Meltzer's Musings: European FAs, New ECHL Affiliate
FIVE FREE-AGENT EUROPEAN CANDIDATES FOR THE NHL
Last year, the Philadelphia Flyers took a chance on Austrian forward Michael Raffl after scouting him at the IIHF World Championships. At age 23, Raffl had never played a game in a European major league but was a standout for Leksand in Sweden's Allsvenskan (top minor league) level as well as holding his own at the Worlds. The Flyers beat out the Nashville Predators for Raffl's services.
Raffl went on to have a solid rookie season in the NHL in 2013-14. Although he scored just nine goals and 22 points in 68 games, Raffl's combination of speed, two-way awareness and underrated grit made him a versatile forward. He also played some center on the fourth line as well as playing left wing on the first, third and fourth lines at various junctures.
Initially signed to a one-year contract by the Flyers, Raffl signed a two-year extension in late March. The deal will raise the 25-year-old forward's cap hit to $1.1 million. He received $792,500 this past season, including a $92,500 signing bonus.
Not every Flyers overseas free agent signing has worked out that well. For every Raffl or Sergei Bobrovsky, there have just as many overseas acquisitions that have failed to produce as hoped. That is, of course, to be expected.
Many of the failures have been older European players such as a 28-year-old forward Mika Pyörälä (who was at least sound defensively but failed to produce much of anything offensively once the regular season started). The Flyers acquired the rights to Jiri Dopita, then 32, via trade but his name can also be put into the discussion. Bringing free agent former NHL defenseman Michal Sykora back to the league after a one-year absence did not work particularly well for the 2000-01 Flyers.
One veteran acquisition that did work out well for a time was using a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 to select 29-year-old Czech goaltender Roman Cechmanek. The rules of the time required Europeans of any age to be selected in the NHL Draft.
This off-season, there could be a number of European free agents coming across the Atlantic to take a shot at the NHL. A few are familiar names who have had previous stints in the NHL, while others are players in their early-to-mid 20s who have been late bloomers overseas after slipping through the NHL Draft system.
Here are five such players:
Leo Komarov: The 27-year-old Estonian-born winger on the Finnish national team spent this season in the KHL with Dynamo Moscow after departing the Toronto Maple Leafs to take a KHL deal paying him in the neighborhood of $2 million. He is believed to be looking for a multi-year deal in the same annual financial range to return to the NHL.
That is a rather hefty price tag for a bottom-six forward but Komarov's combination of physicality, grit agitation and deceptive speed for a player with a 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame makes him an appealing role player. Some team will pay his open market price, whether it is Toronto or another club. Hockey-wise, he is a fit for the Flyers but the required cap hit could be tough to justify for a team that is tight to the cap ceiling.
Dennis Rasmussen: Primarily a center in Sweden for the Växjö Lakers, the soon-to-be 24-year-old Rasmussen is a versatile two-way forward who can also play wing. He brings good size (carrying about 210 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame) and protects the puck well. Rasmussen is not a speedster but his skating would not hinder him from playing in the NHL.
Although he has been an offensive player at the SHL level, he would be more likely to be a role player who contributes on the penalty kill in the NHL. Rasmussen played limited ice time for bronze medalist Sweden at the 2014 World Championships.
Nevertheless, several NHL teams are believed to be presenting the big Swede with contract offers. One team is the Flyers, who had two scouts at Växjö playoff games prior to the limited viewings at the Worlds. Another team is believed to be the Vancouver Canucks. Rasmussen also reportedly has a KHL offer on the table. He has one year remaining on his contract with Växjö but has until June 15 to exercise an out-clause, which he is expected to use to come to the NHL.
Rasmussen's Växjö linemate, former Flyers forward Tomi Kallio, told Hockey Sverige in March that he is "one hundred percent certain" Rasmussen will be playing in the NHL next season. It is also worth noting that Kallio and Flyers scout Antero Niittymäki are old friends and former teammates. While that by no means guarantees the player will come to Philadelphia, it does mean that there's a good chance the Philly staff got a bit of a head start on other NHL teams in doing some of the requisite homework on the prospect.
Christian Marti: The former Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL) defenseman went home to Switzerland this year and had a solid season in NLA for Genève-Servette HC. His name has popped up a few times as someone who may have slipped beneath the radar on the NHL Draft. Marti turned 21 in March.
The main intrigue point on the player is that he is both big (listed at either 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and about 210 pounds) and mobile. He also plays pretty physical style compared to the majority of Swiss-trained players, who tend to be very technical. There is some puck-moving upside to this player from the Blainville-Boisbriand streams I saw during his time in the Q.
The primary question mark on the player is the degree of his hockey sense versus his upside as he matures. Even in NLA, he had some ups and downs this season on a very good GSHC team. His coach, Chris McSorley, gained confidence in him as the season progressed.
