It’s probably fair to say that right now the NHL has the strongest competition since the World Hockey Association folded. (Okay, technically, it merged with the NHL.) The NHL is still inarguably the strongest league in the world, both in terms of revenue and talent. However, the Kontinental Hockey League has proven an attractive destination to some of the notoriously mercurial Russian stars who occasionally become disaffected with life in North America. Not only is the KHL scooping up the odd NHL star, they also have players such as Anatoly Golyshev and Sergei Mozyakin who, while clearly talented to enough to ply their trade in the NHL, have yet to venture over. And apart from the KHL, the Swiss National League A, the Deutsche Extra Liga, and the Swedish Elite League all boast a host of skilled players as well.
Given the massive amounts of love sent Jaromir Jagr’s way in the years since he’s come back to the NHL, we got to thinking about which other players playing overseas might do well to come back to the NHL. The somewhat surprising success Alexander Radulov has enjoyed also suggests that NHL teams might be looking more closely at possible players to bring back from Europe. (Or maybe even China, if Kunlun Red Star manage to grab a few good players and also continue to exist). With that in mind, here are the top 15 former NHL players who could thrive in the right environments back in the NHL.
15 Brandon Prust
The much loved enforcer is currently plying his trade with the fabulously named Nuremberg outfit, Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers, in the Deutsche Extra Liga. And he’s doing reasonably well there. Now, there’s been much talk in recent years about whether or not the enforcer still has any place in the NHL. It’s a tough question to answer. Prust’s own career trajectory would suggest the enforcer is a thing of the past. But if you remove Prust’s terrible time with the Canucks, his numbers aren’t that bad. Especially for a notoriously small team like the Canadiens, Prust’s 17-or-so points per year and big bodied presence added a significant amount to their lineup. And the fans loved him. Yes, his career is trending down and not up, but he could still do a job for a team looking to add some grit in the NHL.
14 Sean Bergenheim
Experienced at every level of hockey (and in almost every country), Sean Bergenheim could be a decent addition to an NHL team for the right price. The Finnish forward now plays in Sweden for Frolunda HC. Now, 180 points in 506 NHL career games is nothing to sneeze at, but Bergenheim’s career really tailed off in the 2014-15 season. He started out OK, but after a trade from Florida to Minnesota, Bergenheim’s numbers went off a cliff. He hasn’t been back in the NHL since, moving first to Switzerland and now Sweden. If he can figure out and address what went wrong in 2014-15, Bergenheim could well come back and succeed in North America. So far in Europe, he’s been showing he’s at least not finished yet.
13 Sergei Kostitsyn
Sergei Kostitsyn has been accused of a lot of things, but never of lacking in talent. At his best in the NHL, with the Nashville Predators, he was a top six forward. What he has been accused of is lacking discipline, acting unprofessionally, and, oh yeah, cavorting with Montreal gangsters. But besides all that, he can be a very talented hockey player. Sergei is currently playing in his Belarusian homeland with HC Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. So maybe he’s happy where he is. And, in truth, his KHL numbers haven’t been that great in recent years. But wouldn't it just be fun to have Sergei back in the NHL? Who knows what he’d get up to? Especially if he came back with this brother…
12 Andrei Kostitsyn
The elder Kostitsyn was more consistent in his NHL career than Sergei. Andrei had four consecutive seasons with thirty or more points. But, like Sergei, he was also caught up in that whole Montreal mobster business. And, like Sergei, Andrei was traded to Nashville, but didn’t fair as well there as his brother. The nadir of his time with the Preds came when he was caught drinking until dawn with Alexander Radulov. Andrei now plays in the KHL with HC Sochi. Now, would it be smart, necessarily, for a GM to bring over the Kostitsyn brothers and see what they get up to? Perhaps not. But how much would you love to see them reunited with Radulov in Montreal? The results on the ice might not be great, but we in the hockey writing community would absolutely love it when that cellphone footage of the three of them traipsing down Boulevard St. Laurent at 4:30 in the morning appears.
