A Quick History of European Players Throughout the New Jersey Devils Franchise

The best European Devil of all time, and also the last Czechoslovakian-born player to make a significant impact on the Devils. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

When putting together yesterday's post on Patrik Sundström, I got curious as to how many Swedish players have suited up for the New Jersey Devils franchise.  Through Hockey-Reference, I found out that there have been only 19 Swedish players who have played at least one game.  Moreover, I found that Sundström remains second in games played for New Jersey among Swedish players.  

I then got curious about the other three major European countries for hockey players.  The Devils haven't been shy about selecting, signing, and utilizing European players. Lou Lamoriello played a big role in bringing players over from the Soviet Union, so there has always been plenty of USSR-born players throughout the years.  Swedes have been around the franchise since their days in Colorado, though it wasn't until Sundström that any had a significant impact on the team. One of the current team's top players is Czech and several past Czechs were important players for the team.  Finnish players weren't as prominent but they've been around to various points.  There were a handful of other European players, but it's not really worth going over due to the small numbers of players (e.g. Uli Heimer and Sacha Goc are sole German-born Devils; Krzysztof Oliwa was the only "player" from Poland).

Therefore, I looked at skaters and goalies from those four European nations from Hockey-Reference and hastily graphed out each player's time with the Devils after the jump.  I think it's a decent short history of how long European players have been on the team, at least.

There are two notes about the following charts.  First, I went by birth country at Hockey-Reference to organize who came from where. This leads to a little confusion on who's representing who.  For example, I know Dainius Zubrus is Lithuania, but he's on the USSR list as that's what the area was called at the time of birth  I also know Czechoslovakia has split up between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but players were born back when the countries were still one. To keep things consistent, I'm relying on what was at H-R for birth countries.  Second, a player gets credit for a season if they even just played one NHL game for the team.  I've included total games played with the franchise to provide some perspective on whether they were regulars or just guys who had a brief taste of the NHL across a few years.

That all said, let's start with Sweden.  Historically there have been 19 players from Sweden who played for the Devils:  17 skaters and 2 goaltenders.  Apologies for the lack of additional punctuation for various letters (e.g. Sundstrom is really Sundström).

Swedish_devils_1979-2011_large

As mentioned in yesterday's post, the Swedish influence has been a recent phenomenon in New Jersey.  Five made their debuts as Devils just in this last season; though it follows three seasons of multiple Swedes playing on the team in someway or form.  Though, Johnny Oduya was the main player in those prior years as Niclas Bergfors was still trying to break into the league and Niclas Havelid was a late-season pickup in 2008-09. It was more quantity than quality, in that regard.

As the chart shows, there was some Swede-less gaps in the team's history on top of a lack of players who didn't really do too much in NJ.  Only 10 of these players were regulars in someway or form - and I'm being generous in including Johan Hedberg and Mattias Tedenby as regulars.  There are plenty of one-and-done players like Christer Kellgren and Peter Gustavsson from Colorado to Andreas Salomonsson and Josef Boumedienne getting cups of coffee in 2001-02.  The most prolific Swedish Devils in the 1980s and 1990s were Tommy Albelin, who was a sole Swede on the team for a few seasons, and Patrik Sandström (not his twin brother Peter, who lasted all of 21 games).   Hopefully, the recent crop of Swedes will play longer and more significant roles in New Jersey.

Let's move on to the more appropriately titled USSR-born players, 22 of whom have suited up for New Jersey.  Most of these are Russians, but I hesitate to throw them all into one nationality knowing of at least one exception (Zubrus).  Given that the USSR essentially fell in 1991; we are now seeing prospects who were born after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russian_devils_1989-2011

If I could have found more footage of his playing days, then I would have done a history post on Slava Fetisov.  A great defenseman, Lou managed to get him to North America without defecting in 1989 and went on to have a solid NHL career.  The amazing thing is that he started his time in the NHL at age 31.  We never saw the best of Fetisov and he was actually traded to Detroit in 1995, so he never got to have his name on the Cup as a Devil. He did as a Red Wing, though.  Still, he's third among USSR-born Devils in terms of games played.   1989 also saw the arrival of Alexei Kasatonov, a good defender for a little bit but became surplus to parts and was exposed in the 1993 Expansion Draft. Sergei Starikov was a third defenseman brought over that year, but he never really stuck in the NHL.

Since that fateful year, there's always been at least one USSR-born player on the team. In fact, there have only been two seasons where they didn't have two USSR-born players.   Some had a decently long spell with New Jersey, though didn't really shine, like Alexander Semak and Sergei Nemchinov.  Some were only around for a short term and didn't do much like Valeri Kamesky, Andrei Zyuzin, Igor Larionov, Oleg Teverdovsky, and Vitali Vishnevski. (Alexander Mogilny was an exception in that he was only a Devil for a little bit, but was a big contributor.)  A handful had a more significant impact, such as Fetisov, cult hero Valeri Zelepukin, and everyone's favorite Sarge, Sergei Brylin. 

