If it weren't for the larger ice surface and the multi-colored uniforms plastered with advertisements, it would be easy to mistake the average Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) game for an NHL or AHL contest, circa 2001. That's because, in an average season, the DEL routinely features dozens of players with North American pro experience. While few import players were NHL stars, they are nevertheless highly skilled players.
Such is the case with Krefeld Pinguine (Penguins) center Charlie Stephens
. The 27-year-old center had an 8-game cup of coffee with the Colorado Avalanche
during parts of 2 seasons (2002-03 and 2003-04), while spending the majority of 5 seasons in the minor leagues. But he's found a home in the DEL. Now in his third season in Germany and first with Krefeld, he's led his team to a surprising first-place spot after 14 games. Last year, the Penguins finished 11th in the 15-team circuit, missing the playoffs.
Stephens signed with Krefeld during the summer after spending the previous 2 seasons with the DEG Metro Stars of Dusseldorf. Even within Germany, the signing hardly caused ripples of excitement.
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No one ever doubted the player's talent (he was originally a second-round pick of the Washington Capitals
in the 1999 Entry Draft and was subsequently re-drafted 2 years later by Colorado in the sixth round). But Stephens had never really parlayed the offensive success he enjoyed in junior hockey with the Guelph Storm and London Knights into significant production.
Stephens, who never reached even 75 penalty minutes in a full North American pro season, had trouble his first 2 seasons coping with the way European referees call the game. As a result, his physical play often left his team shorthanded.
In his first DEL season, Stephens racked up 130 penalty minutes in 46 games (plus 30 more in eight playoff games). Last year, he had 89 penalty minutes in 54 games. Since joining Krefeld, Stephens has greatly cut down on his penalties (6 minors), while impressing Penguins coach Igor Pavlov with his play-making ability and leadership potential.
"We don't have any egotists on our team. There's no envy," Pavlov said to RP Online. "The boys understand what they need to do. I know we can surprise if the boys believe in my (system). The best example is Charlie Stephens
Pavlov cites one play in particular in which Stephens unselfishly set up 20-year-old forward Patrick Hager for a goal in a game against the Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks). Stephens, who registered 2 assists in the game, was instrumental in his team's 6-1 win against the perennial playoff contenders.
Stephens currently ranks sixth in the DEL scoring charts with 5 goals, 13 assists and 18 points in 14 games. He's also among the league's top plus-minus players with a plus-9 rating. German veteran Robert Hock (Iserlohn Roosters) tops the league with 24 points, followed by former St. Louis Blues
and New York Islanders
center Justin Papineau
(Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams) and fellow Wolfsburg teammates Ken Magowan
, Jason Ulmer
and Norm Milley (an ex-Buffalo Sabres prospect).
The Krefeld Penguins won the DEL championship in 2002-03, one of only two German titles they've won since being founded in 1936. During the last five seasons, the team has only finished higher than 10th and reached the playoffs twice. A preliminary-round knockout in 2006-07 marks the team's most recent playoff action.
Krefeld may not have quite enough top-end talent to hold onto the top spot through the season. Iserlohn is tied in points with a game in hand, and 6 other teams are within 5 points of the Penguins. But Krefeld has the early look of a team that won't go away quietly this year.
Apart from Stephens, the team has plenty of veteran leadership and experience and features the type of international melting pot of players common in this import-reliant league.
Veteran Slovak offensive defenseman Richard Pavlikovsky has given the Penguins' offense (especially the power play) a shot in the arm with 8 goals and 17 points, including 2 power-play goals and 5 points overall on the man advantage. His 35-year-old countryman and frequent partner Dusan Milo
has 11 points and a team-best plus-11 rating. Former San Jose Sharks
and New Jersey Devils
defenseman Jim Fahey
adds a physical presence.
Up front, former NHL player Herberts Vasiljevs is now in his fourth season with the Penguins. He has clicked on a line centered by Stephens and has 5 goals and 14 points to date. The Latvian forward routinely scores 25-30 goals per season in the DEL's 56-game regular season, so the 31-year-old former Florida Panthers
and Atlanta Thrashers
forward is eminently capable of continuing to produce.
Completing the top unit is German veteran Boris Blank (5 goals, 13 points). The Penguins also feature the likes of former Ottawa Senators
and Florida Panthers
forward Serge Payer
(a first-season DEL player)
In goal, former Phoenix Coyotes
and Atlanta Thrashers
backup Scott Langkow
has held down the fort with a 2.50 goals-against average and a pair of shutouts in his first nine starts. The 33-year-old is now a veteran of European hockey (he's played 5 years in Finland, Sweden and Switzerland). This is his first DEL campaign, however.
The Penguins will face some stiff tests in their next 5 games. Three of the games are on the road, and Krefeld will take on the likes of the defending champion Eisbären Berlin (Berlin Polar Bears), the perennially solid DEG Metro and a Hamburg Freezers club that features seven former NHL players in the lineup.