Every year, NHL teams sign a bunch of free agents out of European pro leagues. Most of them don’t amount to anything but occasionally there are some players who become fantasy relevant. Here are some players who will likely draw interest this summer.
The top player available this summer is 24-year-old winger Ilya Mikheyev out of Avangard Omsk in the KHL. Mikheyev has great size at six-foot-two, 194 pounds. He also plays a pretty good defensive game which isn’t always something you see from European free agents. Currently, his 22 goals is second-best in the league, and his 41 points rank 14th in the league.
Mikheyev leads his team in both goals and points. Omsk isn’t really known for being a high-scoring team, and he doesn’t have a ton of talent around him. Mikheyev’s contract expires after this season, and I believe he’s capable of jumping straight to the NHL and play on the third line. After he gains some experience in the NHL, it’s possible he could even play on a second line. He’s definitely no Artemi Panarin (remember – those types of players don’t come along often) but he could provide solid points for free.
Other forwards from the KHL who could cross the pond include Mikheyev’s teammate Kirill Semyonov. He’s a 24-year-old center with average size (6-0, 172) and average skill. But someone could add him for depth purposes. Semyonov is responsible defensively and capable of killing penalties. He has 13 goals and 24 points in 56 games this season.
Another possibility is 23-year-old winger Vladimir Tkachyov who plays for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Tkachyov was famously signed by the Oilers in 2014 but his contract was ruled ineligible by the league. He spent another year in the ‘Q’ after that, never got drafted, and has been playing in Russia these past four years. He has four goals and 24 points in 48 games which is much worse than the 18 goals and 40 points in 48 games he had last season.
A couple of defensemen and goalies will likely get signed out of the KHL but I don’t see any of them being fantasy relevant. So let’s move our attention to other leagues.
In the SHL, 25-year-old winger Jakob Lilja leads the league with 32 points in 36 games. He’s primarily a playmaker as you can see from his low goal-total of just nine. Lilja is someone who could make a living on the third line, and I believe there will be serious interest to bring him over this summer.
Jacob Josefson is a familiar name to most, and he’s actually leading the league in points-per-game average – he has 28 points in 28 games. Josefson spent eight years in North America bouncing between the AHL and NHL, and being a depth player most of his time at the NHL level. Someone could give him another chance after a strong season in the SHL. He was drafted 20th overall by the Devils back in 2009 but he’s a free agent now.
27-year-old Jesse Virtanen leads the league in points among defensemen. He has two goals and 23 points in 36 games. This is his second strong season in the SHL as he had 30 points in 51 games last season. And before that, he had seasons of 30 and 39 points in the Finnish Liiga. A team in need of offensive talent could gamble on him.
The best European goalie in the free agent market may just be Adam Reideborn. He turned 27 about a week ago, so it’s not too late for him to cross the pond if he wishes to do so. He’s not as big as most would hope (6-0, 179) but he’s been a dominant goalie in the SHL for two years in a row now. He won the SHL Goaltender of the Year award last season, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he won it again this year. He leads the league in both goals-against-average (1.84) and save percentage (0.933).
Finally, let’s move our attention to my home country Finland and our top league Liiga. 23-year-old winger Teemu Turunen leads the league in points with 45 in 43 games, and his 18 goals is just two behind the league lead. It’s been a breakout season for him after finishing the last two seasons with 30 and 32 points. Turunen is a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and his skating isn’t all that great. Someone might gamble on him but I wouldn’t.
24-year-old winger Ville Leskinen is tied for the league lead in goals and tied for second in points. He has 20 goals and 41 points in 44 games. Unlike Turunen, Leskinen has good size at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, and his skating is also very good. But he turns 25 in a couple of weeks, and I fear he’s too individualistic to succeed in the NHL. He probably had offers from the KHL and possibly the NHL as well after last season when he had 23 goals and 45 points in 49 games. But for some reason, he decided to return to the same league once again. That decision seems a bit questionable to me if he wants to play in the NHL.
Tied for that second place in points with Leskinen is 24-year-old winger Malte Strömwall. He has 19 goals and 41 points in 41 games. Strömwall has been carrying a terrible KooKoo team this season, and he has an eight point lead to second place on his team. He spent a year in the AHL in 2016-2017 before coming to Finland. Apparently his time in Hartford wasn’t a success story, so it remains to be seen if he wants to give it another chance.
One player who is a bit behind those three wingers in points but might still draw some interest is 26-year-old center Oula Palve. He has 14 goals and 33 points in 37 games. His season hasn’t been as successful as he had probably hoped after a great season and playoff run last year. He has average size (6-0, 176) and he turns 27 in a few weeks. But he’s a talented center who plays a solid defensive game which has some value.
23-year-old Oliwer Kaski leads the league in points and goals among defenseman. He has 12 goals and 33 points in 43 games. He changed teams over the summer, and it looks like a genius move for him right now. He has great size at six-foot-three, 185 pounds. He also offers a right-handed shot which is always valuable. His defensive game has some holes but Kaski is likely the most interesting free agent defenseman out of Europe this summer.
Another defender who will likely draw plenty of interest is 21-year-old Otto Leskinen (not related to Ville who was mentioned above). He has seven goals and 22 points in 42 games. That goal total is third-best in the league whereas that points total is sixth-best. Leskinen has a left-handed shot and only average size at 5-foot-11, 187 pounds. But he’s very talented offensively, and he’s by far the youngest player on this list. He turns 22 in a week or so. Leskinen took part in Montreal’s development camp last summer.
If I had to choose three players from this list for my fantasy hockey league, I would take Ilya Mikheyev, Oliwer Kaski and Otto Leskinen. I think those three offer good upside with a realistic chance of actually playing in the NHL. They are young enough – between 22 and 24 when next season starts – to have a legitimate future in the NHL. Players who are 26 or 27 when they cross the pond don’t seem to become more than depth players.
Full disclosure: I added Kaski to one of my teams before publishing this article. Mikheyev would have been my primary target but he was taken already. Check if your league rules allow you to add these players if they started to interest you. Some leagues do and some don’t. All in all, it’s not a great year for European free agents – there isn’t another Artemi Panarin and people need to stop expecting one – but it offers some value for NHL teams and also for GMs in deep fantasy hockey leagues.
Players like Nikita Gusev (Knights), Dominik Kubalik (Blackhawks), Nikolai Prokhorkin (Kings) and Alexander Khokhlachev (Bruins) were excluded from this list because their rights are already owned by NHL teams even though some people may have forgotten that already. Also, players like Mikhail Grigorenko, Alexander Barabanov and Darren Dietz were excluded because their KHL contracts have term remaining which means they’re unable to cross the pond this year. The SHL and Liiga have transfer agreements with the NHL which means players from those leagues are able to sign NHL contracts even if they’re under contract in Sweden or Finland already.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Feel free to add comments below. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Images used on the main picture courtesy of Liiga.fi and KHL.ru