A reoccurring theme in this article is most players that leave the North American hockey ranks are European and more times than not probably Russian. The introduction of the KHL has given all players another alternative to look for work elsewhere. Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk are the poster boys for the KHL, though it's noteworthy to mention that other players and not just Russians are thriving in the league. The likes of Nigel Dawes and Dustin Boyd are tearing it up overseas with the KHL, putting up career numbers in points and becoming stars in the league.
The KHL isn’t the only alternative and this list will include a bunch of NHL players playing elsewhere, which includes the typical hockey markets overseas in Sweden, Switzerland and Czech Republic. There also includes some other bizarre hockey destinations like Croatia and even Italy. Yes, they do have ice in Italy apparently, just ask former Leafs goalie Justin Pogge...I’ve already said too much.
With all this mind, let us begin and here are some familiar faces you may recognize. Enjoy this list of the top 15 NHL’ers you had no clue are playing overseas!
15 Dustin Boyd
Similar to his current KHL teammate Nigel Dawes, the two players have absolutely thrived following lackluster NHL careers. Drafted by the Flames, many were excited about Dustin seeing his prolific history as a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors, putting up insane numbers which included a 48 goal season. His NHL career would not go the same way, as Boyd was constantly a healthy scratch and bounced around the NHL and AHL for the bulk of his career. After another failed run with the Habs, playing the majority of the season with Hamilton, Boyd made a move to the KHL.
What happened next is truly spectacular. Boyd has tore up the league alongside Nigel Dawes. The two continue to put up career numbers with Astana Barys and look to continue this momentum for a sixth straight season. At the age of 30, Boyd is certainly hitting his prime on the ice and it's nice to see a Canadian kid rejuvenating his career overseas in the KHL, as it's something you don’t see every day.
14 Martin Erat
Poor Martin Erat. He actually had quite the NFL career, putting up some consistent numbers during his run as Pred. Despite that, all fans will remember is the terrible trade that not only made the Caps look insanely foolish, but that also ruined his NHL career. Erat was shipped away from Nashville in a swap involving Filip Forsberg, who is now the face of the organization and just signed a massive contract extension worth $36 million for six years. The deal could not have turned out any worse for Erat and the Caps, as he would score two goals over two seasons with Washington before finally being shipped off mercifully to Arizona.
At that point, he would struggle to rediscover his game and leave the NHL for good last season. He left as a free agent, signing a deal with Avangark Omsk, on a one year contract term. His contributions were limited to nine goals and 24 points in 40 games with the KHL team. At the age of 34, it’ll be interesting to see what his next move will be.
13 Ryan O’Byrne
Ryan O'Byrne's career took some bizarre twists and turns which we will cover in this entry. Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, his bumpy ride as a Hab took a horrible turn for the worst after he slid a puck into his own empty cage. He would never recover from the incident, finding himself as a healthy scratch more times than not. A deal to Colorado improved things for the short term, as he was a decent stay at home defenseman for the team.
During the 12-13 lockout, his career took another weird twist, becoming an assistant coach for the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL and he later would leave for an on-ice role with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.
After the lockout, he barely found ice time with both Colorado and Toronto causing him to look for work overseas. He would bounce around Europe spending time in Russia with Prague of the KHL and later joining the Swiss League with Ambri-Piotta. Last season, Ryan was once again on the move, playing in the Swedish League with HV71 Jonkoping.
12 Jonathan Cheechoo
From a 50+ goal season to spending a year playing hockey in Croatia, Jonathan Cheechoo certainly fell off the map during his career. Early on in his career with the Sharks, Jonathan had all the tools to become an elite sniper and, in only his third season, Cheechoo put up career highs in goals, assists and points, scoring an incredible 56 goals playing alongside Joe Thornton. He followed that up with another good season, but he would then slow down and a trade to Ottawa was the beginning of the end for Cheechoo ,who would spend his next years down in the AHL.
In 2013, Jonathan put his North American playing days aside and jointed the Croatian side of Zagreb in the KHL. He actually put up some nice numbers and would ultimately stay in the league, signing a two year deal with the team he spent last season with, Minsk Dynamo of the KHL.
11 Wojtek Wolski
Wojtek Wolski had a high ceiling when he was drafted by the Avs, going 21st overall in the 2004 NHL draft. His first full season with the Avalanche was a success, as he would collect 50 points and 22 goals in his rookie season. It looked like Avs found a stud in the draft big time. Unfortunately for Wolski and Colorado, those numbers would be his career highs and he would eventually be dealt over to the Phoenix Coyotes. He would flop around other teams including New York, Florida and Washington.
