The process is depleting the talent stream, and the NHL will suffer for it, the study contends.
"I am convinced that this depleting will affect the quality of the European players that the NHL will recruit in the future," an unidentified European-based scout for an NHL team told the report's author, IIHF media director Szymon Szemberg.
The study was conducted in response to concerns by hockey federations in various European countries and by IIHF president Rene Fasel over the exodus of players to Canadian and U.S. teams.
The study - which looked 1,200 European pro and junior players from 1997 to 2006 - found that more than 20 per cent of the Europeans moving across the Atlantic to play in the NHL and American Hockey League between 2000 and 2006 never played in the top league.
It also found that 62 per cent had little or no impact in the NHL, and 46.1 per cent returned to Europe without having played 400 games - the number considered to be the minimum for an NHL career.
Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly had a mixed response to the study.
"We don't necessarily agree with the report or all of its conclusions, but we do share the view that we should be working with the IIHF and the NHLPA to create a transfer framework that will serve to preserve the strength and depth of the European professional leagues," Daly said. "That's in all of our collective interests, and it's something we've always been focused on."
The study suggests that a healthy ratio between North Americans and Europeans skating in the NHL would be 80-20 rather than the current 70-30.
It also says that it is a misconception to believe that a European's chance of getting to the NHL are enhanced by going to North America to play in minor pro leagues or for major junior teams.
Applying a grading system, the study ranked players as: 1. minor-leaguers; 2. marginal players; 3. average NHLers such as Tomas Holmstrom and Richard Zednik; 4. stars such as Saku Koivu and Marian Hossa; and 5. superstars such as Peter Forsberg, Nicklaus Lidstrom and Jaromir Jagr.
"If the NHL found a way whereby fewer Europeans of the 1, 2 and 3 categories played in the NHL and fewer still in the minors, then these players could remain as important contributors to their club teams in Europe thus increasing the quality of play in Europe and development the talents of more players with NHL potential," the study said. "Hence, using fewer Europeans could be profitable for the NHL."
An unidentified director of player development for a major European club team said he and his peers don't mind when fully developed players leave for the NHL.
"We congratulate them, wish them luck and we are all proud that our program has developed players whom the NHL clubs are prepared to reward with large contracts," he told Szemberg. "But what is bothering is when the NHL clubs sign prospects who are marginal players either on our club or on other clubs in our league.
"Either those players simply don't have the potential or they may have potential but still have a long way to go. We know that those players can't possibly play in the NHL and of course they are sent to the minors. We think that by staying with us for one or two more years we can develop the player better than if the player is sent to the minor-league team because we put more time and emphasis on practice and skill development."
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is a prime example. He played five years in Sweden's elite league and competed at three world championships before, at age 23 and five years past his draft year, he played his first NHL game with the New York Rangers and became an instant star.
The study says others who followed the same development pattern include Forsberg, Lidstrom, Jagr, Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Fedorov, Marian Gaborik, Martin Havlat, Milan Hejduk, Alexei Kovalev, Markus Naslund and Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Winnipeg-based agent Don Baizley has represented European players for nearly 35 years and agrees that greater NHL success was achieved by his clients who delayed moving to North America until they were NHL-ready.
"In my experience, the players who went on to have the most success in the NHL were players who chose not to leave at the first opportunity," Baisley is quoted in the study. "Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg are all clients who declined to go to the NHL at their earliest opportunity."
The AHL is not a viable option for Europeans, the study says, adding that more Canadians and Americans could be skating for minor-pro teams in place of the marginal Europeans. At the same time, it acknowledges that European teams are beneficiaries of player movement to North American in that the chance to play in the NHL produces more motivated European juniors.
Szemberg recommends that more North American prospects be sent to Europe, and he offers Brian Rafalski as a prime example of the value of nurturing skills where skills instruction is a paramount facet of coaching. Rafalski spent four years in Europe, was signed by New Jersey when he was 26 and he helped the Devils win championships.
"By sending both North American and European prospects to Europe in agreement with the European club the NHL club could both compensate the European clubs for losing their best players to the NHL as well as benefit from the Rafalski factor, eventually getting back a player with improved skills and ready for the NHL. It would be a win-win situation for all."
At the Canadian junior level, "There is no reason why two roster spots on each CHL team should be given to Europeans with Hockey Canada having 441,307 youth players in its system, the most in the world."
Murray Costello of Ottawa, the Hockey Hall of Fame member and IIHF council executive told Szembert that he supports a goal of keeping the development streams strong on both sides of the Atlantic "by keeping the young players in their own federations and leagues until they are ready for NHL play."