Most players leave the NHL via retirement, while others elect to finish out their careers overseas. Numerous players, from Jochen Hecht to Michael Nylander, have ended their professional careers in Europe. For them, the NHL had passed them by, and they opted to wind down their careers overseas rather than abruptly stop playing hockey after leaving the NHL.
On the other hand, there have been a handful of NHL players who bolted for Europe before they should have. These players might have had some NHL potential left, but went overseas to play hockey at a lower level. Whether a team wouldn't sign these players, or whether they simply chose to play overseas, there are plenty of players who could have (and should have) stuck around the NHL for longer than they did. Pavel Datsyuk is a recent example of a player who went overseas recently, but he was a declining player in the NHL and ultimately, wanted a chance to play hockey under less pressure back home. Better to leave a little too early than too late, right?
This list looks at some of those players. Obviously, we are leaving out the lockout season of 2004-05 and the start of 2012-13, since no NHL hockey games were scheduled at those times.
15 Nik Antropov
Say what you want about Antropov's enigmatic personality and inconsistent on-ice play, but the towering Kazakh winger had noticeable NHL skill. Toronto took him with the 10th overall pick back in 1998, and by the time the lockout ended in 2005, he had established himself as a consistent offensive contributor for the Leafs. He registered three straight 25-plus goal seasons from 2007-2010 while playing for the Leafs, Rangers, and Thrashers.
In 2013, the 6-foot-6 forward left for the KHL after less than two seasons in Winnipeg. Granted, he didn’t light it up in Winnipeg, netting 21 goals and 53 points in 109 games as a Jet. So, perhaps a move to the KHL was warranted. Antropov played two seasons for Barys Astana of the KHL.
However, Antropov’s hulking frame made him an imposing net-front presence and another NHL team could’ve taken him on for cheap, especially after he expressed interest in returning to the NHL in 2015. Unfortunately, no team reciprocated interest, and Antropov retired that year.
14 Nikita Tryamkin
Tryamkin emerged as a promising young defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks this past season. He excelled as part of the team’s top six core after Erik Gudbranson underwent season-ending surgery in December. He may not have put up incredible numbers (two goals and nine points in 66 games), but he earned the least playing time of any of the team’s top-six defensemen.
He expressed dissatisfaction with his lack of playing time, which averaged 16:44 per game this season. He became a restricted free agent in April 2017, and signed with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg of the KHL. The Canucks never should have let the 22-year-old defenseman go. The 6-foot-7 Tryamkin brought snarl to the Canucks ‘ blueline that the team will miss going forward.
“He has a chance to be an impact player in the NHL and we offered him a two-year extension,” team general manager Jim Benning said at the time. “But for now he is home and we will move ahead with building this team with other young players.”
13 Nikolai Zherdev
Nikolai Zherdev arrived in the NHL as the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft. He enjoyed an encouraging, yet inconsistent start to his NHL career with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After two 25-plus goal seasons in Columbus, the Jackets traded Zherdev to the New York Rangers before the 2008-2009 season. He tied for the team lead in points that year with 58, proving he could succeed in one of the largest hockey markets.
However, he left for the KHL the following season. He returned to the NHL in 2010-11, scoring 16 goals and 22 points in 56 games for the Philadelphia Flyers. He returned to the KHL at season's end, where he still plays today.
It doesn't seem that Zherdev, at 33, still has interest in returning to the NHL. Yet, he left the league at too young of an age and perhaps could've stayed in the NHL for another couple of seasons through his prime years.
12 Cristobal Huet
Cristobal Huet was in his mid-30s by the time the Chicago Blackhawks loaned him to the Swiss National League in 2010. Antti Niemi began to emerge as Chicago’s number-one goaltender, and the team prepared to move on without Huet. The French netminder seemed to have a few more quality years left in the NHL though. His 26-win season for Chicago marked a career-high. He won 129 games with 24 shutouts in eight NHL seasons overall.
Huet won 28 games in 39 starts in his second season for Fribourg-Gotteron in the Swiss League. The following season, he signed with Swiss club Lausanne HC, where he led the team to a league title.
At 41, Huet’s chances of an NHL comeback are likely over, but his stats in Europe prove he had the goods to be a quality backup for an NHL team for at least another two-three seasons. He said as much in 2012, when he tried for another go-around in the NHL.
“I still belong,” Huet told InGoal Magazine at the time. “I’m better than some other guys, and I’d like another shot.” Unfortunately, Huet never got that chance.
11 Steven Reinprecht
Reinprecht spent his roughly 12-year NHL career split between the Avalanche, the Flames, the Coyotes, and the Panthers. While Reinprecht only topped 20 goals once in his career, he served an important role as a hard-skating, penalty-killing depth forward. He enjoyed his best production during his years with the Colorado Avalanche, but by the 2010-2011 season, his production had noticeably declined, and the Florida Panthers demoted him to the AHL.
