The National Hockey League has always had a complicated relationship with professional leagues in Europe, most notably the KHL and previous incarnations of Russia's top league. During the height of the Cold War, players risked a lot to defect from the Red Army team to go play in the NHL - Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, and Sergei Fedorov, to name a few. A lack of transfer agreement and the growth of the KHL in the past decade made player transactions rather difficult and, in turn, kept teams from taking risks on talented Russian players in the draft. However, with the KHL in tough shape financially and the NHL offering guaranteed paychecks, more and more players are leaving Russia and other European countries to pursue a full-time spot in the NHL, despite the possibility of making more money in Europe.
For the most part, European players are often drafted and then develop enough to warrant NHL consideration; however, many players go undrafted but are then unearthed by pro scouts. Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers, for instance, went undrafted and didn't attract NHL attention until he was a 23 year old free agent. Conversely, players who have fallen out of favor in the NHL are even going to play in European leagues with the intention of generating interest for a possible return. Which players can we expect to see out of the NHL this season (including rookies demoted to the AHL/junior) and which players will eventually return to the NHL, perhaps as early as next season?
15 Won't Last: Vadim Shipachyov
Let's get the obvious out of the way first since it's all but settled that Russian winger Vadim Shipachyov is "retiring" from the NHL to go back to Russia and sign with a KHL team. Give credit to the 30 year old; he has spent his entire career in Russia where he was one of the league's most prolific scorers (he had a career-high 76 points in 50 games last season), but wanted a new challenge playing with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
Shipachyov signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the team, but lasted only three games before leaving for Russia. Whether it was a case of being home sick or the fact he was grossly misused by the Golden Knights, who all but promised him top-six minutes given the contract they gave him combined with the opportunity he was giving up, it's a shame to see such a talented player leave the NHL so soon.
14 Return: Linden Vey
A fourth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Linden Vey is a right winger who recorded 116 points in 69 games in his final season of junior hockey with the Western Hockey League's (WHL) Medicine Hat Tigers. His offensive ability carried over to the AHL, where he recorded at least 43 points in three seasons with the Kings' affiliate in Manchester, including 48 points in only 43 games during the 2013-14 season. He recorded five points in 18 games with the Kings that season, but was later dealt to the Vancouver Canucks.
Vey recorded 24 points the following season with Vancouver, but found himself out of the league within two years. He's still only 26 years old and is proving himself worthy of another opportunity with Astana Barys of the KHL, where he has a league-leading 42 points in 31 games playing alongside two other Canadians who are featured on this list.
13 Won't Last: Kailer Yamamoto
This has already come to fruition as of writing this entry, but it's an obvious one that everybody in the hockey world saw coming. The Edmonton Oilers were the popular pick to win the Stanley Cup prior to this season given the team's impressive season last year and the fact they had Connor McDavid, who many view as the best player in the game. However, what people failed to notice was that the Oilers have a terrible offense outside of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who is struggling to start this season.
The team thought recent first-round pick Kailer Yamamoto could make an impact playing top-six minutes, but the diminutive winger struggled to find his footing in the NHL. He played only nine games with the Oilers before being sent back to Spokane of the WHL.
12 Return: Wojtek Wolski
Here's a player you may have forgotten about or, at the very least, assumed hadn't played hockey anymore. That's far from the case. In fact, Wojtek Wolski is currently in his fifth season in the KHL and is having his most productive campaign to date. The 31 year old former first round pick of the Colorado Avalanche has 25 points in 25 games for the Kunlun Red Star, the league's first team based in China.
Naturally, Wolski might be looking to get out of China and back into the NHL if the opportunity presents itself. It should help his case if he earns a roster spot on the Canadian Olympic team due to the NHL not sending players for this year's tournament. It's up to him if he uses that opportunity to showcase he can still produce against elite competition.
