Across the pond, into the pool
Every once in a while a player in the NHL comes along that makes the League stand up and take notice. And should that player arrive from off the beaten track you can be sure NHL teams will dispatch scouts to unearth another gem from that area.
In today's NHL, it is hardly surprising to see European players dotting the rosters of each club. In fact, a team that doesn't boast a fair number of players from "across the pond" is the exception, rather than the rule. During the last 20 years, Europe has become the place to find the next scoring sensation or a top-notch defenseman.
But, that was not always the case for goalies.
In the late 1980s, the NHL saw a dramatic increase in European-trained players coming overseas to North America. Before that, Euro stars were few and far between. Of the 126 total prospects that were selected in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, only six were from Europe (4.8 percent). In 1989, that number grew to 38 of 252 draftees (15.1 percent).
The 2000 NHL Entry Draft featured the largest Euro contingent in the history of the Draft, as 123 of the 293 selections were born outside of North America (42 percent). At the 2002 Entry Draft in Toronto, 110 European players were drafted out of the 291 players who were selected (38 percent). Of the 291 choices, 33 were goalies and nine were from Europe (27 percent).
The Atlanta Thrashers made history last June when they selected Kari Lehtonen with the second overall pick. The Finnish netminder became the highest drafted Euro goalie in the history of the NHL Entry Draft.
Not too long ago, that selection would have been frowned upon by various GMs and coaches who shared the belief that European goaltenders couldn't make the adjustment to the NHL's style of play that featured smaller rinks, quicker shots and more traffic in front.
"I think anytime a European goalie comes over, there is a feel-out process for North American hockey," Thrashers GM Don Waddell said. "So especially for an 18-year-old player, it's a big jump."
What attracted Atlanta to the 6-foot-3, 189-pound goaltender was his impressive quickness and excellent reflexes. Waddell also took a chance on Lehtonen because he is a stand-up goalie who plays well beyond his years and who has a calm demeanor under pressure.
Lehtonen proved his worth in the 2001-02 season when he was called upon to lead Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League to the championship round as the league's youngest goalie. The raw puck-stopper not only answered the call, he also went on to win playoff MVP honors, topping the league with a 1.78 GAA and a .940 save percentage in the postseason.
Lehtonen also became the highest-drafted Finnish player ever in the NHL Entry Draft, going one spot higher than Olli Jokinen (3rd, 1997) and Aki Berg (3rd, 1995), both of whom were snatched up by the Los Angeles Kings.
The 19-year old can't wait to show off his skills one day soon in the NHL.
"I was surprised that I was drafted second overall. That's a very nice one. I thought that I would go maybe in the top 10 or the top five, something like that, so it's a very nice surprise."
Believe it or not, another Euro goaltender who turned out to be a nice surprise was Dominik Hasek. Even though it took him some time to adjust to the North American style, once the Czech Republic native started playing regularly in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres, there was no holding him back, or scoring on him for that matter.
"He's really something special," former Sabres coach and current Ottawa GM John Muckler said. "He was not only the best goalie, he was the Wayne Gretzky of his position. He was a step ahead of everybody else. He knows the game better than anybody who has ever played it as far as goaltenders are concerned."
Originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1983, Hasek didn't make his NHL debut until the 1990-91 season in a 1-1 tie with the Hartford Whalers. Because of his unorthodox style and his international background, where he played solely on the larger European ice surfaces, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound netminder had a hard time convincing management he could play in the NHL.
He stayed with the Blackhawks until Aug. 7, 1992 when he was dealt to the Sabres for goalie Stephane Beauregard and the Sabres' fourth-round pick in the 1993 Entry Draft. What seemed like a quiet off-season move in the hockey world, turned out to be a blockbuster deal.