Sometimes, it can be easy for us to get caught up in our secluded bubble of elite North American pro sports. We have the best leagues, the best athletes, the best competition and the best worldwide media coverage that can understandably make us assume we’re at the center of the pro-hockey universe.
Sure, we’re aware of the European leagues – and even some fairly competitive pro hockey in places like China and Japan – but in general, we consider them more as developmental programs from which foreign players come as they work their way up to the NHL and the biggest pool of the world’s best talent.
But the Atlantic Ocean is a two-way street. Players jet eastward across the pond almost as often as they do westbound. And there are any number of reasons for that. Sometimes, they want just a couple more years of pro puck at a lower level of competition before they hang it up on their careers for good, while other times it can be for family reasons, developmental reasons, or the fact they just aren’t cut out for the NHL and they’ll have a much better chance in a different style of play overseas.
When players do make the leap from the NHL, it can leave quite a void in their previous team and even the league as a whole, but likewise, it can be a good thing for all parties to make a clean break and never look back.
Here are eight NHL players that definitely need to return from overseas and seven that should stay away for good.
15 Needs To Return: Brandon Prust
The enforcer role in an increasingly fast and more skillful NHL is a dying breed, but if tough guy Brandon Prust can make a living playing in Europe, then there’s still room for him in the NHL. Before he was traded from the Canadiens to the Canucks in July 2015, Prust was able to mix his physical presence with a modest 20-or-so points per season that made him a useful bottom-six checking-line winger.
He was always a fan favorite, and even just the intangibles can be worth the roster spot for the energy he'd bring. Plus, his untimely ankle injury was an unfortunate circumstance that prevented him from staying in the NHL, where he belonged, even after his miserable season in Vancouver in 2015-16.
He’s had a fairly decent year with the Nuermberg Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers in the German elite league this season, and I’m sure his celebrity fiancé Maripier Morin would appreciate not having to maintain an overseas relationship anymore.
14 Should Stay Away: Ville Leino
Things didn’t end well for Finnish forward Ville Leino in the NHL. After six successful seasons in the Finnish league, he signed on with the Detroit Red Wings as a 24-year-old in 2008. He scored a goal in his NHL debut in 2009 and eventually ended up with the Philadelphia Flyers for the 2010-11 season, in which he scored 53 points, good enough to earn a six-year, $27 million free-agent contract with the Buffalo Sabres during the 2011 offseason.
Once the money started rolling in, Leino’s play plummeted off a steep cliff. He labored through three horrible seasons in Buffalo, scoring a grand total of zero goals in 58 games in 2013-14, leading to his benching for a large chunk of games at the end of that season.
It was a messy situation, and the Sabres eventually bought him out just three years into his contract, so he predictably jetted back off to Europe to seek greener pastures. He’s bounced around from the KHL to the Swedish leagues in three seasons over there, but he’s probably better off with an entire ocean now separating him from his NHL woes.
13 Needs To Return: Viktor Fasth
Viktor Fasth’s furiously fast start in the NHL as a 30-year-old rookie with the Anaheim Ducks in 2012-13 put him in position to contend long-term with Jonas Hiller as the Ducks’ starting goalie. He won his first eight starts that season and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, but unfortunately, he was plagued by injury the following season, so the Ducks ended up dumping him off in a trade to the Oilers.
In parts of two seasons in Edmonton, Fasth and the Oilers clashed. He didn’t fit well on the team, and his sporadic up-and-down play didn’t sit right with either his teammates nor the front office. He returned to the KHL for the 2015-16 season and has played well in two years since making the transition.
While his first go-around in North America didn’t turn out the way it should have, he’s good enough and young enough that he deserves another shot now that the goaltender market is more in his favor assuming he can stay healthy.
12 Should Stay Away: Brandon Bochenski
In six pro seasons in North America, Minnesota native Brandon Bochenski played with six different NHL teams but could never keep pace enough to hold down a full-time roster spot. Much of his time was spent in the AHL, and he only managed 68 points in 156 NHL games.
So instead of continuing to toil unsuccessfully here, Bochenski headed overseas. He signed with Kazakh KHL team Barys Astana in 2010 and has never looked back. He recently completed his seventh season with the team and now serves as the team captain, averaging a point per game. He’s even gone so far as to acquire Kazakh citizenship and has played for the Kazakhstan national team at the international level.
Obviously, Bochenski fits much better in the Eurpoean game and is comfortable enough to become a naturalized citizen over there, so he might as well just stay instead of attempting another futile shot at the NHL.
