Sunday, May 11, 2008

Europeans In The NHL Down

Reuters is reporting that the number of Europeans who played in the NHL is down this season. Of the 941 players who played one or more NHL games this season, 243 (or 25.8%) are European. Last season, 942 players played one or more NHL games (basically the same number as this year) and 266 players (28.2%) were European. This is a small loss in the NHL's position as the league where all the best players in the world come to play. About twenty of those players opted to stay in Europe instead of come to the NHL.

Where were those players lost? The easy but incorrect answer is that due to the lack of a player transfer deal with Russia more players staying in (or returned to) Russia. There were 32 Russians who played one or more NHL games this year (compare with 35 last year. The Russian dropoff has largely already occurred and does not account for this player loss. There are a few players choosing to play in the Russian league who are not Russian and would not have been counted. They include Darius Kaparaitis of the Ukraine and Tony Salmelainen of Finland, but there are not enough of them to account for the player loss. For the most part, these are players in other European countries that have chosen to stay home. There has been an across the board decline in the number of European players (or at least drop in the increase of European players) from every significant European nation. The leaders have been the eastern European countries, especially the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These countries tend to have bigger cultural differences with North America and thus will be less likely to come to play if the payoff is not big enough.

The payoff to a young player is not as big as it once was. There is an entry level player salary cap. There are re-entry waivers to keep salaries down in the AHL. A player can often make quite a bit more money playing in Europe than he would in the AHL. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Euro is rising relative to American dollars in international currency markets and by the damaged international reputation of the US under the Bush administration. The NHL is not as attractive a situation as it once was for European players.

Next year, when there is no player transfer deal with European nations look for more players to return to Europe.

While it is hard to argue that any potential NHL superstars are playing in Europe, it is clear that many players who could be valuable on their NHL teams (Aleksey Morozov, Alexei Yashin, Alex Perezhogin for example) are. The more legitimate NHL players chose to play in Europe, the less the NHL will be the one strongest league in the world and the more good players NHL fans will never see. This is a loss to the fan.

Perhaps a better measure would be to use % of European player games played (compared to total NHL player games played), rather than using # of players.
The number of players is the same (941 this year vs. 942) as mentioned in the post. The percentage and the overall number are essentially the same measure.
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