As the 2018 Winter Olympic games quickly approach, we are reminded over and over that National Hockey League players are not attending. This will be the first time it has happened in over 20 years, and the game has changed a lot since then. Besides the many rules and stylistic changes, the off-ice element has changed tremendously.
Due to the implementation of the salary cap, teams have made major changes to the way they scout and develop players. With new scouting strategies, a tournament consisting entirely of players that are not under NHL contract should be a highly viewed event by NHL scouts. Below is a list of players that fans and scouts should keep an eye on during Olympic hockey.
Without any NHLers to compare them to, it will be tough to determine if a player is NHL caliber from just Olympic hockey. In order to get a rough idea, comparing players to someone familiar, or with more data can be a useful evaluation tool. Since Team Canada has announced their Olympic roster, we now have some familiar faces to set a baseline.
Derek Roy is a good baseline for that reason. In the past 5 seasons he’s played in the NHL, Swiss National League (NLA), Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Kontinetal Hockey League (KHL), and now he’s off to represent Canada at the Olympics. During his NHL career, Roy averaged 0.71 points per game, but after he turned 30 he declined to roughly 0.475 p/g in the NHL. Using Ian Tulloch’s Willson method NHLe formula, we can see how he transitioned to European leagues.
Although this is the opposite of the intended purpose for NHL equivalency (NHLe), we can see that Roy’s numbers naturally trended down with age. Following a 0.44 p/g season with Nashville and Edmonton in 2014-15, Roy joined SC Bern of the NLA, where he posted the NHL equivalent of 0.36 p/g.
In 2016-17 Roy moved to the KHL, where he collected an NHLe of 0.29, where he once again followed a typical age curve with a slight decline in point production. In 2017-18, Roy signed with Linkoping HC of the SHL, where he saw a jump in production to 0.53 p/g NHLe.
Part of this can be attributed to playing with very strong linemates, the Olimb brothers. In general, any player that outperforms Derek Roy at the Olympics should be considered NHL calibre. There are obvious exceptions, but Roy is a great baseline.
Olympic Athletes from Russia
Three players to keep an eye on for team OAR are Nikita Gusev, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Artyom Zub. Gusev is technically a Vegas Golden Knights prospect, however his KHL contract expires 1 year before he becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent, should be making far too much in the KHL to be lured across the pond by an Entry Level Contract. Gusev would likely come to the NHL in 2020, if at all. Regardless, he will be one of the top players in the tournament – his 1.17 p/g in the KHL blows Roy’s 0.40 in 2016-17 out of the water.
Kovalchuk is a known entity, the only question mark is how well he has aged. While he isn’t the lethal, high-level NHL talent that he used to be, his numbers in the KHL show no real signs of slowing down. This offseason he will be bound to 35+ contracts, and after his fiasco with the New Jersey Devils he will likely only receive 1 year contract offers. Regardless, he will be sought after if he has any ambition to return to North America. Kovalchuk’s 1.19 KHL p/g is also way ahead of Roy.
Zub is a defensive defenseman, so his NHLe numbers are not very impressive. What is impressive, is his inclusion on a strong Russian roster at just 22 years old. In 2014, Zub’s first year eligible for the draft, the preliminary draft rankings had him in the same class as Andreas Englund, Pierre Engvall, Gustav Forsling, Axel Holmstrom, ans Christian Jaros. The 6’2″ Right handed defenceman’s KHL contract ends in 2020, so this is just a chance to see a player that will be available down the line. There will be much interest in a 24 year old elite KHL defenceman.
Rasmus Dahlin needs no introduction, and it will take a lot more than Mono for him to pull on a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater. This Olympics won’t sway his draft ranking whatsoever – just the fact that he’s 17 years old and playing on a strong Swedish Olympic team should be more than enough information. He’s also the youngest player at the tournament by 3 years. Scouts are not going to watch him to determine if he’s worth drafting, but just for the pleasure of seeing all the things they look for in a player, all in one. He’ll be a player to watch for far more than just the Olympics.
Instead, a player to keep a closer eye on might be former Leaf Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg is one year removed from a respectable NHL season with Carolina and Ottawa, where he proved he can be a serviceable 4th line center. Since then he’s put up 47 points in 41 games in the NLA. The timing of his departure makes me question if the Olympics was a big draw of playing in Europe. Regardless, Stalberg’s 1.15 P/G in the NLA is much better than Roy’s in 2015-16.
A couple players on this list have played in the NLA, but Pius Suter is the only Swiss National. At just 21 years of age, Suter is in his 3rd year of professional play in the NLA, and one of the best Swiss players in the world. In 14-15 Suter spent a season in the OHL, posting 72 points in 61 games for Guelph. To give some perspective, Josh Leivo scored 73 points in 63 games in the OHL, at the same age as Suter. Suter’s 1.10 p/g in the NLA is very close to Stalberg, and once again ahead of Roy. If Suter was 6’0″ he would be getting many more looks.
