Hockey may have found its roots in Canada, but there’s little doubting that Europe has played a major role in developing the sport. There are dozens of professional leagues that flourish in eastern countries, and still millions of people overseas have fallen in love with the NHL. In fact, some of the NHL’s biggest and brightest stars come from Russia, the Czech Republic, and Scandinavia, among other places. Despite all the opportunity to play professional hockey in those countries, for most players the goal is to reach the NHL, and plenty of players from Europe have put together successful, even Hall of Fame-caliber careers playing in North America.
Not all NHL hopefuls are as lucky, however. The world over, star-studded prospects have the potential to bust out when they reach the highest levels of professional sports, and European hockey players are no exception. European players are fairly new to the scene, and they’ve only begun being scouted and drafted into the NHL regularly as recently as thirty years ago. During that time, however, there have been dozens of players who have been drafted into the NHL, only to falter playing in North America and return to finish out their careers in Europe, if they’re lucky. Here we’ll look to compile the worst of the worst.
Every player on the following list was a first-round draft pick, and was born in either Russia or Europe. Some of these players actually got a shot to prove themselves in the NHL, while others never made the full jump to North American hockey at all. At the end of the day, every one of these draftees gave their team hope as a first round pick, and none of them managed to live up to the hype.
15 Anton Gustafsson
The Capitals were thrilled to select Gustafsson when he fell to the 21st pick in the 2008 draft. Not only did the Sweedish-born center seem to have a promising future with Washington, but he would have also been a second-generation Capital. Anton’s father, Bengt-Åke, put up over 500 points over a very successful nine-year NHL career he played exclusively in Washington. He even put together a successful coaching career, winning a Gold medal with Sweden’s national team at the 2006 Olympic Games as the head coach. Needless, to say, there must have been some serious pressure on the young Anton to succeed with the Capitals and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Unlike his dad, Anton never really managed to put things together in North America. Not only did Anton have trouble breaking into the NHL, he was never even able to crack the Caps’ AHL roster in Hershey. After a season lingering down in the ECHL, Anton decided he was better off trying to find playing time in Europe. He’s spent seasons in both Swedish and Swiss leagues since he went back. Everything out of his camp suggests he has no interest in returning to Washington, or the NHL.
14 Lauri Tukonen
Tukonen had plenty of raw talent and was one of the more promising wingers on the board for the 2004 NHL Draft. He narrowly missed being drafted in the top ten back in ’04, falling to the Kings with the 11th selection. The Finnish-born forward had soft hands and a nice shot, something that allowed him to flourish in his draft year. He produced in both his junior league and played well for Finland in the World Juniors before his selection by the Kings.
It wasn’t production that was an issue for Tukonen during his three years in the AHL. In fact, Tukonen managed to put up over thirty points in each of his three seasons with Manchester in the minors. No, it was injuries that plagued Tukonen during his time in the AHL. Durability had been a problem for Tukonen in the past, and it followed him into his pro career as he missed more than 20 games in each of the three seasons he played with the Kings’ affiliate. After some clashes with Kings’ management, Tukonen was traded, but ultimately it didn’t matter. He made the decision to return to Finland where he has put together a very successful career when he’s managed to stay on the ice.
13 Marek Schwarz
Schwarz was the third goalie selected in the 2004 draft, at 17th overall by the St. Louis Blues. The Czech tender put up good numbers in his homeland before he was drafted, and a solid year in the WHL with the Vancouver Giants during the lockout. The Blues were hoping to hit on their selection; goalies often are pretty hit and miss. The goalies selected before and after Schwarz in the ’04 draft? Devan Dubnyk and Cory Schneider.
Schwarz saw decent time in net for the Blues’ AHL affiliate over the course of two seasons, along with a handful of games as a call-up with St. Louis. He never managed to post a save percentage over .900, and his time in North America was over quickly. Schwarz went back to the league he started; he’s been a dependable backup over the past five seasons in Liberec in the Czech league.
