Simply put, the NHL is a hard league to play in. Even Sidney Crosby went through some struggles at one point in his illustrious career. If Crosby’s prone to some tough times, chances are, everybody is.
Getting in the league is one thing, but staying in it is an entirely different animal. With so many players aspiring to play in the league, the leash is tighter than ever nowadays. This list features an array of players that left far too soon. The reason these players gave up on the league varies. Some left because of the salary cap, while others left because of a performance decline. No matter what the reason might have been, we truly have reason to believe these players could have benefitted from a few extra years in the NHL.
The players on this list either retired young or chose to play overseas. Asides from a few, most of the players are actually still actively playing today. Not surprisingly, most of them are Russian and in the KHL. Enjoy this list of 15 players that gave up on the NHL far too early and be sure to let us know which players you’d love to see back in the league!
15 Nikolai Zherdev
Playing his junior hockey back in his native land of Russia, Nikolai Zherdev was a big time prospect heading into the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The Jackets picked the Ukranian fourth overall, overlooking the other studs on the board, like Thomas Vanek, who went with the next pick.
Early on, things seemed promising for Zherdev, who flourished in his sophomore season with the team scoring 27 goals, along with 27 helpers. Things went south with the team and Zherdev during contract negotiation, as he threatened to stay overseas if his wages weren’t increased. The Jackets ultimately obliged inking the forward to a staggering $7.5 million dollar deal over three seasons. Not surprisingly, he was traded shortly after.
Money ultimately became the reason for Zherdev’s short stint, as he gave up on the league when the Rangers refused to accommodate his financial terms. He returned once more with Philly, only to leave once again, this time permanently. At the age of 32, Zherdev is still going strong playing in the KHL with Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo.
14 Slava Voynov
Just entering his prime, the two-time Stanley Cup winner left the league at the age of 26. He was a tremendous player for the LA Kings, but he ultimately had to leave the league because of a situation away from the rink.
On October 20th, the Kings blueliner was immediately suspended for a domestic violence charge. After serving some time in a detention center, Slava went back home to Russia, leaving the NHL despite the fact that he was still under contract. He would try to join team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey, but the NHL was having none of it and told the Russian team he was not eligible and suspended by the league for leaving abruptly. He is now playing for St. Petersburg, enjoying an excellent season with 28 points in 32 games.
13 Maxim Afinogenov
You can add another Russian to the list, a theme you’ll see a heck of a lot in this article. The unfortunate part about Max Afinogenov leaving was the fact that he left during his prime. Maxim was a dazzling player to watch and was finally figuring out the league. In his final NHL season in 2009-10, the speedy forward put up a career high in goals, finding the back of the net 24 times. He picked up 61 points capping off a tremendous season with the Atlanta Thrashers.
Unfortunately, just as he was hitting his prime, Afinogenov gave up on the NHL and decided to go overseas with SKA St. Petersburg. Since leaving, Maxim has failed to find his stride, not scoring more than 17 goals in a single season. At the age of 37, he’s still playing for Chekhov Vityaz.
12 Curtis Glencross
Going undrafted, Curtis Glencross took the hard route to the NHL. Despite not getting selected, the player thrived with a Calgary team built on toughness and size when he finally got a chance. The gritty forward put up career years, scoring 24 and 26 goals in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns. Because of various injuries following his peak seasons, he failed to maintain momentum with the Flames. He was later shipped off to the Caps, the final team he’d play for in the NHL.
After a failed pro tryout with the Leafs and Avalanche, the forward surprisingly decided to call it a career before the start of the 2015-16 season. Still only 32 at the time of the decision, many were surprised Glencross didn’t go play overseas and come back the next year. Instead, Glencross gave up on the NHL and decided to retire, opting to stay with his family instead.
11 Alexander Frolov
One of the most underrated players of his day, Alexander Frolov gave up on the NHL far too early and could have been something special if he only stayed on board a little longer. Soon after Frolov fled the scene for the KHL, his Kings team began to dominate the league.
