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The leagues of Europe and their relative competitiveness

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A look at the different leagues in Europe, and whether we can rank them by strength.

HC Slovan Bratislava

This is an interesting subject, and I have bothered ice hockey federations, clubs, friends and colleagues since I had "that" discussion, and Bonaventura tricked me into something I couldn't back down from. This is a long article, and I completely blame (or credit depending on how you see it) Bonaventura for that.

Ranking the Leagues of Europe

The organizing bias

Being the first of its kind, and having been set up by the clubs themselves, the Champions Hockey League (CHL) is absolutely not the right venue for grading the teams. Nonetheless, it serves as the best comparison with direct competition between the different leagues. Sweden's SHL and Finland's Liiga had eight teams in the pan-European tournament each, the Czech Republic, German and Swiss leagues had six each, Austria had four, Norway two, and Denmark, France, Slovakia and UK one entrant each. This gives us a first, if ineffective, ranking.

Polling the guys that should know

With the benefit of working within sports, I took the first opportunity to rank the leagues by polling my co-workers. We all have more than five years experience working with the different hockey leagues of the world. The group is six members strong, and has two Finns and four Swedes (two of them abroad in Norway and England).

The polling was very straightforward: they had five minutes to arrange the leagues in the order they preferred, according to skill and quality. For this exercise we decided to only rank the top league in each country, leaving the Allsvenskan, Mestis and MHL leagues out of the rankings.

The results were quite uniform, and all said more or less the same thing: the quality gap beyond the Swiss league was bigger than it is between the Swiss league and the league above it. We also agreed that the leagues ranked fifth to seventh can be more or less interchangeable. I have only used the initials for everyone but myself in order to respect the anonymity of my colleagues.

Leagues of Europe Poll

Using the new Champions Hockey League as a base for rankings

The question after this process is: does it hold up to scrutiny? For the next step I decided to declare KHL as the best league in Europe, even if it varies a lot internally between teams. This gave me the chance to use CHL results as my next source for rankings. As the new season had just started, I used the 2014-15 season as a reference, working my way around with different formulas.

The first one was average points-per-game for each country (in order to nullify the presence of eight teams each from the big countries). The fourth representative from Austria was HC Bolzano (Italy) as champions of the Austrian league.

Point per game2015

As seen in the table above, the top three leagues are standout performers, there is a massive drop from the Swiss to the Czech League, and more or less decimals between Czech and Austria. This table doesn't include playoffs, and I do realize that some teams didn't give it their best shot once they knew they were out of post-season contention. Using first-round playoff data and discarding that from clashes between two clubs from the same country, would this change?

rank by points PO

The table shows that while Finland had the most teams in the first playoff round, they did not do as well as the Swedish teams that qualified. In fact, both match ups between a Finnish and Swedish club were won by the SHL representative. Through the whole tournament, Sweden took  21 of 30 available points from their Finnish rivals. (I took out the all-Finnish match-ups for it not to skew the stats, leaving only data for five Liiga teams).

An interesting point here is the fact that Czech Extraliga team Sparta Prague only got one point against a similar team in the Swedish Hockey League, while both finished fourth in their section of the draw and were knocked out in the semi-finals. This leads me to believe that the gap between the leagues is a big one, even if the contest was tight.

With the playoff results seem of confirm the league rankings listed at the beginning, I wanted to look a bit closer at the lower ranked teams. In this case, I tried to use the best second-place team in each group to see what that would say about second-tier teams. 

CHL best twos

To do this, I graded teams on a scale from one (1) point for making the playoffs as the last team, to a maximum of five (5) for the first-place finisher. A -1 score was given for a team that just missed playoff qualification, decreasing through the rankings to a  -6 for the last-place team. Awarding these points to the countries gives us this:

Second Place CHl Countries

By this calculation we see that the best teams of Norway can give some of the lower-tier teams in the better ranked leagues a run for their money.

One thing that really stands out in regards to this is the German league. It seems that all of us in the poll overestimated the strength of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), as they didn't have a single team that qualified for the playoffs or ranked among the top-two teams of any group. Norway had a team that almost made the playoffs, so is the Norwegian league better than we thought? I chose to take a look at the groups and see which teams the German teams played, and if they were lined up against the big leagues all the time.

Three of the four German teams ended up at the bottom of their respective groups, and while the groups weren't easy, I would have thought that losing to a UK team (Hamburg Freezers lost to Nottingham Panthers) would have been out of the question before the tournament began. Hamburg was the only German team that finished at least third in a group, and the last game against Nottingham could have been a toss away game, as the group was already decided. Looking at this year's CHL, the German teams are off to much better starts.

