Euros represent half NHL rookies
by Andrew Podnieks|12 OCT 2019
Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev has been one of the most noteworthy newcomers after the first few rounds of NHL action.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The new NHL season is only about ten days old, but already 34 players have appeared in a game for the first time in their (mostly) young lives. And, impressively, 17 of those 34 are European. Some of these inaugural forays into the league have been expected, and others not so much.

What is a surprise, though, is that of those 34, only four come from the first round of the 2019 Entry Draft. In an era when the league is getting younger and first-rounders are considered mostly instant stars, teams have opted for caution so far. Of course, the first overall pick, Jack Hughes, is playing with the New Jersey Devils, but after four games he has yet to register a point and is a -3.

The second overall selection, Finland’s Kaapo Kakko, hasn’t fared much better. The 18-year-old has set the international stage on fire the last 18 months, winning gold at the U18, U20, and senior World Championship. But he has no points through two games with the New York Rangers and is a -1.

The only other two first-rounders currently in the NHL are Ville Heinola with Winnipeg (20th overall) and Tobias Bjornfot with Los Angeles (22nd overall). Heinola had an assist in his first career game and currently has a goal and two assists with the Jets while defenceman Bjornfot is without a point in three games and is a -4. 

Of the 34 newcomers, 13 are Canadian and four from the U.S. Among the 17 from Europe, Sweden leads the way with five, followed by Russia (four). Finland has two and five countries have a single newcomer (Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, Switzerland).

The most impressive first game so far belongs to Russian Ilya Mikheyev, who scored a goal and added an assist for Toronto in the team’s home opener, a 5-3 win against Ottawa. Mikheyev is a feel-good story in that the 24-year-old was never drafted. The Leafs signed him as a free agent after their 2018/19 season was over, and the only other top-level experience he had came at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

The only other player so far to score in his first career game was Cody Glass with Vegas. Glass played for Canada at the 2019 World Juniors and had been drafted 6th overall by the Golden Knights in 2017.

Perhaps the biggest story so far is Joel Persson of Sweden. The Edmonton Oilers signed him a year ago, but he never made the team at the time. He was never drafted, never played in an IIHF event for Tre Kronor, but made the Oil at camp this year and has been important in the team’s amazing 4-0-0 start to the new year, averaging nearly 16 minutes a game on the blue line.

Equally interesting, though, is Gaetan Haas, the Swiss forward who left his country after many years with Biel in the Swiss A league to play with Edmonton. Haas also was never drafted, but at 27 he is the oldest newcomer so far. He has played in four World Championships and the 2018 Olympics but until this year never got much of a look by NHL teams. 

Only two of the 34 pure rookies are goaltenders, and both are European: Ilya Samsonov of Russia (Washington) and Elvis Merzlikins of Latvia (Columbus). The two had very different first games, though. Samsonov was excellent in stopping 25 of 26 shots and leading his Capitals to a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. Only 22, he played for Russia at the 2015 U18 and the 2016 and 2017 World Juniors. 

The likeable Merzlikins, though, who has played in the last four World Championships for his country, was shelled by Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to the tune of 7-2. Still, given that he was drafted 76th overall by the Blue Jackets five years ago, making it to the NHL is a huge deal for the 25-year-old Latvian.

Statistically, there will be 125-150 newcomers to the NHL over the coming season, so these trends and stories are part only of the first week. Yet they are interesting all the same and suggest Europeans are making even more of an impact on the NHL than ever before.