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Montreal Canadiens look to Europe for short-term player development

Four players are on loan, but should there be more?

NHL: Preseason-Florida Panthers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

With American Hockey League activities not scheduled (tentatively) to start for another two months at the earliest, many National Hockey League teams are looking toward European leagues to help with player development. Over 100 NHL-contracted players have been loaned out across Europe on short-term contracts in order to ensure that player development does not stall while the world pauses to combat the generational challenge we face with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ten leagues have welcomed an infusion of talent, with the Finnish Liiga and Swedish second division, HockeyAllsvenskan, welcoming 19 players each. These two leagues were particularly popular because they allowed teams to sign players with whom they had no prior affiliation to short-term deals, though the Allsvenskan limits teams to a maximum of four players on loan.

Bigger leagues like the Swedish Hockey League and the Kontinental Hockey League limited teams to only bringing back players who had rights or pre-existing contracts with the team. No new short-term loans were allowed in their case. Players who joined the SHL should be available for NHL training camps, however players joining the KHL are likely to spend the entire season in the Russian league. The Czech Tipsport Extraliga, the Slovak Tipos Extraliga, the Swiss National League, and the German Deutsche Eishockey Liga round the other major European leagues to welcome players.

The Edmonton Oilers lead the way with 11 players on NHL contracts, plus two players on AHL contracts, travelling to Europe to see game action. Other teams in the NHL have varying levels of European commitment, and only the Tampa Bay Lightning and the St. Louis have not lent any players to this point.

Most of the players loaned have simply joined teams in their home countries, but in a few instances highly touted prospects have gone over to work on their game, notably Evan Bouchard, and Raphael Lavoie.

The Montreal Canadiens so far have loaned out Lukas Vejdemo to Södertälje SK in the HockeyAllsvenskan, Otto Leskinen to KalPa and Jesse Ylönen to the Pelicans, both in Liiga, and Hayden Verbeek to HC‘05 Banska Bystrica in Slovakia. Vejdemo played a few games for the Canadiens this season after a very promising development curve under Joël Bouchard in the AHL. Leskinen also got a brief taste of the NHL.

AHL: DEC 12 Belleville Senators at Laval Rocket
Hayden Verbeek
Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Verbeek, on the other hand, has struggled to establish himself even at the AHL level, spending time with the ECHL’s Maine Mariners and Adirondack Thunder. Verbeek’s season ended prematurely as he sustained an injury on December 31 to his thumb that required surgery. By the time he was preparing a return, the pandemic brought an end to the season. He has therefore been inactive for over eight months, and Montreal’s decision to find a team for him in Europe is quite logical, allowing him to catch up on his development.

Another prospect who missed even more time is Joël Teasdale, who sat out the entire 2019-20 season after surgery to repair tears in his MCL and ACL. It’s now been 13 months since he last saw competitive action, although he did manage to take part in a few team practices before the Canadiens set out for the bubble in Toronto. He is an obvious candidate for a loan destination.

The Canadiens have several Russian-born players on entry-level contracts who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Arsen Khisamutdinov and Vasili Demchenko are in limbo as a new strict salary cap in the KHL eliminates any potential of them joining the KHL teams who own their rights. Meanwhile, Alexander Romanov, as a 20-year-old, falls under the KHL development program and doesn’t count on the salary cap, but it’s unlikely that any return of Romanov to CSKA would be allowed to be short-term, rather a full season commitment, and Marc Bergevin wants Romanov in his lineup ASAP.

Another knock against Romanov, and other players on contracts with a high value contract that includes signing and performance bonuses, is the cost of insurance for them. European teams are not prepared to pay these premiums in these economically challenging times. Speaking with one player agent, he said “for a guy that makes $2 million a year, the insurance costs are crazy.”

Players agents generally want their younger clients playing in top leagues league like the SHL, KHL, Liiga, Czech Extraliga, and NLA, but there are a limited amount of spots available on these clubs, coming down to internal budgets and willingness to bring in short-term players.

Other non-European Canadiens prospects who would benefit from a European assignment include Alexandre Alain, Josh Brook, Noah Juulsen who is also coming off of a serious injury, and Ryan Poehling who has a lot to prove to live up to the expectation of being a first-round pick. Again, it will probably be difficult to find a team willing to pay the insurance premium. AHL-contracted Rafaël Harvey-Pinard could also use a placement in Europe to polish his game ahead of his rookie season.

The likelihood of more loans grows dimmer by the day, however. As European teams look to complete their rosters for the start of their season, foreign players needing to complete quarantine in their arriving country are running out of time to be available from day one. Several leagues are starting to play this weekend, while subsequent starts are planned for the first week of October.

The DEL is the last to start with a November 13 launch, but speculation is abound whether the league can even be economically viable without fans in the stands. Much like the UK league announcing the cancellation of the 2020-21 season, it is an unfortunate possibility that players headed overseas might not be able to accomplish their goals.