12 David Rundblad
Here we find another 17th overall pick by the St. Louis Blues, this time in the 2009 NHL Draft. David Rundblad was a very promising Swedish-born defenseman and a solid pickup for the Blues at the time. Rundblad would return to play in Sweden the year he was drafted, and he played well enough to elicit a trade offer from the Ottawa Senators. The Senators sent a higher first round pick in 2010 to St. Louis to pick up the promising young Swede. By the way, that pick turned out to be Vladimir Tarasenko.
Anyways, Rundblad made the Sens’ roster out of camp in 2011, but only as a seventh defenseman. He was traded to Arizona the next year and spent time in the AHL and as a healthy scratch over the next three seasons. He was then acquired by Chicago, who gave him significant playing time on the third pair in 2014-15. Rundblad moved to playing full-time in the Swiss League this year, maybe looking to pick up some more playing time with barely over 100 games on his NHL resume over six seasons. His time in the NHL wasn’t impressive but they still give bottom-paring defensemen Stanley Cup rings, and Rundblad managed to pick one up in Chicago in 2015.
11 Riku Helenius
Tampa Bay selected Helenius with the 15th overall pick in 2006, in part due to his fantastic performance with Finland in the under-18 World Junior Championships. After a strong showing in the WHL, Helenius also got the call to serve as goalie for Finland in the World Juniors in 2008. He had a lot of promise for the Lightning, and after some strong AHL play in 2008-09, Helenius made his NHL debut on January 30th, 2009. He made two saves in relief of Mike Smith over seven minutes on the backend of a 6-1 loss for his Lightning. That 6-1 loss would be his only NHL game.
After a few seasons overseas developing his game, Helenius came back to North America again with the Tampa Bay organization but struggled to put together the same success he had initially. The final straw for Helenius with the Bolts came when, upon an expectant call-up to the AHL, he straight up deserted his ECHL team. Between lackluster play and falling out of favor in Tampa Bay, Helenius decided it would be best for him to head back overseas for good. He’s currently signed to an extended contract with Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL.
10 Lars Jonsson
Jonsson was drafted 7th overall in 2000, as a selection for the Boston Bruins. Jonsson was a disappointment before he ever played a game on North American ice; the Swedish-born defenseman never signed a contract with the Bruins. Like many European players, Jonsson opted to never sign with the team that drafted him. Instead, he played overseas for a handful of teams in the Swedish Elite League until he was declared an unrestricted free agent in 2006. It was then and only then Jonsson made the transition to North America, signing a deal with the Flyers.
The Flyers’ GM at the time said that Jonsson had a lot of potential, but that potential never really came to fruition. After two seasons primarily playing in the AHL, and a short stint in the NHL as a call-up, Jonsson decided to return to Sweden, playing only eight games with the Flyers. Staying healthy was a problem for Jonsson, and after a few more seasons as a reliable defenseman in the SEL his chronic arthritis would force him into retirement. Jonsson wasn’t the worst hockey player but he serves as a cautionary tale for NHL teams looking to draft abroad; players in Europe can always decide to stay in Europe instead.
9 Marek Zagrapan
Zagrapan was selected 13th overall in the 2005 Draft, in the season following the lockout. Zagrapan was a talented Slovakian center who showed a lot of promise, and at the time it looked as though Zagrapan was only a year or two of development away from playing on the Sabres roster full-time, which would have been huge. The Sabres had plenty of talent during the mid-2000s and were only one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2005-06 season. Zagrapan could have quickly made an impact for his club if he was presented the opportunity.
Zagrapan put up solid but not spectacular numbers over the course of three AHL seasons with the Sabres, but never managed to find the hot streak necessary to break into the lineup. After struggling in North America Zagrapan made the decision to continue playing in Europe, and I mean all over Europe. He's bounced around from team to team, spending time in Finnish, Austrian, and Czech leagues, along with a disappointing season in the KHL. It might have been in Zagrapan’s best interest to stay the course in the AHL; who knows what would have happened to the former first round pick had he stuck around.
