Former NHL forward Patrick Thoresen is a perfect case in point. In 106 regular-season games with the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, the smooth-skating Norwegian scored a grand total of 6 goals and 24 points. Despite being assigned to a checking role most of the time, he didn't lack for scoring chances in his modest ice time. He simply struggled to finish off plays.
At every other level of hockey he's played, Thoresen has been an offensive standout. In Canadian junior hockey, he was a 100-point player. While playing with Djurgårdens IF Stockholm posted a very respectable 17 goals and 36 points in Sweden's Elitserien. He was even close to being a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League, and whenever he suits up for Team Norway in international competition, he's one of the few players who can make opposing defensemen back off.
Therefore, it's not too surprising that after the 25-year-old signed with Swiss Nationalliga team HC Lugano over the summer, he has promptly regained his scoring touch. What is somewhat surprising, though, is the extent to which Thoresen has dominated the defensive-minded Swiss league so far this season.
In 19 games played to date, Thoresen leads the league with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists). Thoresen's season highlights include a hat trick against the ZSC Lions and a spectacular end-to-end goal against HC Davos in which he started out behind his own net, stickhandled or simply sped around 4 of the 5 opposing players on the ice and finished the play by chipping the puck over diving goaltender Reto Berra (a St. Louis Blues prospect).
For some players, the discrepancy between NHL and international stardom lays in their adaptation to the smaller rinks and more physical nature of the NHL game. But Thoresen has never been a player to shy away from contact or sacrifice his anatomy to make a play.
Thoresen proved his courage the hard way during the 2007-08 Stanley Cup playoffs, while he was playing with Philadelphia. In the first game of the Flyers-Capitals playoff series, Thoresen suffered a grisly injury while blocking a shot on a third-period penalty kill (he got struck so hard that the puck shattered his protective cup and he narrowly avoided needing surgery). But he returned to the lineup after missing just 1 game and went right back to throwing his body in harm's way.
"That's my job," he said the day after being discharged from the hospital. "I'm sacrificing myself for the team. That's what it's all about, especially in the playoffs."
In some cases, players have a difficult time adjusting to the speed of the NHL game. The NHL game is played at a faster pace than that in any other league in the world, including the top European elite leagues. NHL players have less time to make plays, and usually go up against tougher defensemen and goaltenders. But speed has never been an issue with Thoresen, either.
"I'm not really a big guy (5-foot-11, 188 pounds), so I rely on my skating. I think that's one of my biggest strengths. I also try to be a 2-way player," he said.
So if it's not a question of grit or speed and if he's demonstrated at every other level that he can finish plays, why has Thoresen been a non-factor offensively in the NHL and a scoring star elsewhere? It's a matter of the depth and talent around him, and the quality of opposition.
In the NHL, there are literally dozens of players with skill sets similar to Thoresen's. As skilled as he is with the puck, he lacks an overpowering shot or the ability to pick corners when playing at the NHL pace. As a result, while playing in the NHL, he's had to find other ways to make himself useful. Apart from playing on the checking lines at even strength and killing penalties, Thoresen was able to stay in the Philadelphia lineup last year by showing he was versatile enough to play all forward positions.
But in Switzerland, it's a different story. Thoresen plays on his HC Lugano's top line, sees a lot of power-play time and understands that it's role to score goals. Against Nationalliga grade opposition, he's a threat to score every time he steps on the ice. He's regained his self-confidence as an offensive player.
"I've gotten back the feel of the puck," he told Norwegian website VG-Nett earlier this week.
Thoresen elected to play this season Europe because he was unable to get a 1-way contract in the NHL and stood to make more money playing in Switzerland than he would have on the minor-league end of a 2-way deal in the NHL. But his ambition is not to win the Swiss scoring title. He has made clear all along that we wants to return to North America.
"My goal is to play well enough to get a 1-way contract and become an NHL player again," he said.
It's not unprecedented for NHL role players to go to Europe, rediscover their scoring touch and parlay it into a successful return to the NHL. Several have done it with HC Lugano.
For instance, Glen Metropolit never reached double-digit goals in the NHL before signing with HC Lugano at age 31 and leading the Nationalliga in scoring (65 points). Since returning to the NHL, the forward has been a consistent double-digit scorer who fills in on his team's scoring lines as well as playing on checking units.
Likewise, Ville Peltonen was out of the NHL for 5 years (and never had more than 6 goals in an NHL season) before reviving his career with HC Lugano and Finland's Jokerit Helsinki. Upon his return to the NHL, he scored 17 goals in his first campaign with the Florida Panthers and has dressed in every game to date this season.
If Patrick Thoresen continues to perform at the same level he has this year, it would be a pretty safe bet to expect him to draw renewed NHL interest in the offseason. He may never be a big scorer in the world's top league, but that's a testament to the NHL's quality and depth and not a reflection on the talent of Thoresen or players like him.