The winger was drafted 20th overall at the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. His breakout season took place in the 2006-07 campaign. when the forward had a career year, scoring 35 goals and notching 36 assists.
He’d continue to put up stellar numbers for LA, but would end up leaving for the Rangers in free agency. His one season in New York was disastrous, as Frolov was sidelined with an injury for the most part and only scored 16 points. Despite the fact that he was entering his prime as a young star, he gave up on the league and left for the KHL. Today, he’s only 34 and still going strong as a member of the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo in the KHL.
10 Niklas Hagman
He was born in Finland, but played the game like a true North American. The European forward played a gritty game and wasn’t afraid to make his way to the front of the net to score some dirty goals. Hagman enjoyed a career season as a member of the Dallas Stars, scoring 27 goals during the 2007-08 season.
In typical Leaf fashion, Toronto would offer Niklas a big deal, worth $12 million over four years. He once again proved his worth, notching two back-to-back 20 goal seasons. His momentum completely halted following a massive trade between the Leafs and Flames which featured Dion Phaneuf.
After a failed season with the Ducks, Hagman decided to give up on the NHL and continue playing overseas. He had a brilliant season in the SM-Liiga notching 21 goals in 44 games. Those numbers only made you think, "what if he had stayed a little longer?" At the age of 37, Hagman is still going strong today, playing for Karpat of the SM-Liiga.
9 Cody Hodgson
Nobody could have predicted that by the age of 26, Cody Hodgson would be out of the league. He was a junior sensation, putting up staggering numbers as a member of the Brampton Battalion. This caused the Canucks to go all-in on the forward, drafting him 10th overall in 2008.
His run with the Canucks left plenty to be desired and he was later shipped to the Sabres, where he had his best year, scoring 20 goals in 2013-14. He finished his career off with Nashville and decided to retire when the team opted against offering Cody a new deal. He instead took an internal position as a coach for the organization. With so much potential, and being only 26, many believe he may have given up on the league far too early.
8 Leo Komarov
Leo Komarov is one of two players on the list that gave up on the NHL far too early, only to return and make an impact.
Komarov fled the scene for Moscow Dynamo, during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Despite the fact that he enjoyed a career year with Dynamo in his final season, Komarov decided to rewrite his wrongs and come back to the NHL, rejoining the Leafs who were starving for healthy bodies.
Leo has thrived under Mike Babcock and enjoyed a career year last season, putting up 36 points and 19 goals. The Leafs' bench boss is most certainly happy with the Estonian returning to the team, as along with his goals, Leo is a greater penalty-killer and a difficult forward to play against.
7 Brian Rafalski
Brian Rafalski was a rare gem of a player that went undrafted. His mobility was something to behold as the d-man regularly put up 40 assist seasons. The unfortunate part of his career was the fact that it was far too short. Because of that, it’s impressive to look at how much he accomplished in such a short amount of time. Brian won three Stanley Cups, two with New Jersey and one with Detroit, though he only played 11 NHL seasons. He also made the playoffs every single season he played.
Sadly, Brian decided to hang his skates up far too early, as he was still playing some great hockey. Rafi was also named the d-man of the tournament during the 2010 Olympics, the year before he decided to retire. Brian probably regretted giving up on the league too soon as well. This was documented during his brief ECHL return in the 2013-14 season. His return was halted to three games after sustaining an injury and ending his comeback.
6 Nik Antropov
Selected 10th overall in the 1998 NHL Draft, the Leafs had high hopes for the 6’6" center iceman. After a slow start, Nik finally began to find his stride, scoring 26 goals in 2007-08. He backed that up with another great year in 2008-09. After leaving Toronto, his career would continue in Atlanta with some ups and downs. When they moved north, Antropov would etch his name in the history books scoring the first goal for the Jets during their return to the league.
Nik was playing well, but decided to give up and finish his career overseas, signing with Barys Astana. He put up solid numbers in his final two seasons in the KHL, which made us wonder why he ever left the NFL in the first place.