8 Teemu Riihijarvi
When Teemu Riihijarvi was selected at 12th overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1995, he was considered to be one of the biggest reaches of the draft at the time. The Finnish winger had plenty of size, but was early on in his development otherwise. In fact, one of the biggest knocks against Riihijarvi was his mediocre shot, which isn’t something you want to hear about a forward you’re drafting in the first round.
Riihijarvi stayed in Finland with the intention of developing his game, but instead he simply never attempted a jump to the NHL. Riihijarvi would never play a regular season game on North American ice. Furthermore, during his time in SM-Liiga, Riihijarvi would never put up more than 20 points in a season. He was successful as a grinder and a role player but not much else during his career. Riihijarvi isn’t so much a bust as he was a bad draft pick. You have to wonder what the Sharks saw in him when he was drafted. Hindsight is 20-20, but that's no excuse for San Jose.
7 Alexander Kharlamov
The Capitals have a history of drafting Russian-born forwards, and they drafted one with some very strong lineage with the 15th overall pick in the 1994 Draft. Alexander Kharlamov was not only a promising well-rounded prospect on the wing, his father Valeri is a Russian hockey legend. Valeri won two Olympic gold medals with the USSR before he tragically died in a car accident in 1981. Despite never playing an NHL game, Alexander’s dad was posthumously elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame back in 2005, so it’s safe to say that there was plenty to live up to when Kharlamov was drafted into the league.
Unfortunately, things really didn’t go quite as planned. Kharlamov never really found his niche in North American hockey and he only managed a couple seasons in the minors before he decided to head back to Russia and finish out his career in the Russian Elite League. In sports, we’ve often seen a renowned player’s son outshine his dad, but this was certainly not in the cards for the Kharlamovs.
6 Alexandre Volchkov
Many talented Russian-born players have been overlooked or struggled to find success because of attitude issues, whether it be issues with teammates, coaches, or management. Enter Alexandre Volchkov. The winger was selected fourth over in the 1996 Entry Draft. The Washington Capitals knew full well that Volchkov had exhibited attitude problems during his time in junior with the Barrie Colts, but came to the conclusion that his offensive output was so great he was worth the risk. That decision would backfire.
Volchkov lived up to his reputation and was far, far more trouble than he was worth. He would only play three games for the Capitals and caused a plethora of problems for Washington’s AHL affiliate in Portland at the time. The worst of it came during a playoff game for Portland in 1998, when Volchkov simply walked out on the team, during a playoff series! Volchkov wasn’t missed when he returned to his homeland to play in the Russian Elite League. Character issues can overshadow any player’s talent and Volchkov is an excellent example of that.
5 Petr Taticek
The Florida Panthers snapped up the opportunity to draft Taticek with the 9th overall pick in the 2002 draft. The centerman showed a promising skill-set in junior, excelling on offense while proving he could hold his own in his own end. The Panthers thought Taticek showed a lot of promise as a power forward and a faceoff specialist, and they put a lot of faith in the Czech-born forward. On top of that, Taticek’s father played pro hockey for almost two decades in Germany and the Czech Republic. There was more than enough pressure on Taticek.
Taticek had difficulty with the transition to the professional game; he struggled in the minors and only ever played well enough to work his way onto the Panthers roster for three games. In 2007, Taticek would call it quits in North America and move his game back to Europe. He’s since had very successful stints in both the Swiss League and the German DEL. Much like his dad, Taticek’s game went over well in Europe but didn’t give him a chance in the NHL.
4 Pavel Brendl
Pavel Brendl was an offensive dynamo in junior, and certainly deserved the fourth overall selection he received from the Rangers in the 1999 Draft, falling below only the Sedin twins and Patrik Stefan (don’t worry, we’ll get to him later). Brendl was an explosive Czech winger who showed all the offensive touch you could ask for from a prospect, as evidenced by his multiple triple-digit postings in points in the WHL. He was an all-or-nothing player on many levels; Brendl could be considered a defensive liability and picked up a reputation for being lazy during his first couple seasons with the Rangers organization. He was ultimately sent to Philadelphia in a trade that sent Eric Lindros to New York in 2001.
