While it might be a common sight to see players from Canada and the United States in the NHL, you can now regularly see some of Russia and Sweden’s best talent plying their trade on ice hockey’s premier stage. The growing popularity of hockey has seen a wave of new talent beginning to emerge from these non-traditional countries, and the clear increase in the amount of nations now competing at a high standard was evident by the 12 teams that lined-up at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Here are the ten best players from teams ranked outside the top-eight in the world.
Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo Sabres/Latvia)
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t held back in stacking their options at centre pretty high in recent years, and Zemgus Girgensons has been one of the franchise’s real success stories. Having been drafted 14th overall in the 2012 draft, the left hander has established himself as one of the most exciting prospects on the Sabres roster. The Latvian youngster was one of the stars of a modest Buffalo team over the past couple of seasons, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 61 appearances for the Sabres last year and producing a number of eye-catching performances during what was a tough campaign for the franchise. Girgensons’ form saw him earn a call-up to the end of season All-Star Game, albeit with a little helping hand from Latvian fans.
by Aaron Toth
With the presence of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart as the Sabres’ first choice two centres, the powerful Latvian is looking at a place on Buffalo’s third line for the foreseeable future. There have been a number of Latvian players in the NHL over the years, most notably Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolins and Sergejs Zoltoks, and Girgensons has all the attributes to be as good as any of his countryman who have played in North America. The youngster appeared at last year’s Olympics, scoring his first goal of the Games against Sweden and playing five games as Latvia recorded an encouraging eighth-place finish in Sochi.
Antoine Roussel (Dallas Stars/France)
One of the few French players currently playing in the NHL, Antoine Roussel has come from nowhere to establish himself as one of the Dallas Stars’ most consistent wings. Maybe not the same sort of ‘enforcer’ NHL fans saw in the brutal glory days, the 25-year-old has certainly brought a physicality to this Dallas team over the past couple of years. Boasting a 210-pound frame and with a brash style of play, Roussel hasn’t wasted anytime in making himself known to the NHL’s disciplinary board, racking up 357 penalty minutes over the course of the past two years and adding an aggressive edge to the Stars’ defensive game.
At the other end of the ice, Roussel has shown he is much more than just a bruiser, racking up 13 goals and 25 points as well as 148 penalty minutes last season, establishing himself as a solid bottom six player for a team like the Dallas Stars. At 25-years-old, the useful winger has a bright future ahead of him if he can continue to improve on his offensive game and perhaps curb some of his defensive aggression. Having signed a new four-year contract last summer, Roussel proved again last season that he is deserving of his place on this Dallas roster, and the Frenchman will be looking for another big year next season.
Dainius Zubrus (New Jersey Devils/Lithuania)
The only Lithuanian player currently plying his trade in the NHL, Dainius Zubrus has been a consistent member of five teams in the league since being selected 15th in the 1996 Draft. Having established himself as a regular with the Flyers, the right wing made the move to the Montreal Canadiens for three seasons before six successful years with the Washington Capitals. After a brief spell in Buffalo, the European star was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2007, going on to cement himself as a firm fan favourite at the Prudential Centre over the past eight years.
The veteran might be coming to the end of a career in which he has recorded 584 points in 1243 games over 18 seasons, but Zubrus’ experience has been crucial to the development of a number of New Jersey’s younger players, not to mention proving a physical boost to the Devils’ fourth line. The 37-year-old only managed four goals and 10 points last season but not many were calling for Zubrus to be dropped. For the decline in his stats, the veteran brings a lot to this team and the Lithuanian showed he still has another season or two left in him.
Mikkel Boedker (Arizona Coyotes/Denmark)
You could be forgiven for overlooking Mikkel Boedker being selected eighth overall in the 2008 Draft but the Dane has ensured he hasn’t gone unnoticed during the past seven seasons. One of the best skaters on this Arizona Coyotes roster, Boedker has improved season after season and can now class himself as one of the best scoring options for the franchise. After a somewhat slow start to life in the NHL, the Danish youngster spent a couple of productive seasons in the AHL before returning to the Coyotes team, and the right wing has made sure he has taken his chance to keep his place in the Arizona starting line-up.
On the back of a career best campaign in 2013/14, the 25-year-old was one of the Coyotes’ stars last season despite spending a large part of the year sidelined with injury, setting a personal best for points per game with 28 in his 45 appearances. With the likes of fellow youngster Max Domi and Anthony Duclair alongside him, Boedker has a huge role to play in the rebuilding process this Coyotes team is going through. While they might be betting long shots with betfair and others next year, the presence of so much up-and-coming talent could mean Arizona surprise a few people next season.