For whatever it's worth, one of Marti's teammates on GSHC, forward Kevin Romy, is a former Flyers draft pick. More significant is the Blainville-Boisbriand connection, because the Flyers have a good pipeline to the talent there. Ian Laperriere is part owner of the team and his close friend, former NHL player Joel Bouchard, runs the show for the Armada. Bouchard was a Flyers development camp instructor in 2012 at Lappy's request.
Olli Palola: The undersized 26-year-old Finnish sniper reportedly wants to come to the NHL next season, and may be drawing some interest after notching four goals -- including a couple of key goals in the medal round -- at the World Championships.
Palola had a breakout SM-liiga season this year for Tappara Tampere. He led the league in goal-scoring with 27 goals during the regular season and then added three goals and 10 points in 20 playoff games as Tappara reached the finals.
Palola is good with the puck on his stick. He has a quick and accurate shot release and is good at hiding out from the defense and then emerging in scoring position. Although he's more of a finisher than a playmaker, he can also find an open teammate. Palola is average at best without the puck and sometimes struggles in tight-checking games.
I am not especially optimistic that Palola is a player who would have much success in cracking an NHL roster. First of all, he probably would have have to play to have a top-six role and power play time to have a spot and there are better options out there. Secondly, Palola fits the typical profile of the type of player who can have success in the European game but struggles to translate it to the North American pro game.
The quality of the SM-liiga has taken a significant hit in recent years. The KHL has put a significant drain on the talent pool in the Finnish league (which could continue to decline now that traditional SM-liiga power Jokerit Helsinki is departing the domestic league to join the KHL). Also, Sweden's SHL has also diverted away its share of talent from the Finnish league. As such, a player having a breakout year in the SM-liiga means less now that it might have in the late 1990s to mid-2000s.
For instance, a couple years ago, American forward Ryan Lasch went over to Finland and led the SM-liiga in scoring. The diminutive winger parlayed that into an NHL contract with the Anaheim Ducks. Not only was Lasch unable to get a sniff at the Ducks' stacked NHL forward lineup last season (he was later traded to Toronto), he had trouble finding a regular AHL role and ended up spending time in the ECHL. He was then loaned to Växjö in the Swedish league, and was a 20-goal scorer this year.
Lasch is the type of player who is well-suited to playing in Europe but is not able to make a pro-level impact in the North American game. While it is possible that things could go better for Palola than for Lasch, I am not optimistic that they would despite his solid showing at the Worlds.
From a Flyers standpoint, the team already has a better version of the same style of player in Jason Akeson. Even Akeson is far from a slam dunk to become an NHL regular for the long haul.
Jiri Sekac: Controversial NHL agent Allan Walsh tweeted during the World Champions that "NHL scouts [were] buzzing" about Sekac's play at the Worlds and the player would soon sign an NHL contract. Of course, Walsh has a vested interest in saying that as Sekac's North American representative.
Nevertheless, it is true that the 22-year-old Czech forward is coming off a strong season for Czech-based KHL team Lev Prague. He posted 11 goals and 28 points during the regular season, and then added eight points (but only one goal) in 21 Gagarin Cup playoff games.
At the World Championships, Sekac scored goals against Slovakia and Italy to post two points in 10 games. He came close to scoring at least two other goals; hitting the post in games against Norway and Canada. The latter came on an otherwise perfect play where he deked James Reimer on the backhand and had the goalie beaten cleanly but ticked the elevated shot off the inside of the post.
Sekac, who hails from the same hometown as Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek, has played in North America before. He briefly passed through the OHL before spending a season-plus in the USHL. Unselected in the NHL draft, signed to play in the KHL. He emerged slowly but steadily over the next few seasons.
One of the past knocks on Sekac is that he is an unorthodox-looking skater, yet he gets quickly from Point A to Point B. Although he is not a physical player and could stand to be a little harder on the puck, he has shown a greatly improved "compete level" from the time when he a bust in Peterborough. Sekac is a stronger and more confident player than he was then. He has also developed his two-way game.
Sekac is still young enough to be in an upward development cycle. He does not project as a top-six forward in the NHL but could find a role if he continues to develop and is willing to spend time in the AHL and work his way up from there.
FLYERS AFFILIATE WITH READING
The Flyers have a new ECHL affiliate for the 2014-15 season. The club, which had a brief partnership with Greenville last season after the Trenton Titans shut down operations following the 2012-13 season, has forged a relationship with the Reading Royals.
The Royals have ended their relationship with the Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears. A press conference to formally announce the new affiliation with the Flyers will be held on Wednesday. Flyers club president Paul Holmgren will be in attendance, along with assistant general manager Barry Hanrahan.
The Flyers will now have both their AHL and ECHL affiliates within close proximity of Philadelphia. With the relocation of the American Hockey League's Adirondack Phantoms to Allentown, PA and the establishment of an ECHL affiliation in Reading, the Flyers will have their most geographically advantageous farm team arrangement since the Spectrum was closed and the Philadelphia Phantoms relocated to Glens Falls, NY.