The world has shrunk. With it, so has the international hockey rink, even if it still measures 15 feet wider than the NHL surface. More than ever, the Euros and North Americans play the same game.
In Nagano, the first time the NHL participated in the Olympics, a team of Czechs made up of only half NHL players won the gold not only because they had Dominik Hasek but also due to the fact they better knew the angles of defending on the big ice.
The American and Canadian teams also flopped in Torino, yet met in the finals on NHL-sized rinks at Salt Lake City and Vancouver. This seemed to be a pattern until, on the big ice in Sochi in 2014, Team Canada brilliantly smothered the European powers, demonstrating that North Americans have learned from the Euros as much as they have from us.
Of course because both the best league in the world – and the big money – is here, historically it has been incumbent on the guys from the other side of the pond to adjust to us. The better, and most adventuresome, players have been doing so splendidly since the early seventies, but the transitions have been unpredictable.
The Flyers are a fairly typical case study of how the NHL hasn’t always been for everybody. Ilkka Sinisalo, who debuted in Philadelphia at age 23in 1981, scored 199 goals over nine years and ranks behind Tim Kerr and Dave Poulin as the best undrafted Flyer free-agent signing ever. Pelle Lindbergh was the reigning Vezina Trophy winner when he died in an automobile accident. Mikael Renberg scored 38 goals in his first NHL season.
But Jiri Dopita, considered the best player outside the NHL when the Flyers signed him at age 32 in 2001, played one, plus a fraction, mediocre seasons before returning to the Czech Republic. Joni Pitkanen, a No. 4 overall pick, never justified the big trade the Flyers made to move up in the 2002 draft.
Young and old, Europeans have both exceeded expectations and failed, begging the question of what the Flyers knows about Evgeni Medvedev, their recently-signed Russian defenseman, that makes them think he can adapt to the North American game at age 32.
Truth is, they can’t be certain, but the successful signings of Michael Raffl and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare the last two summers certainly hasn’t discouraged Ron Hextall and his brain trust from trying again. Raffl and Bellemare, two guys born in former B pool hockey countries who slipped through the cracks when they were draft eligible, haven’t cracked under the closer quarters and tight structure that rules today’s NHL.
“Credit to them, they have been consistent in their approach and, their play with and without the puck,” said Chris Pryor, the Flyers’ Director of Scouting. “And you will see it in Medvedev, too.
“Different positions, but they are guys who don’t hang their hats just on their offensive ability, they play the game the right way with and without the puck.
“We have been watching [Medvedev] a few years and now he has decided to come. Maybe because of [decline in the value of) the ruble, the NHL is more attractive to Russian players but we certainly weren’t the only team interested and we’re pleased he picked us.”
Ron Hextall has said he expects Medvedev to be a top four defenseman. Because of his age, that can’t mean in three years. It would be surprising if any of the Flyers’ touted defensive prospects -- Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, or Travis Sanheim --make this year’s team. So Hextall is looking for a fast upgrade and perhaps the flexibility to move an incumbent. He wouldn’t be doing this if not for the evidence that differences in the styles between the KHL and the NHL have shrunk.
This is not to deny that for decades, there have been European players settling into long NHL careers on second and third lines or on second defensive pairings. But because of the uncertainty about the Euros signability and adaptability, the grinders and defensive defensemen on NHL clubs generally had been North Americans.
That thinking began to change with the Red Wings winning Cups with predominant European rosters. Stereotypes and quotas have been broken down.
”Maybe the Red Wings have changed how Europeans think about the NHL, too, made it more attractive to them,” said Pryor.
Perhaps because the Flyers, who had been trading away the vast majority of their second round picks until three years ago, have had more motivation to look for free agents, they have become a primary example of how it’s not just potential stars that NHL teams scout in Europe. Their guys who go up and down their wings are just as good as our guys who go up and down our wings.
“The last couple years, that market is something we have been paying a little more attention to.” said Pryor. “There are good players over there, good leagues, that’s becoming more apparent.
“There isn’t as big a difference in the styles any more. And that has opened eyes on both sides of the ocean.”