major problems. A poor defensive player who shows a limited interest in backchecking. Is not physical and isn’t always committed to winning battles for the puck or willing to take hits to make plays. His work ethic has been questioned and he’s been tabbed as a lazy player. A player with a real boom/bust factor – it’s possible he could walk right into the NHL and score 25 goals if in the right situation, or he could wash out completely and end up back in Europe by November. A pick for a gambling team – anyone interested would have to closely weigh whether the offense he could bring is by itself enough to justify a roster spot.

7. Pasi Nurminen G, Jokerit (Finland) 5’10” 190 lbs. DOB 12/17/75

2000-2001 52 GP 30-13-6 5 SO 2.16 GAA .935 %

A late bloomer, Nurminen was plying his trade for Finnish Div.2 side Pelicans Lahti before finally making the move to the SM-Liiga in 1998 at the age of 23. In only three years, the first with HPK and the last two with Jokerit, he’s firmly established himself as the top netminder in Finland and the regular goalie for the Finnish national team. A somewhat undersized butterfly netminder, his reflexes are outstanding and represent his biggest strength. Can be spectacular and has shown big-save ability and an ability to carry a team. As with most smaller netminders, there are some questions about his vulnerability to high shots. His outstanding performance in the World Championships against NHL shooters should go a long way toward convincing NHL scouts of his skills, and he has expressed a desire to come to North America. Had knee surgery at the conclusion of the season and that may drop his stock considerably heading into the draft – prior to the injury there was talk of his going as high as the second round. If he does leave Finland, don’t feel too bad for Jokerit, though, as they have 17 year-old goaltending prodigy Kari Lehtonen, who won all three of his starts last year, waiting in the wings.

8. Mario Cartelli D, Trinec (Czech Rebublic) 6’1″ 196 lbs. DOB 11/16/79

2000-2001 46 GP 11-16-27 24 PIM +37

Like Tony Mårtensson, a player who probably isn’t ready to come to North America yet, but whose excellent progress over the past year will likely have caught the eye of at least a few NHL teams. Only 21, but has already completed three full seasons in the Czech Extraleague, and was twice called up to the Czech national team this year. A good-sized attack-minded defender with a strong skating stride. Jumps into the play with regularity and has an excellent shot which he uses very effectively. Average defensively – reads the play fairly well but needs to be more physical and more assertive in his play. Still a few years away from being a candidate to come to North America, but with the lack of truly skilled defenders in the NHL, he’d likely be a good investment of a mid-round pick.

9. Andreas Salomonsson RW, Djurgårdens (Sweden) 6’0″ 185 lbs. DOB 12/19/73

2000-2001 48 GP 10-12-22 46 PIM +6

Came up through the MoDo system at the same time as Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund and like those players, was a member of the 1973-born Swedish group that dominated international junior tournaments in the early-1990s. However, while Forsberg and Naslund quickly left for the NHL, Salomonsson plied his trade for MoDo for nearly a decade before moving to Djurgårdens for the 2000-2001 season. Continued his solid play in helping lead Djurgårdens to the SEL title and finished the season by adding four goals for Sweden at the World Championships. A solid two-way forward with great wheels who is an excellent forechecker. Streaky player offensively – can score goals in bunches and then will disappear from the scoresheet for games at a time.. Nice hands and a nose for the net, although his vision and hockey sense aren’t exceptional. Speed and work ethic make him a responsible defensive player. Played the “torpedo” position – the most attack-based forechecking position – in Djurgårdens’ unique offensive system, but would be shifted back to his natural position of RW if he came to North America. Could probably fill a role as a speedy utility player – something along the lines of Antti Laaksonen – should he decide to try the NHL.

10. Alexander Kuvaldin LW, Moscow Dynamo (Russia) 6’0″ 190 lbs. DOB 3/16/74

2000-2001 37 GP 8-9-17 42 PIM

One of the Russian players who really stuck out during a disappointing World Championships for that nation. An excellent skater – strong, quick, and powerful with a low center of gravity. Uses his speed well and shows flashes of real vision and creativity. Isn’t much of a finisher and doesn’t have great hands. Hasn’t produced big numbers in the past, even in the Russian Superleague. However, what’s really impressive about his game are his intangibles. An excellent defensive player who is very strong along the boards and can consistently win battles for the puck. Works hard and is willing to take a hit to make a play. Coupled with his speed and skill he’s a pretty attractive package and could develop into something which is somewhat of a rarity in the NHL – a Russian third-liner/defensive forward.

11. Ales Pisa D, Pardubice (Czech Republic) 6’0″ 190 lbs. DOB 1/2/77

2000-2001 47-10-13-23 75 PIM +46

Smooth-skating Czech defender was having a career-year in 2000-2001 until his season was tarnished by a nasty physical confrontation with a linesman in a playoff game vs. Vitkovice which saw the linesman end up in hospital. Pisa received a 15-game suspension for the incident and was quickly dropped from the Czech team headed to the World Championships in Germany. Was considered one of the more prominent older players available for the draft and it remains to be seen how his position will be affected. He does have skill, though – an above-average puck mover with PP skills and a big shot. Makes smart decisions with the puck and, as previously stated, is a strong, smooth skater, although not overly fast. Is defensively solid although he can be overmatched by bigger, stronger players. Plays with a real edge and was already considered a dirty player – especially with his stick – and a hothead even before this latest incident, and that reputation is only going to increase.

