The path to the NHL isn’t a straightforward one. While the NHL draft is typically a good place to start stockpiling for the future, many talented players require a few years of pro hockey in Europe before realizing their true potential.
NHL teams have taken advantage of signing European players each spring in an effort to find a diamond in the rough before NHL training camp gets underway. Evgeni Dadonov and Mikko Koskinen are two examples of former NHL prospects who found their stride in Europe before returning to North America, while Artemi Panarin is one of the most noteworthy instances of a player that went undetected by teams for years before eventually developing into one of the most dominant wingers in the world.
And while there's still a bit of time until European leagues come to a close in April, NHL GMs have been spotted in European rinks all season long. With playoffs in leagues such as the KHL, SHL and Liiga well underway, many players will find their contracts expire rather soon.
Not every player is a smash hit (ask Vegas how they feel about Vadim Shipachyov), but many go on to have an immediate impact in a depth role. With that in mind, here are a few European free agents who could strike a deal with an NHL club in the near future:
Stephane Da Costa, C
It seems like Da Costa is always up for discussion among European free agents, and for good reason. Part of that could be due to his 47 games of experience with the Ottawa Senators from 2011-2014, and it could be argued that he was rushed too quickly from Merrimack College. Since signing in Europe in 2014-15, Da Costa has played in two KHL all-star games and was among the team leaders in points with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg this year. Da Costa could use the World Championships this year as his entryway back to the NHL as he is typically a driving force for the French national team each season.
Ilya Mikheyev, RW
Mikheyev is a very strong bet to make the jump to the NHL next year after leading Avangard Omsk in points with 45. While his overall point total may not seem impressive, Mikheyev was the best player on a team that features a handful of former NHLers and did a lot of the heavy lifting for Omsk. Mikheyev features a good mix of speed, strength and skill and doesn’t back down from a defensive challenge. Mikheyev is 24, so there’s potential he could step into a bottom-six role right away.
Oliwer Kaski, D
Kaski has quickly emerged as one of the best two-way European defenders not playing in the NHL, recording 47 points in 55 games with the Pelicans in the Finnish Liiga this year as a third-year pro. Kaski, who has experience in North America playing for the NCAA's Western Michigan University, has good size at 6-foot-3 and isn't afraid to join the rush to make a play happen with his strong wrist shot. At 23, Kaski is going to receive a lot of attention before training camps kick off.
Dominik Frodl, G
With the emergence of David Rittich with the Calgary Flames this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see NHL teams give more Czech goalies a chance going forward. Just 22, Frodl was instrumental in making HC Slavia Praha a contender last season and was among the top goaltenders after transferring to HC Plzen for 2018-19. Don’t be surprised if he’s starting for an AHL team next year.
Joakim Nygard, LW
Nygard is under contract with Farjestad BK for the next three years, but an agreement between the NHL and SHL means Nygard could head to North America if he does accept a deal. Nygard is one of the fastest skaters in the SHL and has been a recurring member of Farjestad's special teams unit. Scouts like Nygard's defensive instincts and his speed allows him to get back to deal with trouble in his own zone while creating opportunities at the other end of the ice.
Jani Hakanpaa, D
The St. Louis Blues had strong defensive depth in the system when Hakanpaa was a member of the team from 2013 to 2015, but after a couple of strong developmental years in Finland, a team could consider giving him another shot. At 6-foot-5 and 207 lbs, Hakanpaa has great size and his skating has improved over the past few years, mainly in the speed category. Hakanpaa has potential in a shutdown role and is capable of some big hits every now and then.
Malte Stromwall, RW
After bouncing around various leagues and teams over the past few seasons, Stromwall emerged as one of the best forwards in the Finnish Liiga and tied Ville Leskinen for the league-lead with 53 points. Stromwall didn't find much success with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack in 2016-17, but he did put up the best numbers of his pro career while playing for KooKoo this season. Stromwall is just 24 and could add some scoring depth to an NHL lineup.
Ville Leskinen, RW
Speaking of Leskinen, his career progression over the past few years has been quite impressive. Playing with Karpat in Finland, Leskinen has seen his numbers rise by quite a margin each year since turning pro and looks like a late-bloomer with great hands and solid speed. Leskinen could be utilized as a bottom-six scoring winger in the NHL, and at 25, his best hockey could still be ahead of him. After years of rumors about Leskinen potentially signing in the NHL, his time may finally be close.
Adam Reideborn, G
At 27, Reideborn is as ready as he'll ever be. Reideborn, the 2017-18 Swedish League goalie of the year and a lead candidate to repeat this season after posting a 1.88 GAA and .929 SV%, helped Djurgardens IF earn promotion to the top Swedish League in 2014 and was key in making the squad a top team this season. His age and experience could be attractive to teams who want someone to fill in as a backup or AHL starter without having to spend years developing them.
Erik Thorell, LW
Thorell was an underrated forward on the Swedish team that won gold at the 2012 World Junior Championship, recording six points in a secondary scoring role. Since then, Thorell has been one of the better forwards in Liiga, averaging 44 points a season across his past three campaigns. Thorell has always responsible at getting pucks out of the defensive zone and is effective as a shutdown player further down in the lineup. His work ethic is what will drive teams to Thorell, who is used in all situations for HIFK.