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
14 Sean Bergenheim
13 Sergei Kostitsyn
12 Andrei Kostitsyn
11 Ryan Wilson
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.
9 Evgeny Dadonov
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.
7 Alexander Salak
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.
5 Vladimir Sobotka
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.
3 Christian Ehrhoff
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.
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.
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