Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Where rookies come from

There's been an awful lot of talk lately about the NHL's lack of a transfer agreement with Russia, and with the threat of a new league on the horizon, many feel European players are soon to be found in fewer numbers in North American leagues.

(They already are, in fact.)

We now know that there have been fewer new Russians in the NHL over the past several years, but what about other European players? And if they are indeed on the decline, where are the newcomers coming from?

Last week, before my vacation hit, I put together a small study of NHL rookies in the 30-team era (since 2000-01) and where they have come from. For sake of ease, I used 30 games played as the cutoff point, meaning that every player that was in his first, Calder-eligible season that hit that mark counted.

Here's a look at that data, by country of birth (players from this season must be on pace to play 30 games):

Canada Czech Finland Russia Slovakia Sweden USA Other Total
2000-01 36 9 4 6 6 4 4 4 73
2001-02 26 4 1 4
4 5 1 45
2002-03 23 9 2 8 5 4 7 1 59
2003-04 41 0 3 4
3 12 3 66
2005-06 50 7 6 4 4 4 21 6 102
2006-07 28 4 3 2 1 3 13 4 58
2007-08 31 4 2 1 1 4 20 1 64
235 37 21 29 17 26 82 20 467

50.3% 7.9% 4.5% 6.2% 3.6% 5.6% 17.6% 4.3%

Have a look at the size of that double cohort there in 2005-06 coming out of the lockout.

Where are new players coming from? Canada, as always, but look at the decline in Russian-born newbies and the rise in Americans, and there's definitely a trend. The past two seasons have seen relatively few European rookies in general.

Let's group the countries by the three main chunks we've got here:

Canada USA Europe
2000-01 36 4 33 73
2001-02 26 5 14 45
2002-03 23 7 29 59
2003-04 41 12 13 66
2005-06 50 21 31 102
2006-07 28 13 17 58
2007-08 31 20 13 64

I've said it several times before, but what's evident even moreso than the decline in the Euro player is the fact American borns are, more and more, becoming a major part of the NHL.

A quick look through the list of rookies who have played 10+ games this season reveals quite a group of budding potential Team U.S.A. stars that have, for the most part, come through the NCAA system: Patrick Kane, Peter Mueller, Matt Niskanen, Tom Gilbert, Erik Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, Steve Wagner, Jack Johnson, Chris Conner, Mike Lundin, Drew Miller, Andy Greene, Bobby Ryan, Jared boll, Brett Sterling, T.J. Hensick, etc.

Outside of Nicklas Backstrom, Toby Enstrom and Alex Edler, a trio of Swedes, what Europeans have made a similar impact this season as freshmen?

We haven't seen all that much written about this, but there's a real changing of the guard taking place, and if it continues, the NHL will really be a North American dominated league going forward, with the large majority of the new breed being made up by the growing pipeline from the U.S.

Sound farfetched? How else to explain this info, a look at the percentage of the league's rookies coming from each region over the past seven seasons:

If that's not a trend, I don't know what is.

It's seemed to me over the past year or so that late-round and undrafted U.S. college players are really starting to standout more than ever in the NHL, something that you could call the Tom Gilbert Factor (after the Oilers new standout defender). Just look at the Devils' recent success picking unheralded NCAA skaters — Brian Gionta, David Hale, Paul Martin, Aaron Voros, Zach Parise — a list that doesn't even include the undrafted Andy Greene or Rangers seventh rounder Mike Mottau.

U.S.A. Hockey is on the rise, and we're already seeing it at the sport's premier level. It's only a matter of time before American clubs become more of a force on the international level, and that's when we'll really start to take notice of just how much more American-bred the NHL has become.

Canada's still No. 1 when it comes to producing NHL-calibre talent, but we've now got a definitive No. 2.


At 4:37 a.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice graph, but the new Euro league is nothing, the NHL-IIHF transfer agreement trouble is.

At 10:26 a.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger McLea said...

Instead of lumping all the European players into one group, it would probably make more sense to separate them into old Soviet bloc, and non-Soviet bloc countries.

The biggest reason why we're seeing far fewer players from former communist countries is because these countries no longer subsidize their athletic programs, which means far fewer kids can afford to play hockey.

So forget the new European league, or the transfer agreements, the biggest problem facing hockey is that it’s a ridiculously expensive sport to play, so only affluent countries, or countries where they're willing to subsidize participation in the sport, will produce players.

