While the famed science fiction novelist Jules Verne knew “leagues” as a measurement (three nautical miles) to launch larger-than-life oceanic adventures, Seattle’s amateur scouts dive deep into a whole other and more familiar type of leagues – ones that feature young hockey players embarking on their own exciting adventure.

Verne’s novel, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” dates back to 1870 and more widely popularized the 13th-century Norwegian myth of the Kraken that is now Seattle legend too. The hockey leagues feeding prospects into the National Hockey League have their own long roots, dating back to before the NHL was founded in 1917. Amateur leagues were formed in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba by 1890, while the first U.S. amateur hockey league dropped its first puck in 1896. Swedish enthusiasts, introduced to the sport in 1920 by American film director and ice hockey coach Raoul Le Mat, formed its first league just two years later. Neighboring Finland followed suit in 1928. Russians formed that country’s first competitive associations in 1946.

Expanding Global Footprint of Prospects

These days, NHL player rosters and prospect pools span across the rinks of North America and Europe, with 34 leagues and 16 different countries generating at least one draft choice in last summer’s 2023 NHL Draft. The Kraken franchise did its part in the game’s globalization, selecting players from Czechia, Denmark, Belarus, Finland and Sweden to go along with five Canadiens. Oscar Fisker Molgaard, Kraken 2023 second-round center, was the only Danish player selected.

The 16 different countries equate to the most since 2004, when it reached 17 countries (in a draft with nearly 70 more overall selections over nine rounds). Fourteen players born outside North America were first-rounders last June, including Kraken top pick (20th overall) and Czechia center Eduard Sale.

Less than a decade ago, half of the NHL’s player base was Canadian. A look at the opening night rosters for the 2023-24 season shows that number was 41.7 percent (295 players), followed by the U.S. at 29.1 percent (206) and Sweden third-highest at 9.1 percent (64). Russia counted 41 NHLers for 5.8 percent, while Finland was 5.1 percent (36).

Other nations with NHL representation included Czechia (3.3 percent/23 players), Switzerland (1.4 percent/10 players), Germany (1.1 percent/eight players), Slovakia (0.8 percent) and Denmark (0.6 percent) filling out the top 10 nations.

It follows that draft choices would track similarly. In 2023, the top five countries supplying draftees were the same top five: Canada (86 players), USA (50), Sweden (24), Russia (19) and Finland (15). Doing the math, comparing the percentages of draft choice by country to NHL rosters reveals Sweden, Russia and Finland all notching up a few percentage points, while Canada dropped to 38 percent of players chosen and USA down to 22 percent.

Taking a Closer Look at Leagues Scouted

The 34 different leagues represented among 2023 draft picks is another indicator that finding future Kraken players is about keeping open minds and creative itineraries to where the team’s amateur scouts might discover teenage prospects with the upsides to develop into NHLers.

While most observers say Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is Europe’s most competitive pro league. But any number of scouts will contend all of Europe’s pro leagues are rising in developing players good enough to be future NHLers.

“They're all good, right?” said Kraken GM Ron Francis when asked about the caliber of play in the many leagues his scouting staff is traversing. “Sometimes [in Europe’s pro leagues] you’re looking at the kids playing up with the men and how the player is doing versus playing down [for their club’s junior team].

“There are a lot of leagues to look at. You’ve got the KHL, three leagues in Russia [second-tier pro and juniors]. You’ve got two leagues in Sweden and a couple in Finland. Then, the three [major junior] leagues in Canada. There’s the USHL and colleges in the States. Plus, prep schools and secondary/high school teams in both [North America] countries There are leagues in Czechia, Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark that we watch for prospects. All of those leagues are just getting better and better.”

The Challenge of Comparing Leagues

Kraken director of amateur scouting Robert Kron was drafted by Vancouver in the fifth round of the 1985 NHL Draft. He subsequently played three seasons in his native Czechia’s top pro league before joining the Canucks for the 1990-91 season. He played 771 NHL games and has been both director of European scouting with Ron Francis in Carolina and now overseeing all amateur scouts. He credits the Kraken hockey analytics group’s models with helping improve how the team compares players’ performances even when they don’t play in the same league, plus appreciates what his scouts are seeing and reporting.

“Obviously, every league is a little different, even in the CHL with the OHL, ‘Q’ and WHL,” said Robert Kron during a break of the Kraken late-May amateur scouting meetings to finalize the draft board. “We know here in North America, college players are older, and you watch the younger [prospects] in those situations.

“In the European leagues, depending where these prospects play, in the top leagues against men or those countries’ junior leagues, we have a general idea of what the strength of the league is. It is not easy to compare all of the leagues because you're not comparing apples to apples. But historically, we are trying to predict what a particular party would do in that particular league in North America or Europe, then discuss it.”

Kron said the KHL is still the premier league in Europe, characterizing Sweden as “a puck-possession league” and Finland plays “more of an American Hockey League style with a lot of trapping and more physical play. He said the Swiss top league is “more open” and the Czech league is “a heavy league but they do also play a puck-possession structured game.”