Reinprecht signed with the Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers in the German DEL in 2012. He proved he still had the skill to play professional hockey. In 2013-2014, Reinprecht ranked second in the DEL in points, and led the league in points during the 2014-15 season. He ranked second in points once again in 2015-16.
Yes, the competition in the DEL is nowhere near that in the NHL, but Reinprecht's success in Europe arguably proves that his exit from the NHL was premature. Perhaps he could've played another season or two, with quality linemates who would’ve boosted his point totals.
10 Alexander Burmistrov
Burmistrov is part of the Coyotes’ young offensive core along with Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Clayton Keller, and Christian Dvorak. The 25-year-old may have scored just five goals last season, but with consistent linemates and some motivation, Burmistrov can turn into the offensive star the Atlanta Thrashers thought they were getting when they selected him eighth overall in 2010.
Burmistrov initially left for the KHL after a 2012-13 season spent clashing with then-Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel. Burmistrov spent the following two seasons playing for Ak Bars Kazan scoring 64 points in 107 games. He returned to Winnipeg for the 2015-16 season, but put up a lackluster seven goals and 21 points in 81 games.
The Coyotes picked Burmistrov up on waivers last February, where he scored five goals and 14 points in his final 26 games of the season. If Burmistrov can continue that inspired play, he will prove that he never should have left for the KHL.
9 Wojtek Wolski
Wojtek Wolski suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injury early last season while playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL. Despite the tragic turn of events, Wolski is expected to make a full recovery. At that point, Wolski had 10 points in 19 games, and was a consistent contributor for Metallurg. He was a KHL All-Star in 2015.
He may not have played up to the expectations cast upon him when the Avalanche took him in the first round of the 2004 draft, but he still provided offense throughout his NHL career. He excelled in Colorado, scoring 73 goals and 193 points in his first 302 career games. He bounced around the league between the Coyotes, Rangers, Panthers, and Capitals before signing in the KHL in 2013. He was just 27 years old. He scored 267 points in 451 NHL games.
Wolski proved (with his KHL success) that he still had the goods to crack an NHL roster. However, his inconsistent play in the NHL had discouraged teams from taking another chance on him.
8 Derek Roy
Roy spent the best years of his career with the Buffalo Sabres. Roy established himself as a top center in the league in his eight seasons with the team. He scored 427 points in 549 games as a Sabre before a July 2012 trade to the Dallas Stars.
Roy never topped 40 points again in his NHL career. He bounced between the Stars, Canucks, Blues, Predators, and Oilers before trying out for the Washington Capitals before the 2015-16 season.
Roy signed with SC Bern in the Swiss National League A after the Capitals cut him at the end of the preseason. He recaptured some of his earlier glory while in Switzerland, scoring 30 points in 36 games with SC Bern. He also added 12 points in 13 playoff games as he led his team to the NLA title in 2016. Roy spent the 2016-17 season split between Avangard Omsk and Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL. He notched 11 goals and 22 points in 55 games.
7 Ruslan Fedotenko
Ruslan Fedotenko didn’t enter the NHL with much fanfare. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as an undrafted 20-year-old free agent in 1999. He never put up all-star numbers, but forged a productive 16-year run in the NHL.
From his two goals for the Lightning in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final to his 14 points during the Penguins’ run to the 2009 championship, Fedotenko established himself as a clutch playoff performer.
Excellent penalty killing and a knack for scoring big goals bolstered his role as a third/fourth-line defensive forward. Fedotenko posted four goals and thirteen points in 47 games with the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2012-13 season. At age 34, Fedotenko chose to sign in the KHL the following season, hoping to build the brand of hockey in his native Ukraine. He returned to the NHL in 2015 on a tryout basis with the Minnesota Wild, but spent the 2015-16 season with their AHL affiliate.
Fedotenko should’ve been given another chance as a depth forward on an NHL team during that 2013-14 season. Nonetheless, his quest to spread hockey’s popularity in Ukraine was a worthy, noble undertaking.
6 Miroslav Satan
Miroslav Satan retired from professional hockey in 2014 after five seasons playing in the Slovak Extraliga (SVK) and the KHL. He was one of the most successful Slovak players in NHL history, scoring over 360 goals and 730 points.
By the 2009-10 season, the two-time All Star's production had slowed. He played 38 regular season games for the Boston Bruins, scoring just nine goals and 14 points. However, Satan upped his game in the playoffs that year, notching 10 points in 13 playoff games.
He left for Europe the following season, scoring 19 points in 16 games split between the SVK and KHL. Satan spent the final three seasons of his professional career playing for Slovan Bratislava in the SVK. He scored 39 goals and 76 points in 93 games during that span.