From Mirtle's list, there are four countries where the number players being produced over the past several years has either increased or stayed relatively the same: Finland, Sweden, Canada, and the USA. According to the IMF, the world ranking for these countries in terms of GDP per head in 2006 was:

4) USA (43,223)
11) Finland (35,559)
12) Canada (35,514)
15) Sweden (34,735)

Now look at the countries that have seen a decrease in the number of players produced: Russia, Slovakia, and the Czech. Their GDP per head rankings:

33) Czech (23,399)
44) Slovakia (17,915)
59) Russia (12,178)

Without huge government subsidies, the vast majority of the children in these countries simply cannot afford to play hockey. Unless the subsidies return, you can count on the vast majority of new players in the league coming from the rich Scandinavian countries and the US and Canada, for no reason other than these are the only places where a significant number of children can afford to play the game.

At 10:30 a.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

If that's not a trend, I don't know what is.

Well, I see the changes, but it's important to remember that there is a pretty significant lockout, a large set of rule changes, and a new CBA with a somewhat rigorous salary cap that hits right near the middle. It could be a trend or it could be a one-time shift; do you expect to see even fewer European players next year?

I don't know whether this means that the Burkes and the Cherrys are getting their pro-North-American message through or that the NCAA is just an easy source for cheap cap-friendly bodies. Either way, I don't think it's particularly good development, but I guess we'll have to see how it pans out in future years.

At 10:57 a.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Brian Gionta, David Hale, Paul Martin, Aaron Voros, Zach Parise

Gionta, Martin, and Parise weren't unheralded. They were all dominant players at the NCAA level, and were drafted in the 3rd, 2nd and 1st rounds respectively. Hale was also a 1st round pick. Gionta's success may have surprised a lot of people, but that's because of his size rather than where he came from.

Aaron Voros did come out of nowhere, but again, that's not because he was an NCAA player. No one at that level picked him up as being that good, either, which is how he came to play his home games in Fairbanks.

At 10:57 a.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:03 p.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger Lowetide said...

Excellent stuff Mirtle. Nice to see you've hit the ground running post Christmas. :-)

All the best in the new year.

One thing I wouldn't mind seeing in this study is just how many kids came out of the 4th junior league (USHL).

I honestly don't think the gap between the Q, dub and OHL to the USHL is close to as big as we would think.

In about 1974 or so there were kids coming out of American junior leagues (Gary Sargent) and many more who were drafted out of college but played their teenage hockey in junior leagues (Holmgren would be an example).

Then it seemed that US kids came out of college or high schools and the MWJHL didn't have any impact.

And now we're here. The USHL is a pretty interesting league.

At 1:21 p.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CBA, Transfer agreement and such has nothing to do with this trend. It's still all about ability to play NHL level hockey.

Sweden screwed up at least one generation of players by stressing systems before skill developement. Swedes started to go back to skill first idea and slowly they're back in business with Victor Hedman as their lead dog.

Finland did same kind of mistake as Sweden but some five, six years later. Right now Finns are deeper than whale's poop with only four players drafted last summer. First one in fourth round.

Without their goalies Finland would look absolutely horrible right now.

Czechs and Slovaks are mystery. As far as I know they still stress skill developement but not much is happening.

There's a lot of theories that today's young Czechs and Slovaks are not that interest in sports. Other one is that hockey is too expensive.

I think one problem is CHL. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with CHL, but think what happens to junior leagues in Czech R. and Slovakia when 20 of your best players leave every year?

And when most of them return they have already lost their "dream". They came over to make it in NHL and can't handle mentally that return ticket to their home land.

This sounds stupid but it's true in many cases.

Russians are the only ones that could have more NHLers but money or rules keep them in Russia. However, you have to remember that Ovechkin, Malkin, Semin are here.

Chistov and other top picks tried here but sucked so there's also the fact that Russians are on developing players like they used to.

One study from Russia said that a dream job for young Russian boys is to be mafia gangster. For girls it is prostitution. Becoming a soccer or hockey star isn't the dream anymore.

At 4:49 p.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger Marty said...

RE: NCAA players - It would be interesting to look at the age of the players when they become rookies - comparing NCAA players with CHL players - other than the Crosby type players, it seems that the vast majority of players benefit (long term) from additional time AWAY from the NHL...

At 5:42 p.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Phillie said...

