European Undrafted Success Stories Revisited

Continuing my updates of undrafted success stories, here’s a look at players who developed in the European pro leagues without being drafted, who eventually made their way to the NHL.  Like the other articles I’ve focussed on the post-lockout NHL because of the different parameters in which players are viewed (particularly undersized players).  I’ve set the “European pro” bar at age 23 (anything earlier and I consider the player is still a prospect).  For goaltenders the comparisons are slightly less apt (in terms of numbers), but it’s interesting to look at the relative success enjoyed by them.  The numbers next to the player’s name are their stats prior to being signed by an NHL team.

2006 (3)
Niklas Backstrom (G, SM-Liiga) 32-9-10, 1.68, .940 – has played 369 NHL games and remains a starting NHL goaltender
Patrick Thoresen (SEL) 50-17-19-36 – played 106 NHL games; he’s now settled in as a career KHL player
Patrick Fischer (NLA) 44-21-32-53 – played 27 NHL games in his only season; now retired

2007 (4)
Jonas Hiller (G, NLA) 28-16, 2.60 – has played 276 NHL games and remains an NHL starter
Cory Murphy (D, SM-Liiga) 45-13-37-50 – played 91 NHL games over three seasons; entering his first season in the SHL
Erik Ersberg (G, SEL) 41GP, 2.39, .908 – played 69 NHL games over three seasons with LA; a UFA after three seasons in the KHL
Jaroslav Hlinka (Cze) 46-19-38-57 – played 63 NHL games in his only season; finishing his career in the Czech Elite League

2008 (7)
Ville Leino (SM-Liiga) 55-28-49-77 – has played 228 NHL games; signed long-term by Buffalo
Antti Niemi (G, SM-Liiga) 26-14-6, 2.35, .926 – he won a Stanley Cup with Chicago (2010) and has 213 NHL games to his credit; he remains a starting goaltender
Tim Stapleton (SM-Liiga) 55-29-33-62 – undersized NCAA grad played two years in Finland before coming back to North America; played 118 NHL games; beginning his second season in the KHL
Anssi Salmela (D, SM-Liiga) 56-16-16-32 (0.57) – played 112 NHL games over three seasons; entering his third season in the KHL
Fabian Brunnstrom (SEL) 54-9-28-37 – played 104 NHL games over four seasons; entering his second season in the SHL
Ryan Vesce (SM-Liiga) 56-26-18-44 – undersized NCAA grad had made the jump from the AHL to Finland to land a deal with San Jose where he saw all his limited action (19 NHL games); he’s currently in the KHL
Per Ledin (SEL) – played 3 NHL games in his only season; continues to play in Sweden

2009 (5)
Jonas Gustavsson (G, SEL) 42GP, 1.96, .932 – “The Monster” has played 114 NHL games; an NHL backup with Detroit
Mika Pyorala (SM-Liiga) 55-21-22-43 – played 36 NHL games in his only season; entering his first season in the KHL
Henrik Karlsson (G, SEL) 34GP, 2.45, .914 – has played 26 NHL games; he’s back in Sweden
Alexander Salak (G, SM-Liiga) 20-20-9, 2.40, .923 – played 2 NHL games; beginning his first season in the KHL
Johan Backlund (G, SEL) 49GP, 2.56, .907 – played 1 NHL game; beginning his first season in the KHL

2010 (3)
Mats Zuccarello (SEL) 55-23-41-64 (1.16) – pint-sized Norwegian played 67 NHL games; re-signed by the Rangers
Marcel Muller (DEL) 53-24-32-56 – played 3 NHL games; back in Germany
Jussi Rynnas (G, SM-Liiga) 14-13-1, 2.71, .911 – played 2 NHL games; back in Finland

2011 (3)
Raphael Diaz (D, NLA) 45-12-27-39 (0.86) – has played 82 NHL games; remains with Montreal
Victor Bartley (D, Allsvenskan) 52-11-23-34 – undrafted WHLer has played 24 NHL games; signed a three-year, one-way deal with Nashville
Iiro Tarkki (G, SM-Liiga) 20-20-14, 2.09, .924 – played 1 NHL game; entering his second season in the KHL

2012 (4)
Roman Cervenka (KHL) 54-23-16-39 – played 39 NHL games; returned to the KHL
Viktor Fasth (G, SHL) 2.04, .934 – played 25 NHL games; competing for the starting job in Anaheim
Daniel Bang (SHL) 50-8-10-18 – played 8 NHL games; playing in Switzerland
Harri Pesonen (SM-Liiga) 60-21-14-35 – played 4 NHL games; remains with the Devils

No players from the Slovak Elite League, Erste Bank Liga (Austria), Get Ligaen (Norway), or Al-Bank Ligaen (Denmark) have had players signed directly out of them.  The DEL (Germany), Czech Elite League, and KHL (Russia) have only had one each.

Conclusions: the vast majority of the players signed (23 of 29) come from either the Swedish or Finnish leagues and only 9 (if Zuccarello sticks) are NHL regulars.  The greatest success comes from foreign goaltenders, with up to 4 starting goaltenders arriving from the undrafted pool (and 5 of the 9 regulars are between the pipes).  It’s interesting to note how dwarfed the number of players here is by those who arrive via the NCAA route (66 players since 2006), given how large the available pool is in Europe (literally hundreds of players go undrafted).  Part of the reason for the smaller stream of players is twofold: the expense of properly scouting those players, and secondly, the fact that the KHL can pay marginal players a much better salary than they would earn playing in the AHL.  What we can say from this overview is that the scouting community doesn’t make many mistakes and there are very few diamonds in the rough overseas.  The most overlooked players remain undersized players along with the difficult-to-project goaltenders.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)



  1. […] European Undrafted Success Stories Revisited […]

  2. […] NHL.  There remains a wide variety of roads fr those not selected in the draft, from college, Europe, the CHL, the CIS, AHL, and ECHL.  Given the way I defined the various categories there remain a […]

  3. […] little need to dwell on Anaheim’s fantastic crop of goaltenders (including some of the best undrafted free agent signings in the NHL).  Goaltending is the hardest position to predict, but clearly these are two […]

  4. […] Just a quick look back on those mentioned that appeared in previous versions of this list.  It’s worth noting the majority of players identified have not been signed.  There are far fewer European players who come over as compared to college, even though the dividends can be much higher (as you can see here). […]

  5. […] on those who are 24 and under.  For successful free agents from Europe I talk about it here; for the issues of comparing stats in Europe to production in the NHL go here.  The players are […]

  6. […] haven’t updated my undrafted success stories out of Europe article in a couple of years and there’s no time like the present. I’ve focussed on the […]

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