11 Won't Last: Victor Mete
Montreal Canadiens Victor Mete is already past the nine games mark, which means he can't be sent back down to junior without burning a year off of his restricted free agent status eligibility. The Canadiens were impressed with the 19 year old's puck-moving skills through training camp and early into the season, but they should wise up to the fact that he's clearly not ready to play regular minutes in the NHL.
An offensive defenseman in junior, he has only two assists through 15 games and has a minus-five rating. Beyond that, he has looked out of place more often than not. It would be best for his development to send him back to junior and, if they were smart, the Canadiens would loan him to Hockey Canada for its World Junior Hockey Championship roster.
10 Return: Darren Dietz
Keeping with the Montreal Canadiens, we come to defenseman Darren Dietz who, with some foresight on the Canadiens part, could have been playing for the team this year instead of Mete. A fifth-round pick of Montreal in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the Canadiens let Dietz develop in the minors for three seasons before giving him a 13-game stint to close out the 2015-16 season. The Medicine Hat, Alberta native had five points in those games and looked capable of holding his own on the third defensive pair.
For whatever reason, the team didn't sign him after the season and he spent the year between the Hershey Bears and Texas Stars of the AHL. The 24 year old opted to showcase his skills in a more prominent role with Astana Barys of the KHL this season and is currently among the league's top scoring defensemen with 18 points in 20 games. Teams are always looking for answers on defense so it wouldn't be surprising if Dietz's stay in Russia is short-lived.
9 Won't Last: Matt Cullen
Matt Cullen was a great story last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins; the 40 year old played in 72 regular season games and recorded 31 points, while adding nine points in 25 playoff games. Despite his advanced age, his skating ability not only kept him in the league, but earned him a contract offer from the Minnesota Wild, a team he previously played with for three seasons.
He hasn't looked awful through his first 12 games with the Wild, but he turned 41 years old in November and is clearly nearing retirement. This should be his last season, but the question is whether or not he will make it until the end of the year. After winning a Stanley Cup last season, Cullen has little to play for, while the Wild won't hesitate to send him to the minors or grant him a release if he isn't performing.
8 Return: Joni Ortio
Given how valuable the backup goaltender position has become in the NHL, it's surprising that Joni Ortio ever left the league to begin with. Back in 2015-16, the Finnish netminder played 22 games with the Calgary Flames and recorded a 2.76 goals against average (GAA) to go along with a .902 save percentage. Those aren't great numbers, but the Flames were a train wreck that season; Jonas Hiller, for instance, had a 3.51 GAA and .879 save percentage in 26 games.
Ortio, who was 24 years old at the time, wasn't offered a contract in the offseason and went to play for Skelleftea AIK in Sweden, where he posted a 26-15 record to go along with an impressive 2.20 GAA and .918 save percentage. If early season numbers are any indication, he's even better this year, with a 2.01 GAA and .926 save percentage. Ironically enough, the Flames could use him this year as a backup to Mike Smith.
7 Won't Last: Jason Chimera
Much like Matt Cullen, Jason Chimera is an aging veteran who fans have expected to be out of the league in each of the past few seasons, but continues to stick around. He should have been gone after a seven-goal season with the Washington Capitals in 2014-15, but he responded with back-to-back 20 goal seasons. This year, Chimera is in the final year of a two-year contract with the New York Islanders, and has only two assists through 14 games.
He's regularly featured on the penalty kill, so it's not as though a drop in scoring is all that could end Chimera's career, but the Islanders have shifted toward using younger players this season and Chimera could be a casualty of that strategy. Regardless of what happened, he was able to play in over 1,000 games.
6 Return: Magnus Hellberg
Magnus Hellberg has played in only three NHL games, so it might seem a bit ridiculous to call him an NHL star who could soon return to the league, but his play is worthy of attention. A once highly-touted prospect, Hellberg was selected by the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, but wasn't given much of an opportunity beyond the AHL with the franchise. He struggled with the New York Rangers' minor league affiliate last season, but looked great in his lone NHL start, posting a win, while allowing only two goals on 28 shots.