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Robert Kron

Top 10 Leagues for Draft Choices

Ten leagues or sources supplied more than 80 percent of the 2023 draftees. The top two leagues are likely to be familiar to Kraken fans, especially the Western Hockey League, with five teams based in the state of Washington and another in Portland. The WHL provided the second most picks with 33, while the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) topped all outfits with 35 players drafted. Let’s take a spin through the top leagues:

Canadian Hockey League: WHL, OHL, QMJHL (80 players)

The CHL is three leagues in one with the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League QMJHL boasting 12 players drafted last summer. It adds up to the CHL pipeline filling 80 prospects or 35 percent of the names called over seven rounds in 2023. The CHL has 60 teams, with 51 franchises playing across nine provinces plus nine teams in four American states (Washington has five in Seattle/Everett/Wenatchee/Tri-Cities/Spokane, one in Oregon/Portland, two in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania).

The three-pronged CHL was founded in 1975 with its season ending in the Memorial Cup tourney pitting the three league champions and a host team from one of three leagues. Despite providing a third of the number of NHL draft choices each June compared to the OHL and WHL, teams from the ’Q’ won four straight Cups until this spring.

Saginaw of the OHL won the title just last Sunday, stunning a favored London Knights team with a late game-winning goal. London ousted Saginaw in the OHL on the way to becoming league champs and defeated Saginaw in Memorial Cup round-robin play. Both Saginaw (Zayne Parekh, RHD) and London (Sam Dickinson, LHD) featured defensemen that project to be selected top 10 and maybe top five in the June 28 first round of the NHL Draft at Sphere in Las Vegas.

WHL champ Moose Jaw and 2022 Kraken second-rounder Jagger Firkus lost to Saginaw in the Memorial Cup semifinal, with Firkus scoring a game-tying goal in the first 20 minutes before Saginaw kicked into high-scoring gear in the second period. Last Saturday, Firkus (63 goals, 65 assists for 126 points in 63 regular season games) was announced as CHL Player of the Year, winning an award that went to likely 2023-24 NHL Rookie of the Year Connor Bedard last June. Kraken alternate captain Jordan Eberle won the same honor in his 2009-10 season with the WHL Regina Pats.

Ron Francis, of course, is second in all-time assists to fellow Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. Both played for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie. Future Hall of Famer and three-time Cup winner Sidney Crosby excelled in the “Q,” while legends such as Colorado star Joe Sakic and Philadelphia great Bobby Clarke are among the best-ever WHL players.

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Ron Francis

United States Hockey League or USHL (26 players)

The USHL is the top junior league in the States, sanctioned by USA Hockey. There are 16 teams in the Midwest and Great Plains with players beginning their USHL careers as 16-year-olds and most becoming draft-eligible in their age 18 birth years. The USHL started as a semi-pro league in 1961 but converted to an amateur league for the 1979-80 season, with franchises playing annually for the Clark Cup. It is considered a formidable league in both quality competition and player development.

Nearly 200 USHL alums were on opening night rosters this past season, including Jaden Schwartz, Matty Beniers, Joey Daccord, Jamie Oleksiak, Will Borgen and Eeli Tolvanen from the Kraken. Thirteen former USHL competitors were named to the 2024 NHL All-Star Game.

U.S. National Team Development Program (13 players)

In 1996, USA Hockey established the U.S. Team Development program in an effort to develop players and upgrade performances at international competitions, especially the IIHF World Junior Championship. The concept was to establish U17 and U18 teams that played together year-round rather than come together at tournament time. The U.S. National Under-18 Team's schedule includes games against NCAA Division I and Division III opponents, plus games against USHL squads. USA Hockey does not prioritize wins over player and team development. The U.S. National U17 team competes as a USHL franchise. Thirteen U.S. National Team Development Program players were drafted last summer. Kraken need no better example of the quality of the program than alum Matty Beniers.

Sweden Junior (22 players), Russia Junior (15 players), Finland Junior (11 players)

There are elite draft choices each summer that are selected from that country’s top pro leagues in Sweden, Finland and Russia (four each in 2023 or a dozen total). But four times as many prospects playing for juniors teams (predominantly affiliated with pro hockey teams) in Sweden, Russia and Finland were called to the draft stage in 2024. There will be similar ratios later this month too.

NCAA (9 players)

Division 1 NCAA hockey is highly competitive, with any number of three- to four-year players who battle hard against younger foes who are draft-eligible. When a freshman excels in D-I hockey, teams notice. Two highly-rated defensemen who will picked early in the Round 1 later this month are among the youngest competitors in Division I. NCAA champion Denver’s Zeev Buium, the second-youngest player in NCAA men’s hockey, lead college defensemen in scoring and was fifth among all freshman with 11 goals and 39 points for 50 points in 42 games. He was also outstanding for gold-medal winning Team USA at the 2024 World Juniors this past winter. Belarus-born Michigan State defenseman Artyom Levshunov, the third-youngest player in NCAA hockey, is higher than Buium on some draft boards and even No. 2 behind college frosh phenom Macklin Celebrini.

U.S. High Schools (7 players)

U.S. high schools are still a source of highly draftable players, counting seven players picked in 2023. The Kraken selected Massachusetts high schooler Ben MacDonald in the 2022 third round, trading up to pick him at 91st overall. MacDonald played in the juniors British Columbia Hockey League in the season after the draft in what effectively was his senior year of high school. He played for NCAA Harvard last season.

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