Unsigned Europeans in the 1998/99/00 Drafts

Although I don’t have it fully uploaded yet, there will be one very prominent name on Colorado’s unprotected list who was passed on.  And that includes being passed on by me, as I don’t even bother moving him to my own 1998 draft board.  That player is Milan Hejduk.

Under the old CBAs, a player drafted out of Europe had his rights held by his drafting team indefinitely.  If he was 19, 25, or 38, it made no difference at all.  It’s why you see the same European players left unprotected in each of the 1998, 1999, and 2000 expansion drafts; several of them were available in 1991, 1992, and 1993 as well.

When I began this project, I swore that I wouldn’t let hindsight taint it.  I can toss in modern notes and tidbits, but to provide the truest picture of what went into these drafts, it’s vital to put myself back in that time when it comes to paring down the unprotected lists into draft boards, and the draft boards into actual drafts.  Simply grabbing an All-Star without regard for his salary or free agent status, to me, is on the same level as the yahoos who write re-drafts that blather about how their team should have used their 1st-round draft pick on the guy who turned out to be a perennial All-Star, never mind the fact that the GM would have been railroaded for picking an overage player out of Tier 3 over someone regarded at the time as a franchise player.

Hejduk is one such example of this.  I will posit that anyone who does a 1998 expansion redraft and has Hejduk as the pick from Colorado has let hindsight contaminate the project.

Seemingly every draft, there’s a player who would get pushed toward the top of the “who should this team have taken?” redraft years down the road that the media seems to love doing.  Hejduk, justifiably so, is in that conversation with the 1998 expansion draft.  There were three players in the 1998 expansion draft who would play over 1,000 NHL games after the draft ended: Andrew Brunette (claimed by Nashville), Kimmo Timonen (acquired by Nashville in a side trade), and Hejduk.  Brunette would score 250 goals after the draft; Hejduk 375.  Those three are also the only players to have 400 NHL points post-draft.

But we’re looking at a lot of different questions that need to be considered here when putting together a draft board.

First, did Hejduk have enough high-level experience to warrant consideration?  The answer is “yes”.  Hejduk stuck in the top Czech league starting when he was 17, and would play four more seasons there before ending up in the 1998 expansion draft.  Along the way, he would play in two World Junior Championships, a World Championship, and an Olympics with the gold-winning 1998 Czech team.  He finished tied for second leaguewide in goals scored in both 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Second, did he play well enough at the highest level?  This is really a two-parter, since we’re looking at both his Czech League and his international experience.  In the Czech League, he played extremely well within his role.  Internationally, not so much…0 goals and 0 points in those 14 games for a player not known for being well-rounded is concerning.  Yes, it covered multiple tournaments and multiple years, but it would absolutely raise questions about why he couldn’t score in tournaments against the best of the best.

Third, would his game translate to the NHL?  This is a question for the scouts.  I did go back through and pull up a pretty substantial amount of newspaper articles and other material from 1998 when Hejduk signed with Colorado, and no one seemed to think that he would do anything more that year than play in the AHL with Hershey and maybe get a callup.  When training camp began, he made it through the first round of cuts and was already being referred to as a bit of a revelation.  He looked good in the preseason, made it through without being sent down, and was on Joe Sakic’s line when the regular season began.  No one expected this; the original quotes all bear this out.  48 points as a rookie, 36 goals and 72 points in his second year, 41 goals and 79 points in his third year…all of this was unexpected.

The fourth question when considering Hejduk in the draft is if he is going to consider coming to North America at all?  This is where things get really dicey.

In the 1998 expansion draft, there were 76 unsigned European players who were left unprotected.  These ran the gamut from highly-touted first-rounders to late-rounders whose stock had surged over the ensuing years.  There were Olympic heroes to guys who would make you question how such an apparent gem was ever unearthed.  But the biggest question is if they would consider coming to the NHL at all.

Of those 76 players, 63 would never play an NHL game.  A handful would come over, play a year in the AHL and barely be able to hack it, then head back home.  Just 13 would come over and be able to play so much as one single NHL game.  Of those 13, 7 would last less than two seasons: Vitali Yeremeyev, Tomas Vlasak, Martin Strbak, Mathias Johansson, Jorgen Jonsson, Jere Kerelahti, and Mika Alatalo.  Of the remaining six, Hans Jonsson would play four years with Pittsburgh, Andreas Karlsson would play three seasons with Atlanta but then return back to the NHL after another stint back overseas, and Dick Tarnstrom would play five total NHL seasons with a split in between for a stop in the Swiss league.  Only three stuck around for the long term: Timonen, who we’ll get to later; Kim Johnsson, and Hejduk.   Tarnstrom played the fourth-most games with 306; Johnsson had the third-most with 739.

