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Led by Sweden, European players continue to emerge

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

The percentage of European-born and -trained players selected at the 2014 NHL Draft was the highest it has been in more than a decade.

Leading the way was a heavy dose of Swedish standouts, representing 27 of the 66 European players picked in seven rounds at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The European contingent made up 31.4 percent of the players chosen; the remainder hailed from Canada or the United States.

The number of Europeans who played at least one NHL game last season was 25.1 percent, which has been roughly the average during the past five seasons; the highest percentage of Europeans playing in the NHL in a given season during the past 14 seasons was in 2001-02 (33.6 percent).

While Canada and the United States continue to lead the way in populating NHL rosters, it's interesting that nine of the top 15 players on NHL.com's Top 60 prospect rankings were born or trained overseas.

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Goran Stubb, the NHL Director of European Scouting, acknowledged that European players always have been in the crosshairs of NHL scouts, so the fact that 60 percent of the players among the top 15 are European isn't surprising.

"In my opinion the European players have been well-represented in the NHL and in the draft for over 20 years," Stubb said. "I cannot see any dramatic rise in the respect for Europeans."

One of the NHL scouts who took part in the Top 60 prospect selection was asked about the higher number of Europeans ranked among the top 15.

"I think the tight parameters on who qualified as being a prospect limited the number of North American prospects at the high end," Scout B, who works for an Eastern Conference team, said. "European hockey places significant emphasis on skill development from an early age and that is a factor that needs to be considered. Hockey is a world sport now and high-end prospects are coming from all over to try and earn the privilege to play in the NHL. I think it's a good sign for our game that several of these high-end prospects come from outside North America."

What attracts NHL evaluators to those top Europeans? Tommy Boustedt, the Sweden Ice Hockey Association's director of youth development, offered an explanation.

"The [NHL] has changed, from a more physical, aggressive, go-to-the-net philosophy to a more skilled, stickhandling and skating game that suits Euro players better," Boustedt said. "The rules have changed, which also benefits Europeans. We are also developing a tougher mentality than before."

Boustedt pointed to the Commission of Inquiry on junior hockey in Sweden in 2002 as a turning point for hockey players in the country. The meeting was attended by 120 people, including junior and national team coaches, club executives and scouts. The professionals were broken down into groups, some working with coaching and education, others critiquing player development. The hockey summit enabled Sweden to come to grips with the fact its education and development methods had become outdated.

"For us, the 2002 summit changed a lot of things, including our training methods," he said. "Swedish players are well-educated in the game of hockey, and also easily adapt to the American and Canadian societies."

Swedish player agent Claes Elefalk feels Boustedt's efforts triggered a hockey uprising overseas.

"Tommy really upgraded the quality of education, coaching and training for the national teams in Sweden because we were losing those tournaments," Elefalk said. "Summer camps for the best Swedish players were now being held in May, June and July, something Sweden never did before. I feel this is a key reason Swedish players have increased their popularity and their game and have become more attractive to scouts."

Time and patience was needed to witness the fruits of their labor following the 2002 summit, but Sweden has emerged as a legitimate threat at every major international event.

"Sweden is doing a very good job producing players," Scout A, who works for a Western Conference team, said. "Their development model is one that should be studied and replicated. I think the fact that some of the Europeans stay home for a year or two before coming to North America plays a part in this as well since that gives them more time to climb the prospect chart. If any of those [European] players came over right away, perhaps two or three would be in the NHL by now."

Not surprisingly, four of the nine European prospects among the top 15 were either born or trained in Sweden: forwards Filip Forsberg, Alexander Wennberg, Andre Burakovsky and William Nylander. There were three born and trained in Russia, and one each from Finland and Germany.

"I do think for the last eight or so years that the Swedes have changed their development model and the results speak for themselves," Scout C, who works for an Eastern Conference team, said. "The Czechs seem to have something going recently and you might see the same upward trend. Overall I don't think it's anything in particular and it's more coincidence than anything else."

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