During 2013, it was time to move on. Wolski inked a two year deal with Novgorod of the KHL. He enjoyed two tremendous seasons, leading him to sign a big deal last off season with Metallurg. He put up career numbers in points with the club last season and the team would go on to capture the 2016 Gagarin Cup, so things worked out quite nicely for the former NHLer who found his legs overseas.
10 Cam Barker
Projected as the future of Chicago's backline, Cam Barker failed to meet those unreasonable expectations in his stint with the prestigious franchise. The Hawks had huge expectations for the defenseman who was drafted third overall, right after a pair of Russians you may know in Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Oozing with excitement, the Hawks brought him in way too early and he would spend his first couple of years bouncing around Chicago and Rockford, the team's AHL affiliate. His play wasn’t all that bad, but with defensive depth at an all time high with the team, he was ultimately traded away.
Leaving Chicago was the beginning of the end for Cam and ,in 2013, he’d leave the Canucks for a new start overseas with the KHL club, Astana Barys. Last season, Barker peaked with his new team of Bratislava, racking in 31 assists and 40 points in just 55 games. He is set to return to Astana for the 2016-2017 campaign. At the age of 30, Cam is hitting his peak as a hockey player.
9 Nigel Dawes
Nigel Dawes is regarded as the poster boy for a player finding tremendous success overseas and re-launching a hockey career that several fans thought was done. His speed throughout his career made him a valuable asset. Nigel showed flashes of brilliance but just wasn’t able to sustain it on an NHL level, something that even the top players in the world at times go through. His best seasons were with AHL teams, scoring 27 goals on multiple occasions with different minor league teams. His last year was with the Habs and, in 2011, Nigel took the wise decision to leave the NHL for more of a prominent opportunity.
His decision was spot on, Dawes re-invented his game with Astana Barys, the same team he is set to suit up for this upcoming season for his sixth campaign. His last two seasons have been nothing short of brilliant, scoring 32 and 31 goals in only 60 and 55 games played. His speed along with an improved vision for the game has resurfaced his identity overseas. Good for you Nigel!
8 Justin Pogge
Remember when Leaf sfans thought Pogge was the team’s next savior between the pipes? Man, it’s hard to believe the team is still looking for a reliable face in net after all these years. With the addition of yet another new goalie in Frederik Andersen, the team is starving for some much needed consistency at the position.
Putting Toronto’s goalie troubles aside, let us discuss the path taken by Justin Pogge. His Toronto run was met with some inaccurate expectations which would end in disaster for both parties. Justin would spend most of his North American stint in the AHL, while the Leafs are still in search of a goalie as we previously discussed.
During the 2012 offseason, Pogge made a bizarre decision to join an Italian team, Ritten Sport of the Elite A league. The following year, Pogge would spend three seasons playing in Sweden. Just this past off season, Justin once again announced he’s on the move, this time joining HC Slovan Bratislava of the KHL.
7 Marcel Hossa
When your last name is Hossa and you stand 6’3" with a history of scoring goals, chances are teams will have high hopes, as the Montreal Canadiens did when they selected Marcel Hossa 16th overall in 2000. His WHL numbers were fantastic, so expectations were reasonably high.
It became apparent quickly that he wasn’t his brother. Marcel failed to sustain any kind of momentum, bouncing around the NHL and AHL for the majority of his career. In 2008, Hossa finally made the decision to leave for the KHL.
He would go on to spend eight seasons in the league and his numbers were up and down throughout. His most notable season was in the 09-10 campaign, which saw Hossa score 35 goals. Following his Russian experience, Marcel would go back home and play in Slovakia, then Sweden and his current destination, the Czech Republic. At the age of 34, one might guess his playing days are soon coming to a close.
6 Nikolay Zherdev
Today, Nikolai Zherdev is currently 31 and playing in the KHL, but back in his teen days, the Russian was labelled as an explosive future sniper in the NHL. In a stacked 2003 NHL Draft, the Blue Jackets (who have a terrible draft history) selected Zherdev fourth overall. It's crazy to think that he was selected before the likes of Jeff Carter, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Loui Eriksson, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber. And that’s just naming a few on a long, long list of established NHLers to come out of that draft.