In the 1999 expansion draft, there were 80 unsigned European players.  There were a handful of newcomers to the list, the most prominent being Nils Ekman, Jan Hlavac, and Daniel Tjarnqvist.  Tarnstrom and Karlsson were on the unprotected list in 1999 as well; if we remove them (and Alatalo) as carryovers, only those three players would play so much as 150 NHL games (Hlavac leading the way with 436).  Only 11 of those 80 would play an NHL game at all.

The 2000 expansion draft would have 81 unsigned European players.  If the carryovers are eliminated, only one player (Radovan Somik) would play a single NHL game.  If you keep the carryovers, only four of these 81 would play an NHL game.  Strbak and Johansson were unprotected in each of the 1998, 1999, and 2000 expansion drafts, and Vitaly Yeremeyev unprotected in 1998 and 2000 (the Rangers being exempt from losing a goalie in 1999).

Between the three expansion drafts, there were 123 unsigned European draft picks who were left unprotected by their NHL teams, with a total of 237 player seasons.  18 players left unprotected a total of 28 times would ever play as much as one NHL game.

Broken down by age in the year that they were left unprotected, the 237 players:

  • One (Esa Keskinen in 2000) was 35 years old
  • Three were 34
  • Six were 33
  • Six were 32
  • Five were 31
  • Five were 30
  • Eight were 29
  • Eleven were 28
  • Seven were 27
  • Nine were 26
  • Twenty-nine were 25
  • Forty-six were 24
  • Fifty-five were 23
  • Forty-six were 22

So this wasn’t a group of old men whose rights were being kept in limbo until the end of time; these, by and large, were recently-drafted players.

Out of the 123 players:

  • Two (Kimmo Timonen and Milan Hejduk) would play 1,000 NHL games
  • One (Kim Johnsson) would play between 500 and 999 NHL games (739)
  • One (Jan Hlavac) would play between 400 and 499 (436)
  • Two (Dick Tarnstrom and Daniel Tjarnqvist) would play between 300 and 399
  • Three (Hans Jonsson, Andreas Karlsson, and Nils Ekman) would play between 200 and 299
  • Four (Radovan Somik, Tomi Kallio, Jere Kerelahti, and Mika Alatalo) would play between 100 and 199
  • Four (Vitaly Yeremeyev, Martin Strbak, Tomas Vlasak, and Mathias Johansson) would play between 1 and 99

On their scoring prowess:

  • None would score 500 goals
  • None would score 400 goals
  • One (Milan Hejduk) would score between 300 and 399 (375)
  • None would score between 200 and 299
  • One (Kimmo Timonen) would score between 100 and 199 (117)
  • Three (Nils Ekman, Jan Hlavac, and Kim Johnsson) would score between 50 and 99
  • One (Dick Tarnstrom) would score between 25 and 49
  • Eleven would score between 1 and 24
  • One (Vitaly Yeremeyev) was a goalie

There are a handful more who signed with an NHL team but never played a game, but most still just stayed overseas and never signed.  Most of the names are known only to those who collected Upper Deck hockey cards between 1993 and 1997 and remember the thrill of pulling an Electric Ice parallel, only to see it of a player who would never come over.  I won’t speak for everyone, but I still have mine of Edvin Frylen and Dmitri Klevakin.

This is the point where Don Cherry would probably go on some tirade about European players, but I’m not Don Cherry.  The point is, there are a lot of reasons why European players don’t make the jump to North America.  I know I’d have second thoughts about leaving my home country to learn a new language and new culture, be around new teammates, and possibly still end up being jerked around the minor leagues instead of being able to stay at home.  For the handful who played partial seasons in the minors before heading back, I can’t say that I blame them.  We’re talking about hockey in the late 1990s, which was a lot more suffocating than the early part of that decade, and unless I really relish having my skills completely muted game in and game out, making the jump wouldn’t have much appeal from a hockey standpoint either.

With some of the older players unprotected, like Esa Keskinen and Steffan Nilsson, there was basically zero chance they would ever come over.  What’s more striking is the younger players who also showed no interest in coming over at all.  Maybe they were too entrenched, maybe they were anxious about uprooting themselves to play hockey, maybe they just weren’t particularly good.

There is also no pattern noted to any of the players who played in the NHL compared to those who didn’t.  Nearly all of the players left unprotected had played in the WJC when they were eligible, a lot had played in at least one World Championship, and a decent handful had played in either a World Cup or Olympics at some point as well.  Some had played at the highest level in their home country before they were 18, some didn’t become established there at all until they were 21 or 22.  Some wore an A or C at some point, some didn’t.  Some had participated in their NHL team’s training camp, some hadn’t..  There is quite simply no pattern to who could come over and who would stay, and no pattern to who would make an impact and who wouldn’t.

All I know is that out of 123 total players left unprotected in any of the expansion drafts, only 18 would ever play an NHL game, and just 3 stuck around long-term.  With 3 players out of 123 actually making a real NHL impact for any period of time, the risk associated with drafting an unsigned European player is simply too high to ever seriously consider.