11 Needs To Return: Alexander Salak
Like Viktor Fasth, Czech goaltender Alexander Salak never got a fair shake in the NHL. He played a few seasons in Finland before signing with the Florida Panthers in 2009, who then assigned him to their AHL club, the Rochester Americans. There, he posted a 29-14-0 record with a .910 save percentage and a sub-3 GAA.
He got called up to the Panthers for all of two games during the 2009-10 season, playing a total of 67 minutes and giving up six goals while taking one loss. Clearly it wasn’t the league's debut between the pipes.
The next season, he was traded to the Blackhawks but only played in 21 games for their AHL affiliate before the team released him in 2012. After that, he returned to Europe and joined the KHL, where he has become one of the best backstops in the league. In his five seasons there, he has never had worse than a .914 save percentage and has had a sub-2 GAA in four out of five seasons.
At 30 years old and with good size and athleticism, he needs to return to the NHL and get a legitimate shot at a starting role.
10 Should Stay Away: Alexander Semin
Talk about wasted talent. Alexander Semin was an intensely talented Russian right-winger who five times had 50-point seasons and topped out with 84 with the Washington Capitals in 2009-10. He could have been one of the all-time elite Russian NHLers, but for whatever reason, he was consumed with laziness and a lack of interest in the game.
His teammates even said that he just didn’t care to play anymore following the 2012-13 lockout, after which he never matched his previous elite offensive output. His bad reputation followed him all over the league until he was finally waived by the Montreal Canadiens after only 15 games just last season. After that, we went back to his native Russia, where he signed with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL and promptly won the 2016 Gagarin Cup. Now gone, he might as well just stay that way.
9 Needs To Return: Vladimir Sobotka
Seven seasons into an NHL career in which he played for both the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, Russian Vladimir Sobotka opted to sign a three-year deal with Avangard Omsk of the KHL to “play different hockey” instead of re-upping with the Blues. When that happened, St. Louis filed for salary arbitration, the result of which led to a ruling that if or when he returned to the NHL, the Blues would retain Sobotka’s rights for one year before he became an unrestricted free agent.
He has stated that he would like to make a comeback to North America, but the trouble is that his “out” clause in his KHL deal evaporated when he recently renegotiated his contract. Now, he’s “stuck” in Russia even though he’d like to return to the U.S. His modest 123 points in 381 NHL games aren’t exactly dazzling numbers, but he’d provide good depth for a solid Blues team, and they’d like to have him again sooner rather than later.
8 Should Stay Away: Nigel Dawes
Nigel Dawes was never built for the NHL. His 5-foot-9 frame traipsed around the league from New York to Phoenix to Calgary to Atlanta and eventually to Montreal (for a very short time) – going back and forth to the AHL the whole way – before he finally decided to follow the aforementioned Brandon Bochenski to Kazakhstan, where he also signed on with Barys Astana of the KHL.
Fast forward six seasons and he’s one of the highest scorers on the team and a naturalized Kazakh citizen, cruising along nicely and living out his boyhood dream as a pro hockey player, albeit halfway around the world and not in the NHL. He’s at peace with his role as a go-to forward in Asia with the luxury of not facing the challenge of having to prove himself worthy season in and season out in the NHL. He’s doing his thing and doing it well, so he should just keep on doing it without the stress of being called up and sent down every other week in North America.
7 Needs To Return: Ryan Wilson
Ryan Wilson spent eight years in the Colorado Avalanche organization as a dependable blueliner, including three full seasons in Denver from 2009-10 to 2011-12. He suffered through multiple injuries in the final three seasons there, though, which severely limited his playing time and prevented him from signing a new contract for 2015-16.
As a result, he headed overseas, first to play in the KHL in 2015-16 for Kazan Ak-Bars and then to the Swiss-A league, where he suited up for Lugano this past season, registering 12 points in 32 games.
If ever there was a time the Avalanche needed a solid rearguard, it’s now, when their defensive corps has deteriorated to one of the worst in the entire league. Wilson could be a great investment for the Avs as an inexpensive 30-year-old D-man with plenty of solid years left in him, as the Avalanche try to rebuild after a historically bad 2016-17 season this year.
6 Should Stay Away: The Kostitsyn Brothers
Belarusian brothers Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn had some limited success playing in the NHL between 2005-06 and 2012-13. They played together on both the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators, with the elder Andrei turning in a more consistent performance than Sergei.