Mikhail Grabovski (New York Islanders/Belarus)
Having earned his first chance in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens after being selected 150th overall in 2004, Mikhail Grabovski really made his mark on the league during his five seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The centre scored 20 goals in a season in three of his five years in Toronto before being bought out in 2013 and moving south to the Washington Capitals before ending up in New York with the Islanders last summer. Since arriving in the Big Apple, the Belarusian has established himself as a reliable secondary scorer for a team containing the world-class talent of Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares.
One of the quickest skaters on this Islanders roster, Grabovski has won over New York fans by his willingness to put himself in those tough positions and covering a huge area of ice. While the European is looking at a future as a solid two-way centre for the Islanders behind Tavares, Grabovski has an important role to play in what the franchise are trying to achieve. If any of the team’s main men suffer injury, the Belarus international showed during his first season in New York that he has what it takes to step up and produce the goods on the big stage.
Mats Zuccarello (New York Rangers/Norway)
The sole representative of Norway currently playing in the NHL, Mats Zuccarello is certainly doing his country proud with his performances in the best hockey league in the world. After a relatively late start to life in North America, the winger has been a consistent and reliable member of this New York Rangers team over the past two seasons, playing an important role in the franchise’s President’s trophy-winning run. The forward has brought a real scoring threat to the Rangers’ offense, finishing in the top-five scorers for the franchise in the past couple of seasons and topping the points charts in a breakout 2013/14 campaign.
With 108 points to his name over the past two years, the Rangers tied Zuccarello down to a long-term deal last season, ensuring the 27-year-old will be at the franchise until 2019. An injury sustained in the first round of the playoffs didn’t stop the Rangers making it through to the Conference Finals, but there are plenty of New York fans who still believe the presence of Zuccarello throughout the postseason would have given the franchise a better chance at going all the way. Expected to be fully fit for the start of the new season, the Norwegian will be a big player for the Rangers when the new campaign gets under way.
Frans Nielsen (New York Islanders/Denmark)
It’s somewhat surprising that Denmark are ranked as low as 15th in the world despite having Mikkel Boedker and Frans Nielsen, two very solid NHL players. While Boedker is relatively new to the NHL, Nielsen has been an important part of the New York Islanders for nine seasons now. Despite being second choice behind John Tavares ever since 2009, the Dane has been a consistent points scorer for the Long Islanders, recording over 40 points every season since 2010. A host of Islanders’ players often gain the headlines ahead of Nielsen but the 31-year-old is as important as a lot of those higher-profile players on this roster and one the franchise have been lucky to have over the past nine years.
As well as being a solid two-way player, Nielsen has carved out a reputation as one of the deadliest shootout scorers in the league, amassing a 52% scoring rate during his time in the NHL. Playing for a franchise that has been improving year-upon-year, having someone with the experience and reliability in front of goal as Nielsen is going to be crucial to the Islanders’ hopes of establishing themselves as genuine Stanley Cup contenders. Last year’s brief foray into the postseason will have given the franchise a taste of the good life, and next season could see them look to really see what this team is capable of.
Thomas Vanek (Minnesota Wild/Austria)
One of the rare examples of a player from one of the more non-traditional hockey nations to be picked inside the top five of the NHL Draft, Thomas Vanek arrived in the league with a splash, scoring 43 goals in just his second season in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres. While the Austrian’s goalscoring stats dropped during the rest of his time in Buffalo, the left wing still passed the 50-point mark during seven seasons at the franchise before a disappointing final two years with the Sabres.
After brief spells with the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens, Vanek ended up in Minnesota where he has established himself as a solid top-six option for his new team. He might not be the same prolific goalscorer he was during his time in Buffalo but the Austria international has recorded 25 or more goals in eight of the past nine full seasons he has played, although injuries have begun to creep into the 31-year-old’s game. If he can stay relatively injury-free, the Minnesota Wild have a player who could well have a massive role to play in the franchise’s hopes of making a real run at the Stanley Cup over the next couple of years.
Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings/Slovenia)
Not only one of the best players to have come from a nation ranked outside the top eight in the world, Anze Kopitar has been one of the best players in the NHL over the past nine seasons, certainly one of the best two-way centres in the league. Recording over 60-points in each of his nine seasons with the Kings, there are few more prolific offensive players than the Slovenian in the NHL, and his defensive game has seen him challenging for the Selke trophy for the past couple of seasons.
While the 27-year-old didn’t manage to guide Los Angeles into the postseason last year, Kopitar still recorded 64 points, including 48 assists to prove he is still one of the best centres in the league. The Kings are well aware that the European star is entering the final 12 months of his current contract and will be hoping his modest season last year, combined with his expiring deal, will see him get back to his very best. During that time, the franchise will have to figure out just how much they are willing to spend in order to keep one of the best all-round players in LA.
by Connie Kim
Featured Image: newyork.cbslocal.com