Other Olympic Athletes
Aside from players on traditionally strong international teams, there are few major standouts. However, there are two young players who were surprising names on the final rosters. Slovakia’s Matej Paulovic and Germany’s Dominik Kahun are the two to keep an eye on during the games that won’t be in the spotlight. Paulovic was brought to North America after he was drafted by Dallas in the 5th round in 2013. After a rocky start in the OHL, the 6’3″ left winger found his place in the USHL. Paulovic hovered around a point per game average, until he returned to Slovakia in 16-17. In his most recent season with HK Nitra, Paulovic is just under a point per game, with 45 points in 46 games.
Since NHLe data doesn’t exist for the Slovakian league, another comparison might provide some insight. Paulovic is the Slovakian league’s second leading scorer, and the leader is his linemate, so it’s tough to judge. Luckily, a familiar face is doing fairly well in the league. Eric Faille was signed to an AHL contract by the Toronto Marlies for 2016-17, but ended up playing for their ECHL affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears. Without the help of NHLe there’s a lot of fudging the numbers, but Paulovic outscored Faille in Slovakia by 1.13x. The year previous, when he was 27, Faille scored 70 points in 57 ECHL games.
All things equal, Paulovic would have scored over a point per game in the ECHL this year, something guys like Mason Marchment and Martins Dzierkals are both yet to achieve with the Solar Bears. Paulovic is a bit older, but it would be reasonable to expect him to score 0.5 p/g in the AHL right now. If we are to consider the cross-league, cross-player analysis as valid, Paulovic would be on a tier with names like Kerby Rychel, JJ Piccinich, Martins Dzierkals, and Mason Marchment in a statistical analysis of the entire Maple Leafs organization from 2016. Combine this statistical analysis with the fact that scouts for the Dallas Stars and Slovakian Olympic team considered him worthy, and Paulovic may be worth bringing to North America once again.
In Kahun’s Draft minus one and draft year, he produced roughly 0.7 p/g with Sudbury of the OHL. Kahun returned to Germany to play in the DEL following his unsuccessful draft year. Now 22, he’s also flirting with point per game in DEL with 40 in 41. To assess Kahun we go to an older model of NHLe, which has the translation factor of the DEL at 0.52. His NHLe is 0.507 p/g, however this is likely not accurate, as it has a very small sample size of players who went directly from the DEL to NHL.
A solution is to directly compare Kahun to his competition. He sits 5th in p/g (min 10 games played) in the DEL, surrounded by NHL/AHL tweeners such as Marcel Muller, Chad Kolarik, Will Acton, and Jeremy Williams. Not a very impressive list, yet for a 22 year old it’s very promising. Kahun has not only shown that he can play with professional competition, but excel to the top. His small frame isn’t ideal for the North American ice, but the Olympics will provide him a great opportunity to showcase himself, especially if he can play big minutes on a thin German Olympic squad.
Most likely NHLers
There’s three tiers of likelihood to come to the NHL in the next couple years. The first contains Dahlin, Kovalchuk, and Stalberg. A sure first overall pick, Dahlin is a lock to be in the NHL for 2018-19. He is his own player, but you can see flashes of what make Karlsson, Hedman, and Lidstrom great in his game. He may not be as great as them, but expect him to be one of the best defensemen in the NHL not long from now.
Kovalchuk is still a top 6 player on any NHL team, it’s a question of how willing he is to come to North America on a one year contract. Stalberg would be a good depth or 4th line forward, but he is still under contract for next season in the NLA. He could still sign with an NHL team at any point due to the transfer agreement, the lack of which prevents KHL players like Zub from doing the same.
Less likely NHLers
Following that is Suter, Paulovic, and Kahun. If any of the three showed interest in coming over there would be plenty of AHL offers, it’s a question of whether or not there are offers of the 2 year ELC they are all bound to. Paulovic and Kahun both have expiring contracts in their respective leagues, and as draft related free agents they are free to sign anywhere. Suter, just like Stalberg, has another year on his NLA contract, but could come over at any time. All three would start in the AHL, but their ability to rise to the top of their native leagues is evidence they could do the same to the AHL.
The Olympics will give all of them a chance to showcase what type of player they are, and watching them will give all of us a better idea of how ready they are than numbers alone can.
The most unlikely to come over are both Olympic Athletes from Russia, Gusev and Zub. Gusev is the most desirable by far, with better numbers than Panarin when he came over. To the disappointment of many, Gusev’s KHL contract goes until 2019, so even if Gusev is willing to play in the NHL it won’t be for a while. Artyom Zub’s contract runs until 2020. It may be a better situation for Zub, who gets to marinate in the KHL, and be eligible for a 1 year ELC just like Nikita Zaitsev two years ago.
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