The siblings’ reputation, though, was damaged when they were documented spending way too much time with known Montreal drug-dealers, having expensive dinners and attending luxe city nightclubs while procuring high-end items like bottles of vodka, luxury cars and even escorts through international spy-like clandestine relations.
They also broke team rules and lacked serious dedication to their North American careers, which led to their eventual trade to Nashville and then their respective moves back to the Russian KHL.
The baggage these two would bring to any interested NHL club simply would not be worth the trouble, so they might as well just stay away for good.
5 Needs To Return: Tomas Kaberle
Czech Republic native Tomas Kaberle first plied his trade in North America as a surprisingly talented defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late ‘90s and 2000s despite being taken all the way back in the eighth round of the 1996 draft.
As a 12-year veteran with the Leafs, Kaberle scored 520 points in 878 games between 1998 and 2011, becoming the second-highest scoring defenseman in team history. He went on to play for the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens, as well as a short stint in the AHL before heading back to the Czech Republic to play for Brno Kometa in the Czech Extraliga for his final pro year in 2015-16.
Even though he’s been out of the game for a season, Kaberle needs to come back stateside for one last curtain-call season – ideally with the Leafs – as a proven 39-year-old veteran. It might be a little random, but it only seems right, considering his illustrious NHL career and its somewhat unceremonious end.
4 Should Stay Away: Jonathan Cheechoo
The only reason Jonathan Cheechoo has any name recognition – other than his funny surname – is his fluky, Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy-winning 56-goal season in 2005-06 with the Sharks, thanks in large part to his then-teammate and perennial All-Star Joe Thornton. After that year, his point output decreased every season for four more years until he was essentially a dead weight on the Ottawa Senators roster and got bought out of his contract in 2010. From there, he flopped around to three different AHL teams over the next three seasons before finally deciding to head overseas.
In 2013, he signed with a KHL club, and for the past four seasons, he’s been great offensively, never scoring less than 38 points in the KHL’s shorter, 60-game regular seasons. Apparently, he was better cut out for the European style of play over the NHL’s, so he might as well keep on keeping on over there while always savoring that one spectacular year with San Jose.
3 Needs to return: Wojtek Wolski
For whatever reason, Wojtek Wolski went form a consistent 40 or 50-point scorer during his first four seasons with the Colorado Avalanche to a subpar, bottom-six player who struggled to crack the daily lineup during his last few seasons in the NHL.
He returned to his high-scoring ways in 2013-14, though, after he signed with Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo of the KHL. He played two years there and was in his second season with Magnitogorsk Metallurg this year when a scary freak accident broke some bones in his neck, ending his season with just 10 points in 19 games.
Hoping for the best and assuming he’ll return to game-ready physical shape, Wolski is primed to make a solid return to the NHL with a rejuvenated outlook and a good chance to sign a multi-year deal as he begins the latter stages of his pro career.
2 Should Stay Away: Ilya Kovalchuk
Could Ilya Kovalchuk come back to the NHL and be a spectacular player? Sure, he was a point-per-game player while he was here, and most of that time was spent on a terrible Atlanta team. But should he come back to the NHL? No, definitely not. He never really fit into the North American culture.
He had a bad attitude, was selfish on the ice, and he made a lot more people mad than happy. Tension followed him everywhere, and then he went and flew the coop just three years into his massive 15-year $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils that soured his reputation not only among New Jersey fans but with much of the rest of the league as well.
Kovalchuk is doing just fine back in Russia, though. He averaged 1.3 points per game for KHL St. Petersburg SKA this year, and they’re currently in the Gagarin Cup Finals, so don’t you worry too much about good ol' Ilya.
1 Needs to return: Pavel Datsyuk
Pavel Datsyuk is the best player playing overseas, period. He established one of the most prolific offensive careers in Red Wings history, leading the team in scoring several times over his 14 seasons there and being selected to three All-Star Games while winning two Stanley Cup rings with the team in 2002 and 2008.
Following the 2015-16 season, Datsyuk decided to return to his native Russia to play out the final years of his career, and signed with KHL SKA Saint Petersburg. Coincidentally, the 2016-17 season, the first of which in 15 years that Datsyuk wasn’t on the Red Wings' roster, is the first season they'll will miss the postseason in nearly three decades, so you can imagine how much they miss his high-scoring, two-way proficiency.
The only potential issue with him returning to the NHL is that the Arizona Coyotes now own his rights, but at 918 points, it’d sure be a good thing for the league and its fans if he came back for a couple more seasons to chase that elusive 1,000-point milestone.
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