Here’s a look at the top ten European free agents who might cross the pond this summer. I decided to rank them based on my level of interest in them in fantasy hockey leagues.
Players who are eligible for this list are those who are not affiliated with an NHL organization right now (no NHL team owns their rights) and are able to sign a contract with an NHL organization after this season. For that second point, they might be playing in a country that has a transfer agreement in place with the NHL (all other European countries except Russia and Switzerland), they might have their current contract expiring after this season, or they might have an NHL opt-out clause in their contract.
No, there is no Artemi Panarin available this year. I don’t know how many years I need to repeat that. But this year’s free agent crop is actually weaker than usually, so don’t get your hopes too high.
- Julius Nättinen, F – Liiga
The former Ducks’ second round pick got his NHL contract terminated after just one season in the AHL because things were not working out for him there and he didn’t seem to get the kind of role he wanted on the team. Things actually started to go downhill a year before that when he moved from Barrie to Windsor in the OHL – he had a great season in Mestis at age 17 and then in the OHL at age 18 but things seemed to spiral after that.
Nättinen returned to Finland, and his rookie season in the Liiga was decent but nothing special. But this season, he’s taken his game to a completely different level (32 goals and 52 points in 52 games). A big part of that has been him completely re-inventing his game since returning to Finland. He used to be a playmaking center but nowadays he’s a goal-scoring winger. That position and playing style seems to be a much better fit for him at the pro level.
Nättinen leads the league in goals by a wide margin. He also leads his team in points by a wide margin, and his points total is third-best in the entire league. He has only averaged about 17 minutes of ice time per game. Even though about three minutes of that has come on the power play, he doesn’t rely on it for his production but instead scorers most of his points at even strength: only 12 of his 52 points have come on the power play. Nättinen has cooled off significantly in the second half of the season but that is understandable considering his first-half pace was ridiculous.
Nättinen has the size (6-2, 205) and skating ability to have success in North America. With his new and improved playing style and a position that better suits him, he has to give it another go. Nättinen may not be ready to jump straight to the NHL but he could follow the Victor Olofsson route: to the AHL at age 23 and to the NHL at age 24. Just don’t expect his results to be quite as good.
Nättinen is best suited to play an offensive role on the third line but obviously with NHL’s mix-and-match style in lineup configurations, he could end up anywhere in the top nine. He shouldn’t be expected to carry his line offensively but he could be a great complementary scorer, especially against secondary opponents.
- Pius Suter, F – NLA
Suter led the NLA in goals and points this season with 30 goals and 53 points in 50 games. It wasn’t quite a Dominik Kubalik level season (he had 25 goals and 57 points in 50 games before signing his NHL contract) but it was definitely close enough to draw NHL interest. Suter’s contract runs until 2023 and the NLA doesn’t have a transfer agreement with the NHL but reports indicate that Suter’s contract has an NHL opt-out clause for the summer of 2020, so I’m fully expecting him to take advantage of that opportunity.
Funnily enough, three different independent scouting communities (FutureConsiderations, HockeyProspect and ISS) ranked Suter in the top 120 for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft after his strong season with the Guelph Storm in the OHL at age 18. Maybe some team should have spent a seventh round pick on him instead of letting him go undrafted.
- Johannes Kinnvall, D – SHL
Kinnvall is an average-sized (5-11, 181) offensive defenseman who has really taken his game to another level this season (40 points in 49 games) after moving to the HV71 organization. He is second in the league in points among defensemen, and he’s done that while only averaging 16 minutes of ice time per game. About three minutes of that ice time has come on the power play where he has scored 21 of his 40 points.
Kinnvall is not ready to play in the NHL right away but an organization that’s willing to spend a couple of years developing him could get a very effective power play specialist who plays limited minutes at even strength. The problem is that NHL teams don’t really like using power play specialists but instead giving power play time to players who earn it with strong all-around game, so it is difficult for a player like Kinnvall to become a full-time NHL player at any point – unless he can improve his all-around game first.
- Dmitrij Jaskin, F – KHL
- Mikhail Grigorenko, F – KHL
Here are two familiar names for NHL fans. Jaskin and Grigorenko have both had great seasons in the KHL and their contracts are expiring. Jaskin is turning 27 and Grigorenko is turning 26, so it’s probably now or never if they want to give the NHL another chance. Have they shown enough improvement during their time in the KHL that it makes sense to bring them back? That will be up to the NHL GMs to decide but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.
I think both players are capable of playing a third line role right away – if they can find the right team that gives them that opportunity. They were mostly buried in the fourth line before leaving the NHL, so that would already be an improvement for them. They both have NHL experience and a big body which is always helpful, so NHL teams know what they’ll get and there’s no real risk for them.
Also, Slava Voynov is eligible to return to the NHL next season but I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.
- Jerry Turkulainen, F – Liiga
Turkulainen is an undersized (5-7, 159) winger who has never had any issues creating offense and putting up points. He was draft-eligible for the first time in 2017, and he scored 26 points in 48 Liiga games during that season – that gave him a better points-per-game average than what Jesperi Kotkaniemi had in his draft season. Obviously Turkulainen was small and very old for his draft class but that was still an incredible season. But it wasn’t enough.
This season, Turkulainen has taken his game to yet another level (42 points in 56 games), so hopefully that is enough for someone to offer him an NHL contract. He has averaged about 18 minutes of ice time per game. Over three minutes of that ice time has been on the power play where he has scored 14 of his 42 points, so he has relied on power play production much more than Nättinen who plays on the same team.
Turkulainen is still just 21 years old but he has already played four full seasons at the Liiga level. He is by no means ready to jump to the NHL but getting him to the AHL for a couple of years might pay dividends in the end. He is more of a long-term project and a risky one at that but he has earned that opportunity.
- Artyom Zub, D – KHL
- Konstantin Okulov, F – KHL
- Alexander Barabanov, F – KHL
These are players who are likely to be signed and have a good chance to play in the NHL next season but they’re just depth players at the NHL level, so I wouldn’t get too excited about any of them. They could provide cheap multi-cat production in deep salary cap leagues but that’s about it.
- Mikko Lehtonen, D – KHL
This is a player who technically breaks the rules of this article because he has another year left on his KHL contract. But because he plays for the Finnish KHL team (Jokerit), some fans are wondering if the team would allow him to chase his NHL dream after mutual termination of his contract. It would be rare for such a thing to happen with a player of his caliber but the hope is that the Finnish KHL team is more reasonable than the Russian KHL teams would be. We shall see if that will be the case.
If Lehtonen manages to get his contract terminated, he immediately jumps to the top of this list by a wide margin. With 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games, Lehtonen had one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen in the KHL. He was the best defenseman in the league with a significant margin, and at age 26, it’s not too late for him to make it in the NHL. He would challenge for a third-pair role on an NHL roster immediately, and very likely get that spot as well. He could even work his way up to the second pair from there. He isn’t just a great skater and a great offensive player but he’s also pretty solid defensively and has decent size (6-0, 196) as well.
But first he would need to get that KHL contract terminated before any of that is possible. Even if that doesn’t happen, he has said he’ll give the NHL a chance after next season, so perhaps this is a name to remember for the summer of 2021.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Main picture courtesy of Liiga.fi