November without NHL hockey is extremely weird, and for fans, it can be a depressing time. But for players – especially prospects still in full development mode – all the COVID-19 implications can be really challenging.
That’s exactly the situation faced by NHL teams around the league. While most contracted players have stayed home to be with their families, teams have been looking for new homes to send their prospects to keep the development cycle flowing. Two of Canada’s major junior leagues are out of commission, the AHL won’t start until February at the earliest and, overall, there are more questions than answers as to when the rest of hockey will be in full swing.
But in Europe, we’ve already seen the top leagues in action for a few months. Some, like the German league, are still on hiatus, but the majority of the continent’s best hockey leagues have remained active for the most part. The NHL started sending prospects overseas late in the summer to get into game action, giving them at least something to do until NHL training camps begin in the winter (hopefully).
A few prospects have taken things in stride early. While the European teams have given precedence over their full-time contracted players, they can’t help but integrate the stars they’ve been handed to make their teams better. Here’s a look at a few of the prospects that have made noise over the past few months:
Mikko Lehtonen, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Loaned to Jokerit of the KHL)
The Toronto Maple Leafs had to make addressing their lack of defensive depth a priority and they did so by inking 26-year-old Mikko Lehtonen to a deal back in the Spring. It was a no-brainer deal after Lehtonen led all KHL defensemen with 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games as a league rookie last season, moving over after spending parts of seven seasons playing in Finland and Sweden.
How’s Lehtonen fairing this season? Even better. Through 14 games, Lehtonen has exploded with eight goals and 16 points, placing him just outside the top 10 in league scoring buta nice step ahead of the rest of the league’s defense core. Only two defensemen in KHL history (Chris Lee in 2016-17 and Kevin Dallman in 2008-09 and 2011-12) have finished with a point-per-game average with at least 40 games played. Even though it’s early, Lehtonen is nearing the halfway mark in games played. Lehtonen is one of the best offensive defensemen playing in Europe right now, but the biggest question is where the Leafs can fit him in with the big club once the time arises. You can do far worse than having Lehtonen as a third-pairing defenseman, but you definitely want him to push for more.
Moritz Seider, D, Detroit Red Wings
(Loaned to Rogle BK of the Swedish Hockey League)
With hockey on pause in Germany, the Red Wings elected to send Seider – the sixth-overall pick in 2019 – to Rogle BK instead. How has it gone so far? In five games, Seider has five points, an impressive feat given his adjustment back to playing on big ice after a season in North America.
Red Wings fans had little to cheer about in 2019-20, but one of the benefits of being such an awful team is the hope for the future. Seider is exactly what the Red Wings need – a cornerstone defenseman that can do the heavy lifting at both ends of the ice with relative ease. Seider was impressive as an AHL rookie last year if the team was closer to being competitive again, he likely would have earned a shot with the big club. Instead, he stuck in the AHL and wasn’t rushed, but he’s already proving he’s ready for the next level.
Jonatan Berggren, LW/RW, Detroit Red Wings
(Loaned to Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Hockey League)
Finally, some good news for Detroit Red Wings fans: few European prospects have been as dominant as Jonatan Berggren so far. After playing parts of three seasons in the SHL with Skelleftea, Berggren finally found a new level in his game with two goals and 16 points in 10 games. Yeah, he’s not much of a goal-scorer with just four of his 31 career points being unleashed from his stick, but it’s hard to find a more competent passer right now.
Berggren isn’t a sure bet to make the Red Wings, but his strong start has definitely helped his case to make the Red Wings in the next few years. Still a rather raw prospect, Berggren’s back injury in 2018-19 and shoulder surgery last season didn’t help his status in the team’s organizational depth chart. But if Berggren could shoot more and add a bit more physicality to his game, he’d be a more complete prospect – and perhaps closer to making an impact on a team that needs all the help it can get in the next few seasons.
Juuso Valimaki, D, Calgary Flames
(Loaned to Ilves of the Finnish Liiga)
Valimaki was supposed to be an impact defender for the Flames last season after getting a glimpse of NHL action in 2018-19. Instead, the Finnish blueliner didn’t skate in a single game anywhere with a torn ACL in his right knee. For a 22-year-old trying to force their way into the lineup, that lost transition time was a huge blow, both for Valimaki and the Flames who were forced to get creative in his absence.
But so far, Valimaki hasn’t missed a beat playing pro in his native land, re-joining his former Ilves club that he grew up playing for in the system before moving to North America in 2015. Valimaki has 10 points in his first nine games and has often been one of the best players on the ice in any given game – a huge accomplishment given his extended time off. The Flames have to be excited about his performance so far because he should be in game shape once the NHL season kicks off and he’ll be riding a performance high after sitting out for so long.
Anton Lundell, C, Florida Panthers
(Loaned to HIFK of the Finnish Liiga)
If you asked me, Lundell may be one of the most NHL-ready players from the 2020 NHL draft. With 2020-21 being the final year on his three-year deal with HIFK, his shot to prove himself might not actually be far away, especially with how dominant he’s been this season.
Earlier this month, Lundell had a four-goal effort with HIFK, giving him seven goals and eight points in seven contests. A goal-per-game is far from sustainable, but the eight other 2020 draft picks currently playing in the Liiga have five goals combined. It’s hard to be upset with that.