His overall resume wasn't good enough to warrant him being re-signed by the Rangers, but that might have been a blessing in disguise. As the starting goalie for Kunlun Red Star of the KHL, Hellberg has an 11-9-3 record to go along with a 2.04 GAA and .932 save percentage, both of which are among the best in the league.
5 Won't Last: Pierre-Luc Dubois
Most people in the hockey world thought it was strange when the Blue Jackets drafted Pierre-Luc Dubois over Jesse Puljujarvi with the third overall pick in 2016. And while Puljujarvi has yet to prove anything beyond the AHL level to this point, Dubois is already looking like a bust, or, at the very least, is failing to meet expectations - it doesn't help that the previous two picks in the draft were Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews.
Dubois was thought a candidate to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp last year, but instead was returned to junior and posted 55 points in 48 games, which is actually quite uninspiring for a third overall pick. He made Columbus this season, but has only three points in 14 games for the surging Blue Jackets. It wouldn't be a shock if he was returned to junior once again.
4 Return: Nigel Dawes
A fifth-round pick of the New York Rangers in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Nigel Dawes was one of the better players on the dominant Canadian World Junior team that cruised to gold in Grand Forks, North Dakota, despite playing on a star-studded team that included Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Jeff Carter, among others. Despite that, his talent didn't translate at the NHL level (although he did once put up 32 points in 66 games with the Calgary Flames), and he instead spent most of his time in the AHL, where he was a point-per-game player.
Dawes joined Astana Barys of the KHL in 2011-12 and had back-to-back seasons of 30-plus points, proving himself a decent second-line player in the league. However, his scoring touch has improved in recent years, culminating in a career-high 62-point season in 2016-17. Through 27 games this season, the 32 year old has a league-leading 40 points. If there's ever an opportunity to return to the NHL, it's next year.
3 Won't Last: Roberto Luongo
This one will be tough when it happens because Roberto Luongo is one of the league's best personalities and has consistently been one of its best goaltenders for well over a decade. However, the former fourth overall pick is now 38 years old and off to one of the worst starts of his career with the Florida Panthers. This is coming on the heels of a 2016-17 campaign in which he recorded a 2.68 GAA, which was his worst since 2005-06.
Through five games this year, Luongo has a brutal 3.83 GAA to go along with a .901 save percentage. Florida's other goaltenders haven't been any better, so he should get every chance to turn things around, but it seems unlikely. He missed an extended period due to injury already, and it could be the case that his body is finally breaking down. The Panthers don't appear to be contenders this season so it would make sense for Luongo to finally coast off into the sunset.
2 Return: Ilya Kovalchuk
This one is all but determined already. Ilya Kovalchuk was destined to come back to the NHL for the 2017-18 season and rumors suggested the New Jersey Devils, who owned his rights, might deal him to another team if the deal was right. However, the deal never happened and Kovalchuk's camp ended up stating that he preferred to stay in Russia for one more year so he could play in the Olympics. He's free next season to sign with whichever team he wishes as he will be an unrestricted free agent.
The former first overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers has spent the past five seasons in the KHL with St. Petersburg SKA. He has 36 points through 30 games this season and is still an offensive force despite turning 34 years old last April.
1 Won't Last: Jaromir Jagr
If Luongo isn't the best personality in the league, it's Jaromir Jagr, the 45 year old winger who has played in a remarkable 1,716 games and posted 1,916 points. He's one of the league's all-time best players and has the numbers - and accolades - to back it up. The five-time Art Ross Trophy winner was productive in the past two seasons with the Florida Panthers, but was without a contract days before the start of the 2017-18 regular season.
The Calgary Flames finally gave Jagr a low-risk contract, but he even admitted upon signing that he has plenty of catching up to do. Given his lack of foot speed was a concern for the Panthers, it seems unlikely he will fit in with the Flames' fast-paced offense. He has only two points through five games and has been a healthy scratch at times.
Leave A Comment
Looking for an AD FREE EXPERIENCE on TheSportster?Get Your Free Access Now!