The best players in the world you’ve never heard of

Jan Kovar (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan Kovar (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

The NHL is the best league in the world, and thanks to fallen prejudice no corner of the globe goes unchecked by team scouts. But every year, a Damien Brunner or Viktor Fasth comes over, seemingly out of nowhere. And there are plenty of drafted gems honing their games overseas.

With that in mind, here’s a look at our all-Euro team for 2013-14. The criteria? Players can’t be from North America (sorry, Kevin Dallman) and cannot have spurned the NHL (Ilya Kovalchuk). Also, there has to be some chance of them coming over here, so no players nearing the ends of their careers.

The 24-year-old is a late bloomer who has a great shot and loves to use it. The only point-per-game regular in the Finnish League, a.k.a. the SM-Liiga, Keranen posted 17 goals and 52 points in 52 games. He was Ilves’ MVP and has parlayed that success into an invite for Finland’s World Championship team. A speedy and flashy player who puts defensemen on their heels and can dish the puck deftly, Keranen is also responsible defensively. At 6-foot-1 and 176 pounds, he has an NHL frame, though a few more pounds would serve him well.

A second-round pick for St. Louis in 2007, Hjalmarsson never came to North America, but he may do it soon. The Chicago Blackhawks are apparently interested in the 25-year-old, who played on a line with Boston’s Carl Soderberg in Linkoping last season, but he’s really come into his own without his departed buddy. Hjalmarsson (no relation to Niklas) has set career highs with 27 goals and 57 points in 55 games, mixing a good hockey mind and skill with great board work and grit. Those totals tied him for third in the Swedish League.

The Czech Republic native, 24, was never drafted despite putting up very good numbers for HC Plzen’s junior team in 2007-08, his first year of eligibility. Kovar was also a point-per-gamer at the 2010 world juniors, but nothing caught the eye of NHL scouts. Since then, he’s blossomed into one of the top weapons in the Kontinental League, notching a career-high 23 goals and 68 points in 54 games to put him second in the league behind linemate Sergei Mozyakin. Kovar has great sniping abilities and his 5-foot-11, 207-pound frame is solid.

An Islanders draft pick, Pokka will likely come over to these shores soon. He was part of Finland’s devastating defensive stand at the world juniors, winning the nation a shocking gold medal in Sweden. But he has also been excellent at home, racking up a team-high plus-32 rating on the best squad in the Liiga. Pokka, 19, excels at both ends of the rink and put up 27 points in 54 games.

As amazing as Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Nikita Zadorov was at the world juniors, it was hard not to notice that the mountainous teenager wasn’t even the biggest player on his own D-corps. That honor belonged to Tryamkin, 19, who will inspire no shortage of “tree” nicknames if he comes over to North America. Coming in at 6-foot-7, 228 pounds, he’s in his final year of draft eligibility, but looks to be a worthy project to invest in. He’s tough, fairly mobile and has a great point shot.

Though Koskinen played four games for the New York Islanders in 2010-11, it was largely in an emergency capacity. Having only been drafted two years prior, the 6-foot-6 Finnish fortress was on a longer development track that took him back to Europe to maximize crease time once a logjam formed in the organization over here. Koskinen, 25, played in Finland and then headed to the KHL this season, where his numbers were stunning: a 1.70 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.

This feature originally appeared in the May 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.