12. Ivan Majesky D, Ilves Tampere (Finland) 6’5″ 227 lbs. DOB 9/2/76

Behemoth Slovak defender who moved to the SM-Liiga for 2000-2001 after spending the previous five years in the Slovak Extraleague. Has a surprising level of skill for a bigger player – strong outlet passer and will lug the puck up the ice on occasion. Received some PP duty for Ilves because of his big shot but probably wouldn’t fill that role in the NHL. Lateral mobility is strong and his footspeed is decent for a player of his size, but marginal in the bigger picture. Is defensively very inconsistent – at times can look strong, physical, and in control but at other times looks like his head just isn’t in the game and will struggle. Can show a mean streak and really knock opposing players around and look dominant, but doesn’t do it often enough. If he can add some consistency to his game, he’d be a very attractive package for an NHL club.

13. Andrei Razin C, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia) 5’11” 190 lbs. DOB 10/23/73

2000-2001 44 GP 17-28-45 78 PIM

If this were a list of the top players in Europe right now, Razin would be at or near the top of it. However, the odds of his coming to North America are slim. Hasn’t ruled out the possibility entirely, but at this point he seems content to play out his career in Russia. Is getting into his late-20s now as well. Will leave Metallurg Magnitogorsk this summer, but likely for Moscow Dynamo rather than an NHL club. However, if an NHL team believes they can sign him, he’s a major talent and would be well worth a late-round pick. A quietly explosive skater in the mold of a Valeri Kamensky who can back off defenders with his speed. His stickhandling is amongst the best in the world and, coupled with his excellent hockey sense, he can be a magician with the puck. However, he’s fairly soft and can be a bit of a perimeter player. Fantastic hands and an excellent touch around the net, although his shot isn’t anything special. Still, a player who could probably produce at the NHL level, should he choose to come to North America.

14. Toni Dahlman RW, Ilves Tampere (Finland) 5’11” 195 lbs. DOB 9/3/79

2000-2001 56 GP 10-18-28 16 PIM +3

After spending years buried in Jokerit’s system, Dahlman blossomed in 2000-2001 after an offseason move to Ilves. Was the highest-scoring Rookie in the SM-Liiga – highly ranked Tuomo Ruutu was second – and was named the Finnish Rookie of the Year. His quick success was somewhat surprising – had a modest but unspectacular junior career and struggled during a stint in div.2 during the 1999-2000 season. Not a player blessed with spectacular physical gifts, he gets by primarily on his intelligence and hockey sense. An average skater – has decent speed and gets to where he’s going, but lacks an extra gear and isn’t overly quick off the mark. Has good instincts in the offensive zone and is a fine playmaker, but doesn’t have a overly good shot and isn’t a great finisher. Although he’s primarily a skill player now, if he ever makes it to the NHL it will probably be as a defensive forward.. His smarts and anticipation allow him to read the play well in his own zone, and his stocky build is effective along the boards. Still ages away from considering a move to North America, but some team might take a late-round flier on him in the hopes that this past season was just the tip of the iceberg.

15. Sebastian Sulku D, HPK Hameenlinna (Finland) 5’11” 192 lbs. DOB 2/28/72

2000-2001 22GP 2-8-10 28 PIM +5

Hard-nosed veteran who is considered perhaps the best defensive defender in the SM-Liiga. Not tall at 5’11”, but built like a fire hydrant and is very strong on his skates. Reads the play extremely well, finishes his checks, and plays a safe, sound game. Not an offensively oriented player but has a decent skill level and is a strong outlet passer. Missed over half of the 2000-01 season due to injury. At age 29, he’s getting on a bit in years, but he could likely step onto an NHL roster as a solid, reliable #5 or #6 defender and provide valuable depth. Serves as HPK’s captain and is noted for his character and leadership skills.

16. Peter Pucher LW, Znojmo Orli (Czech Rebublic) 6’1″ 205 lbs. DOB 8/12/74

2000-2001 52 GP 22-34-56 32 PIM +86

Big Slovak winger who has spent the past two seasons playing in the Czech Republic. This season formed a deadly combination with pint-sized countryman Marek Uram and the two players finished 2-3 in league scoring. A nice combination of size and natural skill – has very good hockey sense, makes good decisions with the puck, and is an excellent passer. Possesses a heavy shot, which he could probably use more, and has a nice scoring touch around the net. Skating is below average – he’s strong on his skates but he’s not quick at all and doesn’t have a good first step. Intangibles are lacking – he’s a mediocre defensive player, at best, and doesn’t have a physical side to his game at all. Obviously has talent but doesn’t seem like a player overly well suited to the NHL game – some team might be willing to give him a shot, though.

Some other players to watch for include Swedish defensive center/faceoff specialist Mattias Johansson, Swedish National team netminder Andreas Hadelöv, Czech defenders Jiri Marusak and Jan Kloboucek, stocky Czech goaltender Vladimir Hudacek, Finnish defender Martti Järventie, and big Swiss winger Michel Zeiter. Like most other aspects of the 2001 draft, the way the overage picture sorts itself out should be very interesting. I’ll follow this article up with a second article in the days after the draft exploring where the players mentioned here (and others) were selected, and how they look to fit in their new organizations.