Satan still had the skills to play in the NHL, but instead elected to go overseas. Those final seasons weren't the only ones he played in Europe. He registered more than a point-per-game playing in Slovakia at the end of the 1999-00 season and at the end of the 2003-04 season.
5 Maxim Afinogenov
The speedy Buffalo Sabres forward battled numerous injuries throughout his nine NHL seasons, but still put up a respectable 158 goals and 395 points in 651 career games. He scored 61 points in his last NHL season for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Afinogenov clearly had more left in the tank when he chose to leave for the KHL in 2010. He was just 31 years old, but spent the final six seasons of his professional career playing in the KHL.
He scored 134 points in 263 games to finish out his playing career. He also appeared in the 2014 KHL All-Star game and won the fastest skater competition.
Clearly, Afinogenov’s exit from the NHL came a bit too soon. There are definitely teams who could have taken him to add some scoring depth.
4 Slava Kozlov
Kozlov played almost 1,200 NHL games over a lengthy career that included two Stanley Cup championships and over 850 points. While his best years were spent with the Detroit Red Wings, Kozlov found a second wind with the Atlanta Thrashers in the mid-to-late 2000’s. He was especially lethal in the shootout, where he made 58.7 percent of his attempts (27 of 46).
The Thrashers opted not to re-sign Kozlov at the end of the 2009-2010 season, so the veteran Russian winger moved on to the KHL. He won two Gagarin Cups in four seasons in the KHL before retiring after the 2014-2015 season.
Kozlov hung up his skates at the age of 42, and enjoyed a fruitful NHL career. Playing in the KHL was, in many ways, a perfect end to his career. Yet, he was going strong for Atlanta when he left the league. Perhaps he could’ve served as a depth forward/shootout specialist on a young team for another season or two.
3 Alexander Radulov
The Canadiens shocked the hockey world when they traded Shea Weber to the Nashville Predators for P.K. Subban during the summer of 2016. That wasn't the only surprising move the team made that offseason. They signed Alex Radulov to a one-year, $5.75 million deal, bringing the enigmatic Russian winger back to the NHL after several seasons in the KHL.
Radulov originally signed a three-year deal with Russian club Salavat Yulaev Ufa in 2008 after one season with the Nashville Predators. Radulov starred for his new team, winning the KHL regular season MVP award for the 2009-2010 season. He led the KHL in scoring in his final year with Salavat in 2011-2012. Radulov briefly returned to the Predators for the end of the 2011-2012 season, but soon headed back to Russia. This time, he signed with CSKA Moscow. He spent four years with the team, scoring 78 goals and 238 points during that span.
He returned to the NHL with the Canadiens, and became one of the team's most reliable forwards. Radulov posted 18 goals and 54 points in 76 regular season games, and added seven points in six playoff games. The Rangers ousted the Canadiens in the first round, but Radulov proved his worth in the NHL. His agent is currently in touch with team management on a possible extension.
Radulov's comeback season proved he belonged in the NHL all along. He was a star overseas, but showed he could carry that stardom to North America.
2 Ilya Kovalchuk
Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't played in the NHL since 2013, but that may soon change. The high-scoring Russian winger is reportedly eyeing a return to the NHL, according to Sportsnet's Elliott's Friedman.
Most hockey fans know the controversial terms in which Kovalchuk left the New Jersey Devils in 2013. He played his final NHL years with the Devils after a long tenure with the Atlanta Thrashers.
He signed massive 15-year, $100 million deal with New Jersey in 2010. He scored 89 goals and 201 points in 222 games as a Devil before announcing his retirement from the NHL and signing four-year deal with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL.
Kovalchuk's KHL contract ended after this season, and at 34 years old, he might make an NHL comeback. He scored 78 points in 60 games for St. Petersburg last season, and should still have plenty left to offer an NHL team.
It will be interesting to see whether the All-Star scorer returns to North America in the near future
1 Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr recently surpassed Mark Messier for second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. Many NHL fans wonder how much higher Jagr’s point totals could have been if he had not spent three seasons in the KHL from 2008-2011.
Jagr signed with Avangard Omsk after his contract with the New York Rangers came to an end in 2008. He was a near point-per-game player for the team, putting up 66 goals and 145 points in 155 games. He returned to the NHL in 2011 with the Philadelphia Flyers and scored 54 points. Jagr proved to be an ageless wonder, scoring 27 goals and 66 points in his first season with the Florida Panthers in 2015-16 at age 44. He is currently in talks with Panthers’ management on a possible extension.
Given Jagr’s impressive production into his forties, it makes one wonder how much he would’ve strengthened his stats had he stayed in the NHL from 2008-2011.