Brendl was expected to flourish in Philadelphia, a roster laden with Czech-born players that might help Brendl feel comfortable and accelerate his development. It never happened. Brendl made the Flyers out of camp in his first season, but he was sent back down after only eight games. His only extended time in the NHL would come during the following season, a forgettable half-season with the Flyers in 2002-03. Brendl put together a decent career in Europe after his time in the NHL, but 78 career games can be considered nothing but a disappointment for a fourth overall pick.
3 Bjorn Johansson
Back in the '60s and '70s, the NHL Draft was primarily a Canadian affair, with the occasional American player thrown into the mix. Scouting abroad had its fair share of difficulties, so you might only see one or two European players selected per draft. This makes the selection of Bjorn Johansson very pecuilar. Johansson was the first European-born player to be selected in the first round of the draft, going all the way up at fifth overall in 1976 to the California Seals. In fact, Johansson was drafted so long ago, he was drafted into the World Hockey Association as well. The guy got drafted for both a NHL team and a whole entire league that don't exist anymore.
Johansson was a real solid Swedish puck-moving defenseman, but didn’t really seem to stick in North America. He would only play 15 games in the NHL, for the now defunct Cleveland Barons, before returning to Europe to finish out his career. Drafting outside of the hockey hotbeds of Canada and America was a big risk in the '70s and that was evidenced by the selection of Johansson. You could argue that his selection set the entire NHL back a decade or two; drafting European players didn’t become regular practice until years later.
2 Nikita Filatov
The Blue Jackets put a lot of stock into Filatov when they selected him sixth overall in the ’08 Draft. The Russian winger was one of the fastest skaters in the draft and had tremendous talent with the puck, considered by many one of the most explosive players in his class. Fortunately for Columbus, the production came quickly for Filatov. Filatov scored in his first NHL game when he made the Blue Jackets out of camp in 2008, but it wasn’t until he was called back up in January later that season that he put his best performance together. Facing the Wild, Filatov put up a hat trick en route to a 4-2 victory for his Blue Jackets. That’s a very promising game for a rookie, so who could have guessed that hat trick would make up half of his six career NHL goals.
FIlatov would have some conflict with the Blue Jackets coaching staff, and mostly spent time either in the minors or on loan to the KHL over the course of his three years with the organization. Filatov was sent over to the Senators in a trade in 2011, but never had any real impact in the few games he played with the team. Filatov would transition full-time to the KHL where he still plays today. He's finally begun to produce in the past year or two, showing flashes of brilliance akin to his extraordinary performance in Minnesota eight years ago.
1 Patrik Stefan
Patrik Stefan was supposed to become the face of the Atlanta Thrashers when he was selected with the first overall pick in 1999. After starting his career in his native Czech Republic, Stefan transitioned to North America and put up good numbers in the now-defunct IHL. Some scouts praised Stefan’s playmaking ability in combination with his size, claiming he was a world-class player. The Thrashers were a brand-new expansion franchise in '99 and couldn't afford to take anything but a star player with the first overall pick. It would turn out that Patrik Stefan was anything but.
Stefan might be the only player on this list who actually saw an extended look in the NHL. All things considered, he didn’t do all that bad his first couple seasons in Atlanta, putting up 25 and 31 points respectively in his first two seasons, but he didn’t get much better. Stefan struggled with durability issues his whole career and never managed to put up more than 40 points in a season. The low point in Stefan’s career inarguably was after the Thrashers traded him to the Stars, during the 2006-07 season. Stefan missed a wide open empty net from inches away in the dying seconds of a game against the Oilers, allowing them to break out and tie the game in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion. Stefan would for all intents and purposes retire from the game after that season, proving that even the most promising prospects have the potential to disappoint beyond your wildest dreams.