The top leagues in Europe are about to get back underway and assuming everything goes smoothly, this 2020-21 campaign will be one of the most remarkable we've ever seen. The simple reason? A reverse-drain that has seen a number of top European prospects return to the continent, with a few North American prospects even joining them.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 seasons for North America have been drastically altered. In the junior ranks, the OHL and WHL aren't scheduled to start until early December with only the QMJHL making a go of it right now (training camps are beginning as we speak). The USHL is looking at a Nov. 6 start, while the NAHL is also aiming for November. The college hockey schedule is also in flux, with programs such as Harvard and Yale delaying their seasons until at least the 2021 calendar year.
In the pro ranks the AHL season has already been pushed until Dec. 4 and the NHL will probably kick off around that time, too. The ramifications of this are obvious for developing players and that's why a number are heading back to Europe for at least part of the season, if not all of 2020-21.
Two of the most notable prospects are from the Detroit Red Wings, a franchise that needs its top youngsters to gobble up as much experience and game time as possible right now. Detroit's past two first-rounders, defenseman Moritz Seider (2019) and Filip Zadina (2018), have both headed to their home leagues. Seider, the German national, will be playing for Adler Mannheim in the DEL, where he will get to play on the same squad as world junior teammate Tim Stutzle, a potential top-three pick in the 2020 draft. Zadina is playing in the Czech league with Ocelari Trinec and kicked off his pre-season in style with a two-goal performance.
The important aspect of this shift overseas is that both Seider and Zadina have already played in North America. Zadina was over here the longest, having come over to playing junior in the QMJHL with Halifax as an import before graduating to the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins last year. The talented winger has also seen some time up with Detroit both this season and last, so he is well on his way to becoming a top-six NHLer. Seider was a rookie with Grand Rapids this season, but as one of the Griffins' top blueline scorers, proved he could handle himself on North American ice.
And there is an adjustment period for many Europeans. Not only are their cultural barriers to overcome off the ice (learning the language, getting a driver's license and so forth), but the smaller ice surfaces in North American rinks has quite the impact on game play: over here, players have less time and space to make decisions with the puck and the game tends to be a lot more physical.
That's something Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen has fought with for most of his young career. The 21-year-old played junior in the USHL with Sioux City before returning to his native Finland to play for Jokerit of the Russian-based KHL in 2017-18. Tolvanen was electric for Finland at the Sochi Olympics and returned to play for AHL Milwaukee the next season (plus a cup of coffee with Nashville), with decent but not great results. He spent all of this campaign in Milwaukee and was once again OK. Now Tolvanen is heading back to Jokerit to get his reps in.
The burning question here is, what will his results mean? If Tolvanen lights it up in the KHL, is it because he has hit another level of development, or because his perimeter game works better on the bigger European ice sheets? Naturally the Predators will be keeping an eye on this.
Other names such as Arizona first-rounder Victor Soderstrom (Sweden), Boston pick Jakub Lauko (Czech) and Rangers prospect Vitaly Kravtsov (Russia) have all returned to their home leagues after spending at least some time in North America. Lauko played major junior here, while Kravtsov has spent time in the AHL and Soderstrom was in The Bubble with the Coyotes.
A number of other NHL franchises, from Columbus to San Jose, are trying to get as many of their prospects to Europe as they can right now.
Perhaps most interesting are the North Americans going over to Europe, specifically Sweden. Carolina prospect Jack Drury broke the ice when he left Harvard for Vaxjo and more recently we've seen Edmonton pick Raphael Lavoie hook up with Rogle, while Islanders prospect Oliver Wahlstrom (an American with Swedish roots) will suit up alongside Soderstrom for AIK.
Undoubtedly, this influx of talent - both the kids coming home and the North American imports - will have an interesting impact on the level of competition in Europe this year. It is sometimes lost over here that when exciting European players come over to North America, it means one more talented player gone from the home ranks. It can hurt the overall level in Europe, but can you blame a kid for chasing his NHL dream?
At least for the early portion of 2020-21, Europe is getting a windfall, one which could benefit the clubs, the NHL and the young players themselves.