He had decent numbers with the Jackets, scoring over 20 goals in two out of four seasons. His commitment levels eventually hurt his overall game and the Jackets would trade him to the Rangers, who always seem eager to take a chance on a high profile player. Once again, his numbers were fine, but his overall game lacked and, in 2011, Zherdev left the NHL for good and headed back home. He has spent the last six seasons overseas with most of his campaigns being riddled with injuries.
5 Alexei Ponikarovsky
I think we can make a separate article of former Leafs players playing overseas, what do you think Sportster Nation? The 6’4" Russian winger became yet another Toronto flame out, although it’s worth discussing that he did have some good years under his belt before starting to slump with the team. He was fairly consistent putting up more than 18 goals in five straight seasons with the team. His struggles actually began once he was dealt away from TO and Poni would bounce around all over the place, playing with the Penguins, Kings, Hurricanes, Devils and Jets all in a matter of five years.
With way too much travel under his belt, Alexei went back home in an attempt to stay in one place. He’d join his good buddy and former New Jersey teammate Ilya Kovalchuk with SKA Saint Petersburg, spending the last three seasons with the team. He hasn't been great with them, scoring 11 goals in that time.
4 Linus Omark
He’s been so hot, that his stick was literally on fire... All jokes and All Star games aside, Linus Omark is regarded as one of the best former NHLers playing overseas at the moment. His skills are breathtaking to watch on YouTube, though the Oilers ultimately felt he did not fit the mold of what they team was looking for. This factor led to Omark playing most his North American hockey games in the AHL.
In 2013, Linus officially left the NHL ranks, playing a couple of games in Sweden. He, then, signed a one year KHL deal and enjoyed the greatest success of his ice hockey career, followed by another tremendous season last year, putting up career numbers with Ufa Salavat of the KHL. In 60 games, Omark notched 18 goals along with 57 points. At the age of 29, it looks like the Swede is hitting his prime overseas.
3 Cristobal Huet
Former NHLer Cristobal Huet is still using his talents between the pipes in his 40s, as he's set to turn 41 in September. The French goaltender was actually quite the revelation when you consider that he was drafted in the 7th round, 214th overall. He hit his prime with Montreal, a city known for their tremendous goaltending. After a stellar display, he was shipped off to Washignton briefly and later became a piece of Chicago’s puzzle. Huet would cement his legacy as the first French born player to win a Stanley Cup, appearing in a single game, accomplishing the tremendous record during the 09-10 campaign.
With Corey Crawford taking the starting role, Huet left the NHL to go play in the Swiss-League for the last six seasons. He helped Lausanne HC go from the B League back to the A Division during the 12-13 season and is still a member of the team today.
2 Andrei & Sergei Kostitsyn
A theme in this article is that Russian players (we'll include Belarus in that example for this article) don’t always make it in North American. The Kostitsyn brothers were yet another prime example, as both had high hopes with Andrei being selected 10th overall and little brother Sergei going much lower down the board, but still being labelled as a future star.
Their careers had ups and downs. Andrei played the bulk of his career with Montreal, while Sergei spent a chunk of time with both Montreal and Nashville. Both were notorious partiers and this played a huge part in both being shipped away.
Older brother Andrei defected first in the 12-13 campaign, joining Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, before he was later traded to HC Sochi. His brother left months later as well, joining Omsk and later Ak Bars Kazan. Today, Sergei is still in his 20s, at 29, while older brother Andrei is 31. The two are set to continue their respective careers overseas in the KHL and an NHL return seems highly unlikely, despite the fact that they are still quite young.
1 Maxim Afinogenov
I got a sense of nostalgia just by hearing his name. Who else can recall the days of picking him in an NHL video game with his 99 rated blazing speed? At the age of 36, that same player is still giving it a go with the KHL, playing with Chekhov Vityaz. I'd assume his speed wouldn't still be rated as a 99.
Before we get into his current career, let’s take a second to remember his NHL journey, which spanned just under a decade with the Buffalo Sabres. Ironically, one of his better campaigns came away from Buffalo, in his one year with Atlanta which saw him put up a career high in goals with 24, while picking up 61 points. The Moscow native left the NHL ranks on a high following that season.
He went back home in 2010 and is still playing overseas seven years later. Maxim started off with three seasons with St. Petersburg SKA and later joined his current team, Chekhov Vityaz, where he's their captain.