This trend has far bigger implications than just U.S.-born players in the NHL. If it continues, it could mean more U.S. viewers of hockey, thus greater TV revenues, therefore greater salaries etc. etc.
One reason Americans don't watch hockey is that there aren't that many playing the game (relative to say, football or baseball). With more Yanks playing hockey, maybe more Yanks will sit up and take notice of the NHL. That's the trend that really matters.

At 6:20 p.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Gerald said...

This is completely stunning to me. I had always thought that rookies came from the stork, who brought them under cover of night and left them in a basket on GMs' doorsteps.

Live and learn.

At 7:32 p.m., December 26, 2007, Blogger Lowetide said...

Gerald: Do you work for the Phoenix Coyotes?

At 9:24 p.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Gerald said...

Well played.

At 10:03 p.m., December 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You got to give Team USA Hockey their props for their work they have done so far. They have done a great job of attracting kids to play hockey in the states with their programs.

At 12:19 p.m., December 27, 2007, Anonymous theoil said...

This trend has far bigger implications than just U.S.-born players in the NHL. If it continues, it could mean more U.S. viewers of hockey, thus greater TV revenues, therefore greater salaries etc. etc.
One reason Americans don't watch hockey is that there aren't that many playing the game (relative to say, football or baseball). With more Yanks playing hockey, maybe more Yanks will sit up and take notice of the NHL. That's the trend that really matters

Beat me to it 'philie'. The NHL has no season ticket holders in Europe that I am aware of and little chance of getting any. As they say in politics during elections 'you hunts where the ducks is'.

At 1:16 p.m., December 27, 2007, Blogger Jes Gőlbez said...

As noted above, Czechia and Slovakia are struggling due to the fact that Hockey is a rich man's game, especially in Slovakia (fewer rinks and a lesser economy compared to Czechia)

Back in the communist era, kids were given equipment for free. The equipment wasn't always first class, but it did the job. The sporting clubs were also given the $$ resources necessary to develop their kids.

Now? Very few talented kids can afford to play the game, especially since equipment tends to get jacked up in price. The talented athletes will end up playing soccer or something else.

The clubs no longer get a load of money from the government, but survive on corporate support (ads everywhere!) and the pittance they get from the transfer deal. There is little incentive for club teams to invest as heavily in coaching and training (coaches don't make much at many levels) to have anything of value plucked by some rich NHL or Russian club.

At 3:09 p.m., December 27, 2007, Anonymous Berestoff said...

NHL is killing the future of world internatinal hockey.
Have a look at this IIHF study - it's worth taking time and much more prominent than Mirtle's.
So you already knockdowned Czech and Slovak youth training systems but thanks God Russia is a lot more wealthier country so we will save our hockey.

At 9:59 p.m., December 27, 2007, Blogger Adam C said...

After looking through the IIHF study, I have a few points:

1) What is the difference between "3+" and "3-"?

2) Why spell out five specific categories of player, and then make the dividing line between successful and unsuccessful somewhere vaguely in the middle of category 3? Why not have six categories? OK, this isn't a new point but I can't make much of an opinion of this study without an answer to question 1.

3) The study does, however, make a convincing argument that the CHL is not worth the effort for a European teenager with NHL aspirations.

At 10:03 p.m., December 27, 2007, Blogger Adam C said...


4) After repeatedly seeming to conflate the "NHL" with "North America" the study sets a surprisingly specific yet seemingly arbitrary goal of reducing the "NHL's" European content to 20%. Berestoff, can you suggest what the heck that's based on, other than a nationalist desire to keep players in Europe?

At 4:22 a.m., December 28, 2007, Anonymous Berestoff said...

adam c
I believe they tried to explain 20% ratio in paragraph 9.

And I don't see anything nationalistic in this. A kid in Stockholm or Moscow would be enormously happy to see on a home rink Zetterberg or Datsyuk, Sundin or Ovechkin... Do you determine kid's desire to watch them as a nationalistic?

At 5:28 p.m., December 28, 2007, Blogger Adam C said...

I don't know what you mean by "paragraph 9". Maybe it would be easier if you just quoted it here. What I don't see anywhere in either version of the report is an explanation for 20%, other than that it's less than 30%.

Kids in Canada want to see Zetterberg and Ovechkin too. A possible motive for a European researcher suggesting that players be prevented from going to North America is nationalism. I'll admit there are other possibilities - but what do you think is the case?


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