Like the Swedes, there's a recent influx of USSR-born players, between Zubrus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov, Vladimir Zharkov, and Alexander Vasyunov.  That will be cut down by at least one, since Vasyunov won't return; but it's a fraction of the team.  Unlike the Swedes, there has been a constant thread of Soviet-born players since 1989. The Devils believed in the Russian (and Lithuanian and Ukrainian) player then and will continue to do so in the future with at least Kovalchuk and Volchenkov.

Moving on to the hated rivals of the Soviets, let's go onto Czechoslovakia.  There have certainly been several great players, out of the 15 skaters who have represented the Devils in their franchise history.

Czech_devils_1982-2011_large

The first 7 players on this chart have been pretty good for the Devils. OK, Zdeno Ciger and Jaroslav Modry were more serviceable and were eventually traded; but they weren't bad players.  When the team came to New Jersey, Jan Ludvig was a checking winger who had a good run with the Devils.  Peter Statsny added his offensive wizardry to the Devils for four seasons; though he wasn't as productive as he was as a Nordique.  A young Bobby Holik grew into a two-way beast of a center for 10 years and had a return season.  Petr Sykora turned out to be great for his time with New Jersey.  I should not have to explain who Patrik Elias is since A) he's the team's most productive forward of all-time and B) he's still on the team and still crucial to the team's success after all these years.

Since Elias, though, the Devils have whiffed on Czechoslovakian-born players.  Only Jiri Bicek stuck around for more than one season, but only as a call-up; he never took his game to the next level.   Richard Smehlik and Martin Skoula were deadline pick-ups; Karel Rachunek and Jan Hrdina were short-lived signings; and draft-picks Petr Vrana and Stanislav Gron never amounted to much.   Elias has been the best European player the Devils ever signed or drafted; and the Devils seemingly struck gold with Czechoslovakian-born players in the past.  It's weird that since Elias broke through to New Jersey, no one else from the Czech Republic or Slovakia has done so. Talk about an odd coincidence.

Though the lack of impact from recent Czechoslovakian-born Devils pales in comparison to the lack of impact Finnish Devils have had throughout the franchise's history.  Out of 13 players, 11 skaters and 2 goaltenders (Jari Kaarela and Hannu Kamppuri), only one Finn has played more than 100 NHL games with the Devils.

Finland_devils_1980-2011_large

It's really sad in a way that the one Finn was Colorado defenseman Taipo Levo.  It's even sadder that he outscored all the other Finnish Devils with a whopping 23 points with the franchise.   It's not that the Devils didn't try; but no one from Finland really stuck with New Jersey. The only players to have played in 3 seasons with the Devils were Janne Ojanen, who was an unproductive forward across three seasons; Tuomas Philman, who wasn't good enough to stick to the NHL, and Anssi Salmela, who was a third-pairing caliber defender.  If the Devils weren't loaded at defense and if he signed a NHL contract, Salmela would easily have to be seen as the best Finnish Devil of all time.  Anssi Salmela.

It's not that the Devils didn't try looking for Finnish players or avoided drafting them for some time; they just didn't turn out to be good players with New Jersey.    While they've achieved success with Swedish, Russian, and Czech players, Finns remain on the outside looking in (something the Swedish probably don't mind).

Also, many of these players weren't mainstays for the Devils.  Sure, some have been great for the team and others had notable NHL careers.  But many turned out to be signings that didn't lead to long careers or small roles being filled as opposed to becoming regulars.  No one bats an eye at a North American player not making it since there have been a ton in many franchise histories.  Since there have only been so many European players in franchise history, the failure seems to sticks out more. 

That said, it hasn't deterred the Devils from drafting or signing a player from a certain country.  If a player has talent the Devils want, then they'll take him - period. I cannot stress that enough.  Despite the early lack of success of Swedish players, it didn't prevent the Devils from trading for Patrik Sundström or Albelin; or from signing Oduya right out of Sweden despite a lack of history of that ever working out - it did in Oduya's case.  The lack of quality USSR-born players in the early 2000s didn't lead the Devils to avoid players from that part of Europe.  While there hasn't been any really successful Finnish Devils since 1980, the team has tried to find talent there since then, the last few drafts excepted.  

The current New Jersey Devils roster certainly has a Swedish and Russian (and one Lithuanian) influence and will have one for the next few years.  Who knows what the future will hold? Maybe the Devils will obtain a Czech or Finnish player who will really help out the team or even start a small influx of those players in the franchise?  Maybe the Swedish or Russian influence will only grow in terms of players on the roster? Maybe it'll shrink, as players get traded or decline or sign elsewhere? It's all possible, and then some.   What I think is clear is that the New Jersey Devils, as an organization, has looked to Europe for players in the past and will continue to do so.

Again, thanks to Hockey-Reference for allowing an easy way to organize players by birthplace and making this post possible. What do you make of this short history of European players on the Devils? What did you get out of it? What do you think the Devils should do going forward, with respect to European players?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about European Devils in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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