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Ranking the European leagues for draft prospect evaluation

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What’s the difference between the Swedish Elite League and the KHL? How do you figure out which draft prospects’ points to be impressed by?

2016 NHL Draft - Round One
The last player drafted first overall out of Europe.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A reader asked us to write up a primer on the complex world of European hockey to help draft watchers figure out which prospect to rate over others. That’s a fine idea, so consider this the basics.

Club System

Before we dig into the leagues, it helps to understand the club system used in Europe. Most teams in most leagues are part of a sports club that acts as the parent organization. The main feature of this we want to consider is vertical integration; that is: multiple hockey teams under one roof.

Take HV71 for example. Andreas Borgman played there his last year in Sweden, and Pierre Engvall played there this year. HV71, like the rest of the teams in the SHL, have a whole set of junior divisions where kids play, graduate up the ranks and end up on the men’s team. Confusion can set in when looking at draft prospects. You want to make sure you understand the difference between the junior team and the senior team, or even levels within the junior ranks. Watch the league column on whatever site you use to look at stats.

Some clubs are much larger, older, and complex than HV71. Djurgårdens IF, the parent club of the SHL hockey team Djurgården, has a top football club in Sweden and a host of other departments ranging from fencing to women’s football to American football. Some clubs have baseball departments too, so put away the hot takes about how European kids never learn to catch a ball. Djurgården also has a women’s hockey team in the SDHL. And absolutely all of the teams are called the same shorthand name, DIF, and it gets confusing when you’re not used to it.

That kind of horizontal integration in sports organizations has some interesting side effects. The training facilities become more cost effective and one team can access higher-quality services than they would otherwise afford on their own. When Yegor Korshkov broke his leg, his club, Lokomotiv, called on the surgeon in Italy they use for their football team.

Not long ago players tended to stay in their local clubs from childhood to retirement. Player movement was infrequent, and foreign players in European leagues were rare. If you look at Borgman’s career, you will see a player who spent a lot of time in the Timrå organization, moving to HV71 only for last season. He has played in a host of leagues, spent some time on loan with other teams, and has never played on a Stockholm team even though that’s where he’s from. This is much more common now as players chase opportunity, and teams chase talent.

The Relegation System

In many European systems, there is a relegation and promotion system where one or two teams off the bottom of the standings go down a level, and they get replaced by teams moving up.

You need to be aware of this when looking at historical records. When William Nylander played for MODO, they were an SHL team. Now they aren’t. The league level affects a lot about the team, mostly driven by how much money they can afford to spend on players.

Men’s Leagues by Nation

Russia

The KHL is not Russian, but the top Russian league is the KHL. This confusing semi-international league is the top men’s hockey league for Russia. They do not have a relegation system, but they are currently undergoing a plan, slated to take years, of contracting non-profitable clubs out of the league and expanding into better markets. Many contracted teams do move into the VHL, but it’s not automatic.

The VHL is the second tier league in Russia, and it functions broadly similarly to the AHL. Not every KHL team has a VHL affiliate, and not every VHL team is affiliated with a KHL club, but most are. Players move up and down from one to the other.

For example: Leafs draft pick Vladislav Kara played a few KHL games this season, but he was mostly on the VHL squad. His job this August in training camp is to crack the KHL team if he can.

The top Russian junior teams, usually affiliated within their parent club structure to a KHL team, have a league called the MHL. It’s a 20 and under league like Canadian junior hockey. Very good players move from the MHL directly to the KHL. Korshkov went up and played his first KHL season, and then went back and wrecked the hapless opposition in the MHL finals. Imagine Mitch Marner going back to the London Knights for the playoffs after his first NHL season, and you have it about right.

In countries that have a KHL team, but also their own national league: Slovakia, Finland, Kazakhstan, etc., a draftee who plays on the KHL team, not on a league team or a junior team has to be very, very good.

Russia also has men’s leagues lower down than the VHL, but they are largely irrelevant to us as draft watchers.

Sweden

The SHL is the top men’s league. (No one calls it the Swedish Elite League anymore unless they work for HNIC.) The second tier league, called Allsvenskan (the name translates as “The all Swedish” so putting another the in front of it seems really odd), is in a relegation and promotion relationship to the SHL. While that produces a much different structure to the AHL, there is some similarity because loans of players between teams across the leagues is common as team needs and player ability dictates.

You will see good young players loaned to an team in Allsvenskan to get more ice time. Or a good Allsvenskan-contracted player loaned to an SHL team because he’s outgrown the level of competition on his home team.

The junior teams within each club are denoted by U20, U18, etc designations. The top junior league is the SuperElit, made up of the top 20 junior teams in the country.

