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European prospects face tough decisions

by Bill Meltzer
Most young hockey prospects, regardless of where they live, dream of playing in the NHL someday. For some European prospects, however, there is a difficult decision to be made as to whether to play junior or collegiate hockey in North America or to gain experience in one of the European professional leagues.

The first option provides somewhat increased exposure to NHL scouts and earlier experience playing on the smaller North American ice surface. The latter offers the benefit of playing against men, some of whom have previous NHL or major international experience.

Over the course of the last dozen years, the majority of the top-ranked Czech and Slovak prospects -- as prospects from other European countries -- have opted to play at least one season of junior hockey in Canada after being selected in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. A smaller percentage of top young players from other European hockey countries also opt for Canadian junior hockey.

The majority of top-ranked Swedish and Finnish prospects, however, have remained in their home leagues until they are ready to sign an NHL entry-level contract.

However, the success of Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog could change that. Landeskog had 36 goals and 30 assists last season for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, his second in North America, and was taken by the Colorado Avalanche with the second pick of the 2011 Entry Draft.

"I have always thought that the game over here (in North America) would be better suited to my style of play," Landeskog told "I like to play a more physical game, so the fit was right for me. It was a good experience to get to play (three games) in Elitserien for Djurgarden (in 2008-09). They have a good development system at home in Sweden. At least for me, I think it's been a great experience all around to have two seasons in the OHL. For other guys, it may be different. It all depends on the player."

Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta now finds himself in a similar situation to the one that Landeskog faced two years ago when he chose to play for Kitchener rather than Djurgardens IF of the Swedish Elite League. Maatta, a 16-year-old defenseman (he'll turn 17 on Aug. 22) was the first pick of the 2011 CHL Import Draft by the OHL's London Knights.

As of this writing Maatta has not yet committed officially to a team for next season. However, it is believed that he is strongly leaning toward the OHL, and an announcement may be forthcoming that he will play for London.

Already a standout for the Finnish junior national team, Maatta not only is skilled with and without the puck, but he's also rather mature physically (6-foot-1 1/2, 196 pounds).

Maatta gained valuable experience playing six games apiece for Finland at the 2011 World Junior Championship and the 2011 World Under-18 Championships, where he had a goal and 3 assists. He is property of SM-liiga (Finnish Elite League) club JyP Jyväskylä, but played last season with the national junior team, which plays its non-tournament games in Mestis (the country's top minor league). 

The choice for Maatta is between seeking more playing time against less-developed opposition in the OHL and trying to break into the SM-liiga next season but likely seeing significantly fewer minutes of ice time. He also had a KHL option presented to him after he was selected by SKA St. Petersburg in the fourth round of that league's 2011 draft, but that possibility reportedly has not entered into his final considerations.

Assuming Maatta joins London next season, the young Finn figures to assume a crucial role on the Knights' blue line while also playing for Team Finland at the 2012 World Junior Championship. Regardless of venue, his play over the next season will determine where he will be ranked for the 2012 Entry Draft.

In order to acquire the pick used to select Maatta in the CHL Import Draft, London paid a hefty price. The club traded three of its own draft picks plus defenseman Reid McNeil (a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect chosen in the sixth round of the 2010 draft) to the Barrie Colts.

"We expect that Olli will be the type of player who can step right in and play in all situations for us," London general manager Mark Hunter told "We did our homework before we picked him, and we found out that he'd be interested in coming here. It was worth the risk to get the pick. Everything should fall into place, and we think he can do a lot of good things for our hockey team."

"At least for me, I think it's been a great experience all around to have two seasons in the OHL. For other guys, it may be different. It all depends on the player."
-- Gabriel Landeskog

The Knights' decision to pursue Maatta was emboldened by their recent success with import picks. This past season, Russian center Vladislav Namestnikov led the team with 30 goals and was second with 68 points. He parlayed his strong season into becoming a 2010 first-round pick; the Tampa Bay Lightning selected him 27th.

It's not only draft-eligible European players facing a dilemma about where to play. Prospects who already have been drafted by NHL clubs also may have to choose between a Canadian junior team and a European professional league club.

A good case in point is German forward Marcel Noebels. During the 2009-10 season, the center broke into Germany's DEL with the Krefeld Penguins. Last season, in order to gain exposure to North American hockey, he played in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds. He performed well, logging 28 goals and 54 points in 66 games. As a result, the Philadelphia Flyers selected the 19-year-old in the fourth round (No. 118) in last month's draft.

Noebels has received an offer to return to Krefeld, with the promise of more playing time at the DEL level than he received the first time around, when he had 3 points in 33 games.

"I will do whatever the Flyers want me to," Noebels said during the team's recent prospect camp. "It would be great to play for Krefeld, but whatever helps my chances of playing in the NHL is what I'll do."

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