On Saturday night, I watched the game between the Flames and Oilers. I also watched the post game "After Hours" on Hockey Night In Canada. Ron Maclean made reference to a post written by Greg over at The Puck Stops Here about the dwindling Russian presence in the NHL. Before the lockout, there were 58 Russians in '01-02, 57 in '02-03, and 57 again in '03-04. Since the lockout, there were 40 in '06, 35 last season, and just 27 so far this season.
The TPSH post, and the panel on HNIC cited the lack of transfer agreement with Russia as a main reason. I'm not by any means an expert on the incatracies of the politics and economics of the transfer agreement, but Russia is the only European country who has refused to sign. The biggest benefit to Russia is that an NHL player who is unhappy with his small role as a fourth line winger or a seventh defenseman, can flee to Russia. His NHL contract wouldn't be binding, and he would be free to play for whichever Elite League team pays him the most. And there is big money. Unless he is an elite player, a young guy might decide to stay in Russia rather than enter the draft. An NHL veteran might decide to go back home for better money and a better chance at stardom.
Greg things that those roster spots that would have been filled by Russians are now being filled by "North Americans", and that it might compromise quality. I'm not sure that I agree with that. It would have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, which is impossible.
I remember hearing at some point last season that the overall number of players in the NHLPA isn't what it was before the lockout. I can't recall, but it seems like I heard or read that there was a decrease of something like 5%. I might have made that up.
At any rate, that post, and the HNIC discussion about it got me thinking about a few things. First, I wondered if there was a sharp decline in the number of Russian defensemen. I don't know why, but that was one of my first thoughts. Then I wondered how much of an increase there was in US-born players in the NHL. So I did some research.
In terms of Russian players, the only thing that has been consistent is the number of goalies. Two. There were 38 forwards in the 2001-02 season, and just 15 have played so far this season. That's a pretty sharp drop. The ten defensemen today compared to the 18 in '02 is also a pretty significant decline. Are these positions really being taken by "North Americans"?
I also took a look at the other five major nationalities in the NHL. The majority of players come from (in this order) Canada, the United States, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. We've already looked at the Russians, and we'll save the big dogs for later.
I guessed that there would have been more Czechs in the NHL today than there were six years ago. Not quite. The tiny dip in the number of forwards isn't worth talking about, but there were 31 Czech defensemen in 2002 and just 18 today. Another notable shift. Not as big, though, as the extremely sharp drop in Czech netminders. There were seven in 2002 and just three today. More on that in a bit.
As Greg mentioned, the Russian Elite leagues aren't completely populated with Russian-born players. There are a number of Ukranian, Czech, Slovakian, even Finnish players. Again, this is a guess, but it might be the case that some Czech players who might make a marginal impact in the NHL are opting for more money in the Russian Elite league.
Next up are the Swedes. You buy a Volvo, you know what you're getting. Nothing too flashy. Consistent, reliable, in it for the long haul. There's no way to tie that in, and I'm not a Volvo driver, but I just wanted to make the a car reference. Like the Volvo, the Swedish hockey players aren't making any ripples one way or the other in terms of growth or decline. In 2002, there were a total of 53 Swedish players in the NHL. There were 49 last year and 46 so far this season. A tiny, insignificant dip. Note that there were, and still are, exactly four Swedish goaltenders. And they're not the same four. Unlike the Czechs and their Skoda, the Swedes and their Volvo are keeping on at basically the same rate.
No more car jokes. To be honest, I don't know anything about Skoda aside from the fact that they're made in Czech Republic. Added to that, I don't know if there are any cars manufactured in Finland.
There hasn't been any fluctuation to speak of with the Finns. There were 42 in 2002, and there were 42 last season. So far this year, just 31, but it's still a young season. If there's anything worth noting, it's that there used to be 15 Finnish defensemen and there are just 8 today. Small sample size, I know, but it stands out.
There has been a good deal of change in the numbers of US-born NHLers.The number of American forwards has risen and fallen. While there is a general uptrend, there are two fewer today than there were who played in the 2002 season. Last season, there was an all-time high of 104 US-born forwards. The numbers of defensemen have been steadily growing. 42 in 2002, and 60 to this point in the 2008 season. For three years running, there were exactly 13 American goaltenders. After the lockout, there were 20. 14 last year, and just a sad six today. There were four straight years of slight growth in terms of total American NHLers. By the time this season is over, we'll probably see another small increase. Maybe by 2010, there'll be 200 US-born players in the NHL.
Last but obviously not least is the Canadians. They are by far and away the most represented in the NHL. However, it's a little surprising. The Canadian contingency enjoyed rapid growth in the first three years of this study. Then the lockout happened. After that, there has been a drop in the number of Canadians in the NHL. There were 339 Canadian forwards in 2004, and to this point, just 239 this year. Almost an identical percentage decline in defensemen. There were 155 in 2004, and 109 this season. Not much change in goaltenders. There were 51 Canadian netminders in 2002, 54 in 2004 and 43 last season. There have been 37 this season.
It's the overall numbers, though. The high mark was 548 Canadians in 2004. 517 in 2006. 495 in 2007. So far this season, only 385 have played. A downtrend not as dramatic as that of the Russians, but way bigger in numbers.
This season is still in its infancy and all of these figures will adjust. However, I don't think they'll adjust enough to back up the claims that Russian roster spots are being given to North Americans. Certainly not to Canadians. They themselves have to wonder where their roster spots have gone.
And the Americans have to wonder where their goalie spots have gone. In that case, it's easy to blame the helpless Swiss and their four goaltenders or the French, but even those five don't account for a drop from 20 all the way to six.
The answer is that these jobs haven't been taken away and given to other nationalities. There are just simply fewer total players. With the exception of the United States, which has had a marginal amount of growth, every other major hockey nationality has been stagnant or experienced a decline.
If we were to do a different study where all we counted was players on the normal every-day roster, we might have different findings. If we're going to count every player that plays at least one game, we have to accept the fact that it isn't an anti-communist conspiracy.
Overall, there were 68 fewer players in the NHL last year than there were the year before the lockout. In that time, Canada had a net loss of 53. Russia had a net loss of 22. Sweden had a net loss of four. Czech had a net loss of nine. Finland had a net gain of three. USA had a net gain of 22.
Nobody wants to talk about Canada's loss or America's gain because neither is as statistically significant as Russia's loss.
4 years ago