Finland

The Liiga (or SM-Liiga) is the top men’s league in Finland, and it has a relationship with the second tier league, the Mestis. They have gone back and forth on using a promotion system, but these days they do not have a formal system; however, some teams have been promoted to make up the numbers as other teams have left the Liiga, notably Jokerit who joined the KHL in 2013.

There are junior teams in the Finnish clubs as well, and the top junior league is called Nuorten SM-Liiga or Jr. A SM-Liiga.

Other Leagues

All countries have similar leagues, the Czech league is officially called the Tipsport Extraliga, and the second tier of teams there is currently the WSM Liga.

Switzerland has the NLA and NLB leagues. Germany has the DEL and the DEL2.

For most of these countries, with the frequent exception of the Czech league, top prospects play hockey in a better league elsewhere.

David Pastrnak and Kevin Fiala both played in Sweden on junior and Allsvenskan teams, and in Fiala’s case, he was loaned to an SHL team for a time.

Last year, Alexandre Texier became the first-ever player drafted out of the French league, and this season he played in Finland. Auston Matthews was the most notable player ever taken from the Swiss NLA, although Roman Josi had never gone elsewhere, so he’s likely second.

Ranking the Leagues

The order I chose up above was deliberate. Without question, the KHL is tops, followed by the SHL and the Liiga. The number of draft picks taken from anywhere else, other than the Czech league, is low, so that’s likely sufficient, but it’s not a simple one two three, the degree to which one is better than the other matters a lot.

One way to quantify that is with the NHLe metric. This calculation attempts to give a multiplier factor you can apply to a player’s points in one league and see what they would be in NHL dollars. It’s the exchange rate metaphor everyone longs for for all stats.

I’ll be honest. I think it’s okay as a broad measure of relative strength of a league, but I would never be able to bring myself to do that arithmetic. I cannot bear to apply an average to an individual player on a specific team in specific circumstances in that way and think I’ve done anything more than proved I have a calculator.

Ian Tulloch, then of The Leafs Nation, did a great piece on this last year, and I suggest you read it if you want to start multiplying. He did a revised method aimed at prospect valuation, and I skip to the end for you and go with his final results:

There’s no VHL there, because that league is only recently growing into a development league in the same way the AHL is. Very few players are ever drafted from there.

Those numbers pass the sniff test for me, and I like Tulloch’s more robust methodology better than the original concept.

But bear something in mind. The worst KHL team has players less capable surrounding Drafty McDraftee than the best SHL team, and the worst SHL team that just got promoted might be barely better than the bottom third of the Liiga, and so on and so on.

If you’re figuring out if a player is good or not, look a little deeper than the boxcars for some context. The single biggest effect on player results in the NHL is quality of teammates. For a young prospect playing men’s hockey, good ones are better than bad ones for his development, so a player on a good team has learned more. Is he better or just further along the learning curve? That’s the million dollar question. If you think some points stats and a multiplier will tell you that, then I assume you have a lot of money.

The Split Season

One thing that is very common with European draft prospects outside the top tier of prospects is split seasons between junior hockey and a men’s team. The players are 17 or 18, physically mature enough to play men’s hockey and just getting too good for the U20 team if they are really good prospects.

The answer for their development is to ease them into the men’s team with a run of games early or to promote them fully, part way through the year. This will depend on the individual and team needs. You might need to dig a little deeper to see which direction this split season functioned.

Is the player roaring along and ready for a full season in men’s hockey, or did he try it and need a step back? Once you’ve answered that question, then you have to ask yourself what that means.

What Does it Mean?

When looking at prospects as fans, we have only so much information. All we can do is take what we do have and put it in context as much as possible. That context is very useful when what’s being offered to you is some video highlights and not much else.

One thing that Tulloch’s analysis hints at is that we underrate the junior players in Europe. Turned around, we overrate the junior players in Canada. There is some draft analysis of historical performance by country of origin that hints at the same thing.

If nothing else, it might make seemingly mysterious signings like Vladislav Kara, who had 20 points in 31 MHL games at age 19 when he was drafted, make more sense. Pierre Engvall, who has certainly arrived in style on the Marlies, had 24 points in 50 games at the same age in Allsvenskan. I’ll let you multiply that out and see if Kara looks as off the board now as he was then.

Of course, none of that matters at all if the player doesn’t put in the maximum amount of work, has lots of luck (of the good kind) and fits in with the NHL team that drafted him. No matter how robust the methodology for any equivalency rating, it’s got development efforts baked into it distorting the relationship between draft year performance and adult achievement.

There is no perfect mathematical way to compare the apples to the oranges in hockey. But wouldn’t the draft be boring if you never hit it big on a seventh rounder once in a while?