Lundell is not an overly flashy player by any means and might not be a big-time offensive producer in the NHL. But what the Panthers are getting is someone who can take over a shift when needed, plays a physical two-way style reminiscent of old-time power-forward hockey and can be an absolute menace in front of the net. His performance in the early days of the 2020-21 Liiga season is a great indicator of further growth in his game and he looks like a veteran at the young age of 19. It’s his third season of pro hockey, but there’s a reason why – everything about Lundell’s game is so calculated and every team could use a player of his caliber.
Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Nashville Predators
(Loaned to Jokerit of the KHL)
Two years ago, there wasn’t a prospect more valued in hockey than Eeli Tolvanen. Selected 30th overall by Nashville in 2017, Tolvanen made the rest of the NHL teams bad for not selecting him when he made it to the Olympic all-star team in 2018 while just losing out to Vitali Kravtsov as the KHL’s rookie of the year – a decision that caught flack from hockey fans everywhere.
Tolvanen struggled in 2018-19 after hopping over to North America, failing to stick with the big club before putting up just 35 points in 58 games in the AHL. Then, in 2018-19, Tolvanen had just one more point in five more games despite playing for a Milwaukee Admirals club that looked destined to win the Calder Cup. So 2020-21 was set to be a big year for the Predators prospect and, back with his familiar Jokerit KHL club, Tolvanen has found his groove once again. Tolvanen has eight points through 13 games and has been a consistent contributor so far, but will that translate over to the NHL when the season resumes? The Predators could truly use his scoring depth.
Philip Broberg, D, Edmonton Oilers
(Loaned to Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Hockey League)
The Swedish league isn’t always kind to young prospects, but Broberg has deserved every opportunity he’s been given. Some scouts consider Broberg to be the best defenseman in the SHL right now, a striking remark given just nine U-20 defensemen have played in at least five games this year.
Broberg does a superb job of getting the puck out of his own zone, and while he has just five points in 11 games, we’re talking about a 19-year-old playing top-pairing minutes on an early championship contender. The two-way defenseman has fantastic size and he plays every game like he’s fighting for a spot on the team. That type of intensity should transfer over well to the NHL, especially since Broberg was one of Edmonton’s better defensemen from the NHL’s summer camp prior to the return to play in August. Edmonton’s defense has been a bit of a mess for the past decade, but Broberg, mixed in with Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard, are part of the team’s future. If anything, no Oilers prospect has been as impressive as Broberg over the past few months and once he finally makes the transfer over to North America, Broberg should have a positive impact.
Tyler Benson, LW, Edmonton Oilers
(Loaned to GC Kusnacht Lions of the Swiss League)
Not to be confusing or anything, but the Swiss League is actually NOT the top Swiss-based hockey league. That distinction instead goes to the National League, with the Swiss League acting as the AHL equivalent in Switzerland. Still, that shouldn’t stop Oilers fans from getting excited about Benson’s journey thus far, with the young winger recording five points in his first five games alongside reigning NL MVP Pius Suter. Sure, it’s not the top league, but at least he’s one of the better players right out of the gate.
Benson’s career to date has been an interesting one. Selected first overall by the Vancouver Giants at the 2013 WHL bantam draft, Benson struggled to stay healthy and fell to the second round of the 2016 NHL draft. He’s only played seven NHL games so far, but some people were hoping he’d finally crack the Oilers this season. A rugged winger with a great wrist shot, Benson gives the Oilers much-needed scoring depth in the bottom six and, potentially, could move up the lineup and hold his own. But in the meantime, it’s all about making the most over in beautiful Switzerland.
Pius Suter, C, Chicago Blackhawks
(Loaned to ZSC Lions of the National League in Switzerland)
Speaking of the Lions, Suter is simply too good to be playing a level below his skill level after leading the top Swiss league with 53 points a season ago. Fortunately, he’s ready for a bit of familiarity and has been returned to the top league to kick off November a year after winning the 2019-20 league’s MVP title
Suter was signed by the Blackhawks during the off-season to provide much-needed depth scoring. Suter’s value is best utilized as a bottom-six energy player capable of putting up around 10-15 goals a season. He may not dramatically move the needle, but he will play a valuable role providing depth for Chicago in a way they’ve been missing the past two seasons. For a small forward standing at 5-foot-11, Suter likes to play physically and gives it his all on every shift – exactly what a team wants out of a utility option. The Blackhawks have found a way of producing top-quality European talent, and Suter’s numbers aren’t far off of what Dominik Kubalik – a rookie 30-goal scorer – produced in the NLA. Suter might be one of the best off-season steals across the league and, if any team can get the most out of their European prospects, it’s Chicago.
Vitali Kravtsov, LW, New York Rangers
(Loaned to Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL)
When the 6-foot-4 scoring winger made his way over to North America at the age of 19 last year, there were high hopes that Kravtsov would succeed with a young Rangers team. Instead, Kravtsov was sent to the AHL and played third-line minutes with Hartford before getting sent back to Traktor of the KHL. But things didn’t improve, with Kravtsov posting just three points in 11 games before a demotion to the second-tier Russian league, only to finish the year back in the AHL.
In terms of development, 2019-20 was a total disaster, and Kravtsov needed a shot at redemption. Kravtsov was returned to Traktor and, fortunately, it’s been a huge success. Kravtsov put up 10 points in his first 13 games, which, at that pace, would put him first in scoring had he played the full 20 games to date. In a league that has never valued youth, Kravtsov’s 10 points are two points behind Columbus prospect Yegor Chinakhov for the lead among all 209 U-22 players this season, so that’s extremely promising. If the momentum continues into the start of the 2020-21 NHL season, look for Kravtsov to crack the middle-six, but the coaching staff will need to be patient with him.