Looking at the start of the 2015-16 Champions League season, have things changed?

With the group stage of the 2015-16 CHL tournament having just finished, I decided to see if the countries performed to the same level this year or if there have been any changes:

points per game2016

Some big changes this year are the addition of Neman Grodno, a team from Belarus, as well as the Finnish team, KalPa Kupio, missing out on playoff qualification for a second time in a row. But most noteworthy is that Norway managed to get second in the rankings with two points per game, and both teams, Hamar and Stavanger, won their respective groups.

The Czech teams improved, but not by as much as their German counterparts, who doubled their points per game compared to the previous year. The Swedish teams seemed to realize that you couldn't skate on one edge and get through, and seemed to take things more seriously, grabbing first place by quite a margin. It's also notable that not one country over the first two years of CHL play has failed to record at least one point.

Conclusions based on CHL results

points per gamecombined

When using the CHL as an indicator, it is important to remember that in a four-team-per-group scheme (as their was in 2014-15) or a three-team group (this 2015-16 edition) if a team from a smaller nation manages to draw both a Finnish and Swedish team, the feeling must have been that they'd be in over their heads.

In 2014-15 there were a few third-place teams finishing with nine points (Djurgarden, Bolzano and Ocelari Trinec from Czech Republic). This shows how closely fought some of the groups really were. The top teams were spread out much more with the current three-team grouping, but there were still groups that had two very strong teams, though the small team got two exhibition games at home. It would be like how a Swedish team would feel about drawing PSG and Real Madrid in football.

Factoring in the KHL as the clear number one, is Norway really the fourth-best league in Europe? Probably not, but it shows how the development of leagues changes, and how much a stable economy can mean for teams.

The Fluidity of the Standings

To have access to "lower level" Swedish players and being able to pay a good salary to those players is a huge benefit for Norway. At some point or another, talent from within the Scandinavian nation will need to be promoted. With the Norwegian team in Group A of the World Championships, it looks like Norway does indeed have a stable future. With Mats Zuccarello in the NHL, it can only generate more interest, creating a cycle that will most likely increase interest among the young talent in Norway.

The Swiss teams seem to be benefiting from what Patrick Thoresen (formerly of the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, now with Djurgarden) described in Norwegian media (Hamar Arbeiderblad) "The Swiss league is better than the Czech as they get better imports due to good pay and no taxes." The Czechs have an amazing tradition, but the question is whether they can keep up money wise. The Slovaks have already lost that race by the look of it, with the exception of Slovan Bratislava, who reside in the KHL.

It seems the panel has overvalued Germany to a slight degree, and undervalued Norway massively. 
One thing to remember is that the three top leagues' second divisions are not ranked, and Allsvenskan, Mestis, and MHL would probably be ranked somewhere in the middle of the European ranks.

Slovan Bratislava, Jokerit and the KHL

After the 2011-12 season, HC Slovan Bratislava left the Slovak Extraliga in order to join the KHL, and the first real expansion of the KHL started. The KHL breached one of the traditional European markets and took the league's champion away. With this in mind, and as Slovan has been a member of the Russian league ever since (Lev Praha, another expansion team in a traditional country, has had to withdraw because of financial problems) I chose to look into the financials of the team to see how they changed with the KHL inclusion.

#4 Patrick Luza #8 Michal Sersen HC Slovan Bratislava
Photo courtesy HC Slovan Bratislava

Marketing Director for Slovan, Milan Vajda, confirmed that the budget is about 12 million Euros, and that 50-55% of that is salary to players. He continued to explain that up to 15% represented traveling costs, and that this is roughly average except for the remotely-located teams of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

The interesting costs brought up were the 9% for hockey gear and 5% for youth development. Look no further than Slovan to provide most of the Slovak national team for the future. During the Extraliga days the total budget was 3.5-4 million Euros, so Slovan Bratislava today has more costs in salaries than they used to have in total turnover.

For the 2014-15 season, the Finnish team Jokerit joined the KHL in order to branch out and participate in the second-best league in the world. The previous season, Jokerit finished seventh in Liiga with an average of 1.33 points/game. This past season Jokerit averaged two points/game and finished second in the Borbov Division of the KHL. How could it be that they increased their points per game against stronger opposition?

