Everyone knows that general managers are looking for talent — especially cheap talent — wherever they can find it. Undrafted free agents from the NCAA and the KHL are the two most significant talent pools outside of the draft, but there are others. There are a number of undrafted Scandinavians playing in the NHL who honed their skills in the Swedish and Finnish elite leagues. Jeff Gorton is hopeful that he has found two more future NHL free agent signings in Michael Lindqvist and Ville Meskanen.
Using the equivalency tools of Rob Vollman, Manny from Corsica (tool created by @CudmoreCollin), and Ian Tulloch’s Wilson Method we can loosely project what Lindqvist and Meskanen should be able to do at the AHL and NHL level next season. Mind you, this isn’t an exact science; It’s more of an educated projection based off of years of data and trends.
But before we take a look at what Lindqvist did in the SHL and what Meskanen did in the SM-liiga, let’s look at a few undrafted European free agents — all of whom have played in at least 100 NHL games — who have paved the way for them. Because both Lindqvist and Meskanen are wingers, that is where our focus will be.
Fittingly enough, there’s no better example of an undrafted Scandinavian player finding success in the NHL than Mats Zuccarello. Chris Kunitz, Mark Giordano, and Tyler Bozak are the only active undrafted NHL players who have more career points than Zucc. Oh, and his numbers would be even better if he hadn’t played most of the 2012-13 season in the KHL.
Make no mistake, Zuccarello is a truly exceptional case and neither Lindqvist or Meskanen will be the second coming of Norway’s greatest hockey player. With that being said, we can’t not talk about him if we’re talking about the Rangers and undrafted European imports. Plucking Zuccarello from MODO was a grand slam for Glen Sather that almost slipped away because of some questionable coaching and management decisions.
- SHL: 104 points in 90 games (1.16 pts/GP)
- AHL: 65 points in 73 games (0.89 pts/GP)
- NHL: 315 points in 463 NHL games (0.68 pts/GP)
If we include all of Zuccarello’s SHL data, Vollman’s model projected him to be a 56 point player. Sure enough, the diminutive winger hit 59 points in his first full NHL season in 2013-14. Manny’s model and the Wilson Method had Zuccarello projected at 60.8 and 63.73 points respectively; this illustrates an accurate range when we consider all three models collectively.
Prior to signing with the Flyers in 2014 Bellemare played five seasons in the SHL with Skellefteå AIK and three seasons in Allsvenskan with Leksands IF. In four NHL seasons the Frenchman has established himself as one of the most respected fourth liners in hockey. And yes, I am aware that France isn’t in Scandinavia.
Interestingly enough, Bellemare never had to cut his teeth in the AHL. However, he was also quickly pigeonholed into the role of a fourth liner and penalty killer; as a result, the projections for his production at the NHL level look pretty generous. Using Vollman’s equivalency factor from the SHL to the NHL (0.596), Bellemare comes up as 25.9 point player in an 82 game NHL season.
- SHL: 125 points in 238 games (0.53 pts/GP)
- NHL: 50 points in 309 games (0.16 pts/GP)
Of course, Bellemare is, at best, at 20 point player in the NHL. The 16 points he put up last season is his current career high. It’s worth noting that he was 29 when he made the jump to the NHL and that he’s averaged 12:56 TOI/GP with the Flyers and Golden Knights.
Karlsson played five seasons for Skellefteå AIK before arriving in the NHL. He was not much of a scorer until his last two years in Sweden. In 2013 and 2014 Karlsson was a standout for Skellefteå in the playoffs, which helped his club win back-to-back SHL Championships.
As an NHLer, Karlsson is an adequate but unremarkable bottom-six forward. What makes him an interesting case is the success he’s had in spite of his slim frame and average skating ability.
- SHL: 66 points in 216 games (0.31 pts/GP)
- AHL: 12 points in 24 games (0.50 pts/GP)
- NHL: 84 points in 256 games (0.33 pts/GP)
Karlsson’s NHL career average projects him as a 24 point player in an 82 game season. Manny’s projection model — including all of Karlsson’s AHL games and his most recent SHL season — hits the nail on the head for the Swede, projecting him to be 23.9 point player in the NHL. Vollman’s, when taking in only his most recent SHL season, is on the low end at 15.15. Tulloch’s projection was closer to the mark at 17.03. But, again, we see a close grouping that were all in the neighborhood for what Karlsson became for the Sharks.
Raffl scored 13 goals last season for the Flyers after a very shaky 2016-17 season. Regardless of how you feel about him and his game, the Austrian is an NHL winger with 345 games of experience under his belt.
Unlike the other undrafted European wingers we have looked at, Raffl made the jump from the Allsvenskan to the NHL, with just three games of seasoning in the AHL. The Allsvenskan club that the Austrian winger played for, Leksands IF, was promoted to the SHL after that Raffl’s final season in Sweden. He led that team in scoring with 46 points in 49 games as a 23 year old.
- Allsvenskan: 69 points in 88 games (0.78 pts/GP)
- NHL: 114 points in 345 games (0.33 pts/GP)
In his NHL career Raffl has averaged about 27 points per season. Manny’s NHLe had him pegged for 21.9 points in a full NHL season; Tulloch’s model (based only on Raffl’s 2012-13 season in Sweden) projected him as a 35.41 point player in the NHL. The average of those two projections is 28.9 — which is a potent example of how valuable it is to consider more than one approach to NHLe.
