In September of 2015, I published an article about the league strength in Europe to help settle an argument in the Eyes On The Prize comment section about which league was the best to develop a prospect in. I was using one-and-a-half seasons of group-stage data from the Champions Hockey League (CHL), and had only one year of playoff action in my analysis. Now with four full seasons of data to work with, I decided to go back and see if there had been any changes to the league rankings.
Three years ago, the league rankings, based on a points system for the CHL results, looked like this:
Two nations were in a league of their own, with three more teams in the next tier, including one outlier in Norway. Then came the central European group, and at the end a bottom four of teams well behind the others. The project gave a tentative ranking of the different leagues in Europe, with the exception of the KHL.
At the time of the original article, I caught some complaints that not all teams took the competition seriously, and that it wasn’t an important competition. With the tournament having secured sponsorship until 2023 the prize money has increased to about €700,000 to the winner — enough to pay one or two franchise players in continental Europe.
It there was any question before, teams should be taking the competition more and more seriously with increased reward and prestige. While teams still rest players for the last round in the group stage to avoid injuries in a dead rubber match, it is clear that the investment in the European tournament is at a high level.
I collected the data from all four years’ group stages (where teams cannot face a club from its own league), and then added the playoffs data in two different ways:
- calculating the points (three points for a win, two for an overtime win, one for a draw, and none for a loss) for each game a team played, while doing a separate count to discard all games between domestic foes from different leagues;
- awarding one point for making the playoff round, and a point for each playoff series victory, including winning the Final, with a maximum total of 22 points possible over the four seasons.
This allows us to not only find the best leagues, but also the best teams. Using the average points per game for each league/team over four years helps eliminate a lucky run from one team in one season.
League ranking results
What we can see here is that the field has divided into clear tiers, and there has been some movement with different leagues moving up and down in comprison to the 2015 table.
Finland’s and Sweden’s point-per-game average is dropping, as the competition becomes more tight. Czech Republic and Switzerland are quite stable around 1.5 to 1.6 points per game; the numbers they had in the original comparison.
The British league has made a spectacular move upwards, and it looks to have been a broad success, as the United Kingdom’s national team qualified for the 2019 World Championship. We also saw the first British player drafted by an NHL team in June: Liam Kirk, from the Sheffield Steelers, selected by the Arizona Coyotes.
Belarus is a new addition to the table, and it has impacted the rankings as they move into the up-and-coming tier. It seems the Belarusian teams in domestic competition have the same benefits (high interest as players strive to be part of the KHL team, Dinamo Minsk) and drawbacks (the big club gets all the country’s young talent) that the Slovak teams do with the KHL’s Slovan Bratislava.
The Champions Hockey League has struggled a bit with its format, starting with groups of four and having two teams going through, but changed in the second year to groups of three with two teams going through from each group. Last season it was back to four-team groups, and the structure of the nations was adjusted to have fewer teams from Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland, as an example, to compress the format a bit. It also eliminated the guaranteed spots for teams that had been part of the founding process.
Still, it seems there are five tiers in the CHL at the moment. You could make an argument for four by putting Sweden and Finland in the same tier, but since the dropoff between the top two nations is so large, and there has been a clear order in each of the four years, I felt a delineation was necessary.
The Big Four (The Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland) are increasing their dominance of the tournament. With the three winners of the tournament coming from Sweden (Luleå, and Frölunda twice) and Finland (JYP), and the final having been contested by just one team outside those two Nordic countries (Sparta Prague in 2017), it is likely that the winner of next season’s tournament will come from one of the top two nations as well.
Team ranking results
As I mentioned earlier, I also ranked the teams who have participated, in two different ways, first by calculating points per game.
Frölunda stands out as the top team of the 20 listed here, but teams like Litvinov, Kometa Brno, and Brynäs have been part of just one tournament and therefore their numbers can be a bit inflated by either having a great team that season or enjoying a lucky draw that made them end up in an less-competitive group.
In order to account for that, I also decided to award teams a cumulative point total based on how deep they went into each tournament.
Looking at the results, there is a clear team that stands out: Frölunda. Having been in three out of four finals, and winning the CHL twice, means the SHL team has almost double the score of the teams placing next — Kärpät, SaiPa and Växjö Lakers — while taking 17 of a possible 22 points in that time.
Teams from the Big Four nations rule again. Even if Storhamar and Red Bull Munich have good PPG averages, they have not reached deep enough into the playoffs to generate a score over four seasons to end up in the rankings.
It is clear that even with the changes that Champions Hockey League is making, the Big Four nations are where the competition lies. It will be tough for a team from a smaller league to crack open the window and try to sneak in to crash the party.
There is a challenger from outside the main group. Red Bull Munich has the backing and could potentially do some damage when they get it all to work for them. While the DEL is stable in the rankings, it seems that Munich has the potential to go deeper in the playoffs than one might expect.
Is it fair to say that Frölunda is the top club in Europe? Probably not. It is, however, a very good club in Europe, and the organization has taken the competition seriously from day one with three Final appearances and two wins over four years’ time, even though they struggled this season when Bili Tygri Liberec knocked them out in the quarter-final.
In order to get a true champion of Europe, the KHL would have to be involved. It would be interesting to see how Jokerit, Dynamo Minsk, and Slovan Bratislava would do in this competition with teams from their country’s national league involved in the tournament. Adding teams like CSKA or SKA Saint Petersburg would raise the level of the competition enormously, and then there would not be a discussion about the real champion of Europe.
However, you can only beat the teams that participate, and that’s what the successful teams in the tournament have done so far. Even without teams from the KHL it is fair to say that the KHL still holds the best teams in Europe.
Frölunda holds the title as the top team in Europe (outside of KHL) by this analysis over the last four seasons, and it will be an interesting thing to see where teams such as the Växjö Lakers (who outplayed the whole of the SHL last season,and lost the CHL final), Zurich Lions (with a lot of economic strength) and the Finnish champion, Kärpät, can challenge after having come close to lifting the trophy in 2016 the same goes for Sparta Prague, who took Frölunda to OT in the 2017 final.
The league order in Europe seems to be stable, with the Big Four countries holding their positions. There are some moves, notably the UK, which has climbed and made improvements in all ice hockey departments, and is on a trend upwards in the table, and newcomer Belarus. It is also clear that Czech Republic and Switzerland have inched closer to Sweden and Finland over the last few seasons, but they have a way to go to be true challengers for the top of the rankings.