11 Ryan Wilson
With his piercing eyes, flowing locks of hair, and generally smoldering good looks, Ryan Wilson should come back to the NHL just to boost the handsomeness of your average trading card. Now playing for HC Lugano in Switzerland, Wilson enjoyed his greatest success with the Colorado Avalanche. A big defenceman with an offensive upside, Wilson showed a lot of promise as a young man. Sadly, his career became blighted by injuries until he just fell out of the league entirely. Those injuries followed him to Russia, but if he can stay healthy for long enough in Switzerland, NHL GMs would do well to come calling for him, because a healthy Ryan Wilson is definitely a player who is worth having on your roster. He’s reliable, experienced, and can even contribute upfront.
10 Jonas Hiller
Jonas Hiller hasn’t been gone for very long, so perhaps you don’t miss him yet. And it’s true, in his last year with the Flames he was less than stellar. But before that, his numbers were never bad. He never recorded a save percentage lower than .910 outside of that last year, and in his penultimate year in the NHL he helped the Flames to the playoffs with a 2.36 goals-against-average (GAA). He seems like too good a player to write off because of one bad season. Now back in his native Switzerland with EHC Biel, Hiller was something of a victim of a change in how NHL GMs viewed their goalies.
GMs today tend to favor younger, cheaper backups rather than expensive veterans, But if and when this trend should change, expect Hiller to get a second chance in the NHL.
9 Evgeny Dadonov
It’s not entirely clear why it didn’t work out for Evgeny Dadonov in the NHL. He was drafted 71st overall, and put up decent numbers in the American Hockey League (AHL) before being called up. His 20 points in 55 career games with the Florida Panthers isn’t great, but it’s by no means abysmal, especially not for a young player still finding his game. Nevertheless, Dadonov moved to the KHL in 2012 at the age of just 23. And he’s done well in the KHL, posting back-to-back 46 point seasons with SKA St. Petersburg. That was good enough to fuel rumors of a return to North America. As such, Dadonov is one of the likeliest players on this list to come back to the NHL.
8 Nigel Dawes
Nigel Dawes was considered a bit undersized for the NHL. But his 5’9 frame seems to be doing just swell in the KHL. Playing for Barys Astana, Dawes has been in Russia since the 2011-12 season, Dawes is exceptional in how long he’s been there for a Canadian. He’s been there so long, in fact, that he is now eligible to play for the Kazakh national team and has done so in the IIHF 2016 World Hockey Championship, after becoming a naturalized Kazakh citizen.
Given all that, Dawes wouldn’t come back to North America at the drop of a hat. A GM would have to give him some assurance of receiving a fair amount of playing time. But Dawes’s back-to-back 50 point seasons, and his filling out to a muscular 200 pounds, suggests he might be worth such a gamble.
7 Alexander Salak
After a mere two games in the NHL, the Florida Panthers wrote off Alexander Salak. Despite his decent play for the Rochester Americans in the AHL, Salak could not establish himself in North America, so we went off to the KHL in 2013. And that’s it right? Just another goalie who couldn’t make it in the NHL? Well, perhaps not. Now playing for Novosibirsk, Salak is unquestionably one of the best netminders in the KHL. Salak put up a .938 save percentage and a remarkable 1.89 GAA in 2014-15. And, at 6’3, Salak’s size alone should always get him a look in from NHL GMs. Despite his height, Salak is still athletic, and at 30 years old, he has matured into a veteran professional. The time is right for a move to the NHL.
6 Brandon Bochenski
Brandon Bochenski has been with Barys Astana for even longer than Nigel Dawes. The Minnesota native moved to Kazakhstan in 2010 and is now the captain of the KHL team. During his time in the KHL, the right winger has averaged over a point per game. Like Dawes (and teammate Dustin Boyd) Bochenski now has Kazakh citizenship and has played for Kazakhstan at the international level. Bochenski’s NHL career totals are less impressive than his KHL numbers, but they're not terrible: 68 points in 156 games.