Now, let’s turn our attention back to Lindqvist and Meskanen. Remember, both wingers are signed to one-year deals and will be RFAs at the end of the season.
NHL teams took notice of Lindqvist last season because of his ability to finish on the power play. He finished the year with 20 goals despite missing some time with injuries. But you don’t need to know how to read Swedish to know that Lindqvist’s 27.78 shooting percentage last season is not a feat he will duplicate in Hartford or New York this year.
Although he doesn’t have NHL size (5-foot-11), Lindqvist does have an exceptionally good right-handed shot. That is particularly relevant because only two of the Rangers forwards who are locks for next year’s roster are righties. However, he is far from a physical player. Lindqvist was credited with seven hits in 33 games last season.
Back in February Eric Dunay over at On The Forecheck previewed some of the upcoming Swedish free agents. Dunay pointed to Lindqvist’s ability to consistently find open space as a positive, but he also expressed caution because of the winger’s dependence on the power play and the number of goals he banged home from the back door. Life was good for Lindqvist on an elite power play unit that was fueled by the playmaking ability of Johan Ryno.
Lindqvist averaged 14:43 TOI/GP last season with Färjestad; 2:28 of that was power play ice time. No player on Färjestad had a higher proportion of power play ice time last season. Ten of his 20 goals and 25 of his 72 shots last season occurred on the man advantage. Yes, that means he had a 40 percent shooting rate on the power play last year.
- SuperElit: 44 points in 41 games
- Allsvenskan: 80 points in 143 games
- SHL: 44 points in 81 games
If we plug Lindqvist’s most recent complete seasons in Allsvenskan and the SHL into Manny’s model he’s projected to have 32 points in an 82 game NHL season. Vollman’s model, when we factor in all of Lindqvist’s SHL games, projects him at 26.39 points in the NHL. Without the context of the 48 games he played in the SHL before 2017-18, Vollman’s model projects him as a 50.35 point player in the NHL. Tulloch’s Wilson Method brings us to a 56.60 point projection for Lindqvist based on his production in 2017-18.
Clearly, we’re dealing with a pretty wide range of projections here. By now you’re probably realized that Lindqvist’s power play production and inflated shooting percentage makes him a tricky case for equivalency models. He should get plenty of power play time in Hartford, but the key for evaluating Lindqvist’s first season on North American ice will be his even strength production. It’s important to note that Sean Tierney’s data suggests that the average NHL third line right winger scored 4.1 goals at 5v5 in 2017-18.
Like Lindqvist, Meskanen is a rightie; and, like Lindqvist, Meskanen had a big 2017-18. He’ll be 23 in October, which makes him nearly a year younger than his Swedish counterpart.
There are precious few examples of undrafted Finns from the Liiga coming across the Atlantic Ocean to play in the NHL. The most recent and noteworthy example is Henrik Haapala. The winger left Tappara to join the Florida Panthers last season. He led the Finnish Elite League in scoring in 2016-17 with 60 points — 45 of which were assists — in 51 games. But Haapala failed to secure a spot on Florida’s roster and put up eight points in 20 AHL games with the Springfield Falcons.
But Meskanen is not Haapala. He has a much bigger frame — Haapala is just 5-foot-10 and Meskanen is 6-foot-2 — and he’s a very different player. Haapala had 129 shots in his final season in the Finnish Elite League; Meskanen had 253 shots last season. He led Ilves in shots and goals last year as a 22 year old. It was a huge year for Meskanen, who found another gear in the 2017 Liiga postseason and found a way to carry that into his third season in the Finnish Elite League.
A deeper look at Meskanen’s numbers provides even more encouraging signs. He shared the team lead on Ilves in 5v5 Corsi percentage last season (56.2) and his 5v5 PDO was 98.8. He shot 10.3 percent at 5v5 and scored 15 of his 24 goals last season at evens. Considering what some of the other power play shooting percentages on the Lynx looked like last year, Meskanen might have been a little unlucky to finish with just nine goals and a 9.5 shooting percentage on the man advantage.
- Mestis: 10 points in 17 games
- Liiga: 80 points in 141 games
When we plug Meskanen’s 2017-18 season in the Liiga and his 17 games in Mestis (Finland’s version of the AHL) into Manny’s model, he’s projected to have 28.2 points in an 82 game NHL season. Vollman and Tulloch’s equivalency factors for the Liiga to the NHL are very similar — 0.452 and 0.46 respectively — and project Meskanen to have around 34 points in a full year of NHL hockey. Yep, that’s something we should be pretty excited about.
No reason not to like the Meskanen signing. He's another soft-handed winger with a good shot who knows how to find those dangerous spots on the ice. #NYR— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) May 3, 2018
The Liiga is not quite as competitive as the SHL, but that doesn’t make Meskanen’s breakout season any less impressive. He has a real chance of becoming an NHL player and it appears that his game is more well-rounded than Lindqvist’s at this stage of their careers. He may be younger, but Meskanen could very well end up being the more productive of the two undrafted free agent signings in Hartford this year.
Data courtesy of eliteprospects.com, salary data courtesy of capfriendly.com. Be sure to check out Ian Tulloch’s work at The Athletic, Rob Vollman’s work at hockeyabstract.com, and Emmanuel Perry’s work at Corsica.hockey.