The answer is quite simple, and a quick conversation with Jokerit spokesman/public relations representative Iiro Keurulainen confirmed that the salary costs had doubled when Jokerit joined the KHL, from between 4 and 5 million Euros to 10 million. Offering the chance to play in the safe city of Helsinki and within the KHL, they didn't have trouble attracting good players to the team.

They had also learned from other expansion teams that it was important to be in the top part of the league in order to promote the product and keep the interest high. Keurulainen did not provide as detailed a list as Mr. Vajda, so the comparison ends there. Taking the list from Slovan Bratislava, we could extrapolate the turnover in total for Jokerit to be around 20 million Euros.

Using salaries as a strength of league

With the argument that a higher salary cost should mean better players (as better players tend to demand higher salaries) I wanted to have a look at the average salaries within the different leagues. With this in mind I contacted the different European federations to ask for the average salary cost of the top league, but unfortunately received no answers. I could only access the public data from the Swedish clubs' official results and compare it to that of Slovan Bratislava and Jokerit, which would be 6.5-10 million Euros.

Having had a look at the Swedish turnover and salary costs from last year, the difference between two of KHL's teams and the standard cost for a Swedish team's salary is not very different. The top teams in Sweden have a salary cost of 7.5 million to 8.5 million Euros (per the 2014-15 annual report) with one extreme team, HV71, that had a bad season, panicked, and brought in 10.5 million Euros worth of players.

With the argument that a higher cost of salaries shows a better league, it could therefore be argued that the top Swedish teams would be able to fight it out for a playoff spot in the KHL (if you exclude any traveling costs). An average Swedish team has a turnover of 12.5 million Euros, which would have to be increased for a possible KHL team, as the transportation costs are a lot cheaper playing within Sweden than for teams literally crossing the whole of Asia for an away game.

Looking back to the annual reports from the Swedish teams, the extra costs do not come close to the numbers provided by Slovan Bratislava, hence a higher percentage of the turnover can in this case be spent on salary.

Intra-League Competitiveness

Competitiveness last 5 years

In order to determine competitiveness of different leagues, I took a top-to-bottom approach; the difference between the top team and the bottom team in the league. The theory is that the smaller that gap is, the more competitive the league is. The leagues in Europe all use a three-point system: three points for a win, two for an overtime/shootout win, and one going to the extra-time loser, with most leagues playing about 50- to 60-game seasons. With this in mind, I used the last five years' final standings, and the average differences in order to get a snapshot of the internal quality of a league.

Competitve Leagues

The interesting thing here is the KHL. While there are a few teams that struggle, I also wonder if there is a wide discrepancy because of teams trading away or releasing players to save money in financially-trying times. Having the fewest points between making the playoffs or not could be an indication of this.

While the NHL uses a different point system, I used the 2014-15 NHL season as a reference point. The same numbers, not corrected for a three-point win would be something along 95-96 points, and the playoff spot would be decided by one point. It is a very small sample size, but without the three-point system, the last five years (excluding the lockout season and including the 2010 season), the average point spread for missing the playoffs in the NHL is two points. Which could again point to a "tanking" scenario in the KHL with its tight playoff race, as in the NHL where non-playoff contenders give up players for future prospects to teams that are in position to make that playoff push.

In terms of competitiveness within a league, Austria is probably the most competitive, while Slovakia, Denmark and Norway have the largest gap between playoff qualifiers and the rest of the teams. With regard to the overall strength of the league, with both internal competitiveness and the tightness of the playoff race, Sweden is probably the most competitive league in Europe when factoring in its size. Canucks Army put together a great article that points to the correlation of playing at an early age — and scoring a few points — in the SHL, and a future NHL career.

Final thoughts

It is important to understand that this is an evolving list, and it changes over time as the leagues do. As the star players cultivate a following of young players who look up to them, they will inspire said youth to participate in hockey, and possibly enter those pro leagues one day.

This list offers a snapshot in space and time what was last season and beginning of this season. It's not a definitive analysis, it is meant to be used as something to understand the fluidity of the European leagues. Even if the top three have always been the same (Russia, Sweden and Finland) it remains to be seen if that is the case in the future.

******

Acknowledgments

With the e-mails that I sent out to different clubs for this article, I would like to credit the two that did in fact answer. Mr. Milan Vajda of Slovan Bratislava (who also kindly provided photos) and Mr. Iiro Keurulainen at Jokerit both got back to me in a matter of minutes. That really helped bring the article forward, and I can't  possibly express my thanks for the help provided.

I leave the last words of this piece to Mr. Vajda himself, as he signed off his e-mail to me:

"Best wishes for the Habs in the upcoming season."