The NHL's melting pot is changing

9/30/2010 - NHL

Few would argue that the NHL's skill level is as high as it has ever been. And from coast to coast, border to border, the wealth of young talent in the league suggests what might well become known as the game's golden age. This isn't going to change any time soon.

But there is likewise little doubt the makeup of the league continues to evolve and change before our very eyes.

From a high-water mark of 300 European players spread around the NHL's 30 rosters in 2003-04, that number has continued to dwindle, according to figures provided to ESPN.com by the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Last season, there were only 229 European-born and/or -trained players in the NHL, the lowest number in a decade and a number that represented just 23.8 percent of NHL players.

There are a number of factors that help explain the dwindling number of European players on NHL rosters. Tops would be the formation of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, now in its third year of existence. The KHL has provided a viable alternative to pro players of all nationalities, including European players, but especially Russian players, who can make good money playing good hockey without leaving home.

The KHL is attractive to players who have had NHL experience but are nearing the end of their careers or who want to play in the KHL as opposed to being sent to the American Hockey League if they cannot make an NHL roster.

With the salary cap limiting how much NHL clubs can spend, the KHL is also attractive financially for those players whose skills no longer command top dollar at the NHL level. Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, for instance, both left a top-notch Washington team after the 2009 playoffs. Longtime San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov couldn't find a taker after becoming a free agent -- or at least a taker at an amount he would accept -- and signed on in the KHL.

In 2003-04, there were 64 Russians in the NHL, according to the IIHF. Last season, that number was nearly cut in half, with only 34 Russians playing in North America with NHL teams.

"We're a little more cautious on the Russian players now because they have the option of staying in the KHL," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said in a recent interview.

"Because of the KHL, for the past two or three years, we haven't really been in the Russian market," added Detroit GM Ken Holland.

The decline in Russian players has certainly been a major contributor to the overall decline in European players, but other nations have also seen dramatic drop-offs in NHL participation.

The Czech Republic has gone from 76 in 2003-04, the last season before the lockout, to 48 last season. There are almost exactly the same number of Swedes now (54) as in 2003-04, down just slightly from the high-water mark of 58 in 2002-03.

While critics will suggest there is some sort of xenophobia at work, that could hardly be further from the truth.

Some of the top-skilled players in the game continue to come outside North America.

• Alex Ovechkin (Russia) has been voted the league's most valuable player by the players for the past three seasons. In the past three years, he has won two Hart Trophies and been nominated for another.

• Another European player supplanted Ovechkin as league MVP last season, Henrik Sedin (Sweden).

• Evgeni Malkin (Russia) was the playoff MVP in 2009.

• Washington center Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) is widely regarded as among the most gifted playmakers in the game.

• Ilya Kovalchuk (Russia) was the subject of a controversial contract process this summer before signing a 15-year, $100 million deal.

The reduced numbers of Euro players is more accurately reflected in the middle class of NHL players.

In 2001, when the entry draft went nine rounds, 142 of 189 players selected were from Europe, or just more than 49 percent. In 2009, only 53 Europeans were drafted through seven rounds, a shade over 25 percent of those selected.

One of the reasons for this drop-off is connected to the change of rules in drafting of European players. Before the lockout, if an NHL team drafted a European player, the NHL club owned that player's rights indefinitely. That player could develop more slowly in Europe without any pressure on NHL teams to rush into a contract or, conversely, walk away from the player. But since the lockout, European draftees are subject to the same rules as North American selections -- they must be signed within two years or the team loses control of the player.

NHL clubs, always trying to protect themselves long-term, have increasingly turned to college players who remain their property while they are in school, possibly buying extra time before committing to a player.

In 2001, when the entry draft went nine rounds, 142 of 189 players selected were from Europe, or just more than 49 percent. In 2009, only 53 Europeans were drafted through seven rounds, a shade over 25 percent of those selected.

The decline in draft numbers is also directly linked to the issue of developmental hockey in many European nations. At the recent World Hockey Summit in August, the issues of funding and supporting youth and junior hockey programs in many nations was a hot topic.

While programs in some nations like the Czech Republic have suffered in recent years, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada continue to produce top-end talent on an annual basis.

At the summit, top Czech hockey official Slavomir Lener noted that Europeans provide "more than our fair share of the top players. More than 50 percent of starting goalies in the NHL are European and more than one-third of top-four defensemen and top-six forwards come from Europe, so we make a big contribution to the NHL."

But Lener also noted that a small fraction of European players -- 4 percent, or just 22 of 527 Europeans that played major junior hockey in North America -- become established NHLers. He and other panelists suggested the NHL and IIHL work out a deal that allows NHL teams four years to sign a European player, since that would provide a better brand of junior hockey in European nations.

Still, GMs contacted by ESPN.com insisted there is no grand plan to avoid drafting or signing Europeans. Rutherford, for instance, said he doesn't direct his scouting staff one way or the other in terms of where to seek out talent. Right now, he pointed out that there are three Finns -- Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu -- who play a significant role on the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It goes in cycles," he said.

The Red Wings have gone through a period in recent years in which they have drafted a lot of U.S. college players, like Justin Abdelkader and Jimmy Howard, but they also continue to mine the European markets because they rarely draft near the top of the draft class. Holland said by the time they make a selection, the top North Americans have been pretty much picked over. The Wings also have a history of finding gems from Europe late in the draft, like Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.