Penguins gaining greater European influence
It was just past lunchtime on a quiet late June day when a roar rattled the walls of the Cranberry hotel where Penguins prospects were staying for development camp.
It wasn’t a rowdy party starting early. No need to call hotel security.
The Swedish prospects at camp had simply gathered to watch their home country’s pool-play game against Mexico in the World Cup, and they were excited when the boys in yellow and blue scored a goal.
Such celebrations are going to be more common in areas where Penguins players congregate over the next few years.
While it hasn’t reached the saturation point of the Craig Patrick era in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the European influence on the Penguins organization is on the rise.
“Being a USA Hockey guy and playing against the Europeans so many different times, they’re really good hockey players,” Penguins director of player development Scott Young said.
Starting with the drafting of Jaromir Jagr in 1990, the Penguins were on the cutting edge of the NHL’s European invasion a generation ago. By 2000, they made Ivan Hlinka one of the first European born and trained head coaches in the NHL. Nineteen European players suited up for at least one game that season.
Eventually, the European influence on the league and on the Penguins roster waned. The rise of Russia’s KHL kept many talented players from leaving home. By the heart of the Ray Shero era in 2011, the Penguins had only two European players, Evgeni Malkin and Zbynek Michalek, on the roster.
Slowly but surely, the European influence has returned under Jim Rutherford. By the 2015-16 championship season, there were nine Europeans on the NHL roster. Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Olli Maatta, Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon figure to be key players in the fall.
There are several reasons for the renaissance.
One is the emergence of Patrik Allvin in the scouting department. Rutherford greatly respects the opinion of the 43-year-old Swede, promoting him to head scout a year ago. Over the past four drafts, the Penguins used 11 of their 20 picks on European players.
Two-way centers Linus Olund and Teddy Blueger are good candidates to see NHL time this season as are newly signed defenseman Juuso Riikola and winger Tobias Lindberg, who was acquired in the Derick Brassard deal.
In addition, European players are often closer to NHL ready after being drafted than North American players. Considering the rate at which the Penguins deal away high picks in an effort to win now, shortening the incubation period for prospects isn’t a bad idea.
An 18-year-old North American prospect will be playing against competition of a similar age in college or juniors. An 18-year-old European prospect often plays in his country’s elite league.
“I’ve been playing three years there, playing against men, playing professionally,” Olund said. “I think I have an advantage coming over here.”
Also, European prospects don’t have as difficult a time adjusting to the smaller ice surfaces and more physical style of play in North America as they used to. Technology has made the world smaller in that regard.
“They’re so much more informed now,” player development coach Jarrod Skalde said. “They understand what they’re getting into. I think it’s a very quick adjustment for a lot of these guys.”
Finally, the European influence is growing simply because it’s a strong era for hockey on the continent, especially in Sweden and Finland.
The Finns won gold at the World Junior Championships in 2014 and 2016 and have medaled in the last three Olympics played with NHL-caliber players. The Swedes have won the last two IIHF World Championships.
“They’re doing a great job, all the way from under-16s to the professional level,” Olund said. “It’s great.”