Bochenski has fared so well in Kazakhstan that one can only assume that there’s been NHL interest. But clearly he’s comfortable there, so he’d have to get a good offer to encourage him to return. But a point per game rate might just be attractive enough for NHL GMs to make that offer.
5 Vladimir Sobotka
Vladimir Sobotka is a unique case on this list because he actually has an NHL contract; with St. Louis. His deal is a little complex because of salary arbitration, but the Blues still retain his NHL rights. A veteran two-way center, Sobotka now plays for Avangard Omsk in the KHL. The Czech forward had successful spells with both Boston and St. Louis, racking up 123 points in 381 games. Again, unlike most players on this list, Sobotka’s last NHL season was actually his best, notching 33 points in 61 games. Not bad for a solidly defensive center. If not for the salary arbitration, Sobotka might still be in North America. Clear up his contractual issues, and Sobotka could be a great get for an NHL team.
4 David Booth
David Booth’s career story is not exactly a happy one. A talented and valuable player at the beginning of his NHL career, Booth has never quite been the same since an October 2009 shoulder-to-head hit from Mike Richards (a player who is not currently playing in the NHL nor anywhere else). Booth still showed good promise since then, but he was never able to maintain it and gradually produced less and less. A mere 13 points in 59 games in 2014-15 was enough to kill any interest from NHL GMs. But to be fair, that season Booth played with an awful Toronto Maple Leafs team, so he didn’t have much help.
He has put up decent numbers in the KHL, also with Avangard Omsk, but has still struggled with injuries. This is partially a case of wishful thinking, as Booth deserves to beat these injury problems and we hope he can get back on track with his career.
3 Christian Ehrhoff
After Team Europe’s run to the finals of the World Cup of Hockey this past autumn, the New York Islanders were so impressed with the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak that they signed him to a contract. Now, they’re probably wishing they had signed Christian Ehrhoff instead. While the German didn’t stand out in quite the same way as Halak, his solid play was a big part of Team Europe’s success. So it’s a bit perplexing that no NHL team signed him. Ehrhoff now plays in his homeland with Kölner Haie (Cologne Sharks). Objectively, 337 points in 789 career NHL games is a very good return for a dependable defenceman. Granted, Ehrhoff’s World Cup play was significantly better than his NHL play in recent years, but it shows that the 34-year-old has still got it. For the right deal, Ehrhoff could be a good asset to an NHL team.
2 Pavel Datsyuk
Be honest: don’t you already miss Pavel Datsyuk? Just a little bit? The Detroit Red Wings surely do. Is it any coincidence that their first year without the soft-spoken two-way center is the first year the Wings (almost certainly) miss the playoffs in over two decades? Well, it is partly a coincidence, but Datsyuk definitely would have helped. Datsyuk has always shunned the spotlight, so it was no big surprise when Datsyuk opted to return to his native Russia to wind down his playing career.
Now playing with SKA St. Petersburg, Datsyuk is presumably happy. But are we? At 918 career NHL points, Datsyuk is tantalizingly close to 1000. Wouldn’t it be great if he came back in a couple years to hit that mark? Only problem is, the Arizona Coyotes now own his NHL rights. And that’d just be weird.
1 Ilya Kovalchuk
Oh, Ilya Kovalchuk. What is your deal? Playing alongside the aforementioned Mozyakin and Datsyuk, Kovalchuk is lighting it up for SKA St. Petersburg. But he could be lighting it up for an NHL team. If he were in the mood to do so. Kovalchuk produces at a point-per-game pace in the KHL and is the league’s biggest star. So he’s got the talent. And he’s still only 33, so he’s got several good years in him. But there is the little matter of Kovalchuk’s gigantic, enormous contract that could make a move back to the NHL a little hairy.
When Kovalchuk retired from the NHL in 2013, he still had $77 million and 12 years remaining on his contract with the Devils. New Jersey probably wouldn’t want him back at that money. But hopefully somebody figures something out, because Kovalchuk is probably the best player not currently in the NHL. His 417 goals and 816 points in 816 career NHL games are both a testament to just how good he was and just how close he is to major milestones such as 1,000 points and 500 goals.