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Is moving to North America the best for Europeans?

by Adam Kimelman

No. 13-ranked Luca Sbisa made the decision to come to North America last season rather than play in Switzerland.
It always seems like the simplest questions make for the hardest answers.

So who is the best player available for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft? Well, Sarnia Sting forward Steven Stamkos earned NHL Central Scouting’s top ranking among North American skaters.

But is Stamkos the best player? What about Nikita Filatov? Had the Russian played his draft season in North America, where would he be ranked?

It’s a question that has no answer because Filatov stayed in Russia this past season. But for three prominent members of the 2008 Entry Draft class -- Mikkel Boedker, Luca Sbisa and Jyri Niemi -- they took the chance to come West and cast their lot in the North American game.

“I wanted to see how good I really am,” said Niemi, a defenseman who was born in Tampere, Finland, but played this past season with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades and is the No. 25-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting (rankings are based on where a prospect plays, not his country of origin). “I hear the best players play in the WHL. I have a friend who played in Red Deer, and he told me this is the best league you can go and play in.”

Niemi had a strong season, as did Boedker and Sbisa. Boedker, a Danish forward who played with the Frolunda Junior team in Sweden in 2006-07, jumped to the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers this past season. Sbisa, a Swiss defenseman, already has a full passport. Born in Italy and trained in Switzerland, he spent this past season with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes.

“It’s always been my dream to play hockey in North America and in the NHL, especially in Canada,” said Sbisa, the No. 13-ranked skater by Central Scouting. “I had an opportunity to stay (in Switzerland) but decided that there was more to gain playing in the CHL.”

Scouts agree that there are advantages to a player coming to North America in his draft year.

“It (makes for) an easier comparison,” said Jay Heinbuck, director of amateur scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You’re getting to see them in North America, where in reality most of the players are drafted from, so it’s more apples to apples.

“Given two equal talents, you’ll probably feel a little better about your evaluation with the kid who’s playing in North America because he’s done really well against all the other players you’re looking at here in North America.”

Extra eyeballs, though, has as many advantages as disadvantages.

“Exposure is a double-edged sword,” said New Jersey Devils Director of Scouting David Conte. “You get to see them more, but you also get to see the pimples.”

For the player making the jump, it’s a major sacrifice. Leaving behind family and friends, the language and cultural barrier – it’s not for everyone.

“It depends on what type of player you are or what kind of kid you are,” said Joni Lehto, a scout for the Colorado Avalanche. “Some kids, it’s better they spend an extra year in Europe and go in the NHL a little different way. Mostly it’s what type of player, what type of person you are.”

Boedker got a crash-course in North American hockey. He played 62 of 72 regular-season games with the Rangers, another 20 in the OHL playoffs, and then five more at the Memorial Cup as host Kitchener lost to the Spokane Chiefs in the title game.

Boedker said his adjustment lasted about a month and a half, but he really knew he made the right choice after a game-changing mistake led to a loss against the Barrie Colts. With the game tied and the Rangers on a power play, he lost the puck to a Barrie player who scored the game-winning goal.

“(Coach/GM) Pete (DeBoer) just came up to me after the game and had a smile on his face and gave me a tap on the shoulder,” Boedker said. “That’s when I opened my eyes and said I’m not the only guy that’s going to make a mistake. I just got more comfortable after that.”

Looking back, Boedker said making the jump was the best thing for him.

“I think it was time for me to move on,” he said. “It was the best year of my hockey career.”

Not every player shares Boedker’s opinion. Swedish center Anton Gustafsson, the fifth-ranked European skater, chose to continue playing at home; he said his style of play benefited from spending another season in Europe. He played most of this past season with the Frolunda Junior team, but played one game with the Elite League squad, and likely will play there next season.

“My type of hockey is found in Sweden,” he said. “I need to play against men, real people. It’s tough. I believe in that.”

So, will teams downgrade Gustafsson for staying home? Or will they look more favorably on a player like Boedker for making the jump?

“You give them some credit for (moving),” said Craig Channell, a scout for the St. Louis Blues. “But it’s what goes on on the ice.”

Contact Adam Kimelman at

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