5 Wojtek Wolski
Putting up 128 points with the Brampton Battalion during his final year in junior, the Avs were excited to see what Wojtek Wolski would have in store for the franchise. His first season was a major success, as he notched what would end up being career highs in points and goals, scoring 22 and picking up 50 points.
Throughout the remainder of his career, Wolski bounced around the league, playing with the Coyotes, Rangers, Panthers and Capitals. He failed to stay healthy and this ultimately caused him to give up on the league, despite being relatively young at the age of 27.
Still not peaking in the NHL, Wolski enjoyed his prime over in Russia, dominating the league. Just this past season, Wojtek won the Gagarin Cup, presented to the KHL’s best team. At the age of 30, he’s still going strong and we can only wonder what his career could have looked like had he stayed in North America a little longer.
4 Andrei & Sergei Kostitsyn
The Habs were very excited to draft Andrei Kostitsyn during the stacked 2003 NHL Draft. He fit in quickly with the team, scoring 26 goals during his rookie season and it seemed like the Canadiens found a top six forward. The Habs would then push things a step further by adding his little brother, Sergei, to the mix. However, this turned out to be toxic for the two.
With an interest on everything outside of the rink, the two brothers lost focus in the Mecca of hockey, Montreal. They enjoyed the party life and their play suffered for it. Ultimately, both players left the NHL far too early, looking for a new beginning overseas with the KHL.
The two are still going strong. Big brother Andrei is only 31 and had a lethal campaign last season, scoring 20 goals in 45 games for HC Sochi. Brother Sergei, who is 29, is also performing, decently picking up 20 points in 50 games last year. As they're still young, it's easy to imagine them being solid NHLers today if they could've kept their focus on the game.
3 Alexander Radulov
Drafted 15th overall by the Nashville Predators, the franchise thoguht they finally found a top line forward for the time. The Russian put up remarkable numbers during his days with the Quebec Remparts, notching 152 points and 91 assists during his final junior year. His seasons with the team were so good that they retired his jersey in November of 2007.
Radulov would only play two years in Nashville, as, despite still being under contract, he left Nashville because of “better conditions overseas.” The entire ordeal infuriated the Preds and, ultimately, he was allowed to play in the KHL.
He returned briefly for a playoff run in the 2011-12 season, but would once again leave. He dominated the KHL during his return, but his NHL legacy was tainted.
Finally, this season, Radulov decided to rewrite his wrongs and rejoin the league. He’s currently playing some fantastic hockey with the Habs, putting up 23 points in 26 games. Montreal fans are certainly happy he decided to make his way back to the NHL.
2 Pavel Datsyuk
Despite the fact that he had a year left on his contract, Pavel Datsyuk decided to give up on the NHL and finish his career back home. His decision to leave certainly wasn’t out of the blue, as according to Red Wing GM Ken Holland, Datsyuk wanted out for quite some time now, which begs the question as to why he couldn’t tough out one more year and complete his deal.
Looking at the Wings roster, Pavel could have benefitted from playing another season. At the age of 37, Datsyuk still had a lot left in the tank. With the emergence of various new young stars on the team, including the likes of Larkin, Mantha and Athanasiou, Datsyuk could have definitely helped their progression and had another solid year. His departure was pretty abrupt and Wings fans wish he stayed a little longer with the team.
1 Ilya Kovalchuk
It seemed like Ilya Kovalchuk was going to be an NHLer for life after he signed a monster $100 million dollar deal over 15 years. What happened shortly after that was truly shocking.
After a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals, Kovalchuk came back after the lockout for the shortened season. In a shock heard around the league, Kovalchuk decided to quit the NHL at the age of 30, announcing his retirement. With money being the main influence, Kovalchuk left the league for greener pastures overseas with the KHL. He’s dominated the league and won various championships, but that doesn’t take away from what he could have been in the NHL had he stayed a little longer. Can you imagine Kovalchuk and Taylor Hall on the same line? My lord.