Adjustment period different for each prospect
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Nail Yakupov could have spent the past two winters playing hockey in his native Russia, continued to develop quite nicely and still been the favorite to be the first player selected in the NHL draft Friday at Consol Energy Center.
But Yakupov, a right winger, said recently that he believed that a couple of seasons of major-junior hockey in North America would better prepare him for pro hockey, so he logged two with Sarnia in the Ontario Hockey League.
And, in the process, he has gotten accustomed to North American culture -- which is a bit different from the one in which he grew up about 500 miles east of Moscow -- and comfortable speaking English, which can only help his transition to the NHL.
That commitment made a predictably favorable impression on the people who evaluate talent for a living.
"You like the fact that he came over and he trained and adapted to the North American style," said Mark Kelley, director of amateur scouting for Chicago.
Not every European prospect preps for the pros by playing in the Quebec, Ontario or Western leagues, however. And, scouts say, not every one should.
Certainly, competing in Europe didn't prevent Filip Forsberg of Sweden or Finland's Teuvo Teravainen from earning spots among the top prospects available in this draft.
"We've seen it both ways," Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We've seen players stay over in Europe and develop fine, and players come over to North American and develop fine."
Players whose development might be a bit behind that of the top-shelf talents often are the ones better served honing their games in their homeland.
"I think it depends on the situation and where the player is at, development-wise," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins director of amateur scouting. "The high-end players, like a Yakupov, go to the Canadian Hockey League because they're going to play one or two years [of major-junior] and then probably step right into the NHL.
"The farther you go down in the draft pecking order, there are kids who do need time to go to college and develop, because they're not ready for the NHL for two, three, four years. It's the same with the Europeans."
NHL regulations used to allow teams to retain the rights to European prospects indefinitely, as long as those players worked outside of North America. Now, clubs must decide whether to sign a European within two years of drafting him, just as they must do with every young player except those attending college.
Signing a European player does not oblige a team to put him in its minor league system, and many remain in leagues in Europe while refining their games.
"If they're not ready to play in the American Hockey League, you still have that option to have them play in Sweden for three or four years and they're still your property because you've signed them, but maybe they need more time to become a man," Heinbuck said.
Some Europeans need five or six years after being drafted before they're prepared to compete in the NHL. Others never are ready. And some just require an extra season or two before settling in North America. Nearly all still need some time to get acclimated, though. Not only to the smaller rinks, which put a premium on physical play and quick decision-making, but to things like foods and languages with which the player is not familiar.
Those were issues Phoenix management took into account when deciding how to handle young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson a few years ago.
"We ended up bringing him over as a 19-year-old, as much to [get him accustomed to] the language and the culture as it was for his play on the ice," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "Last year, he didn't play a playoff game for us. This year, he was playing 25 minutes a night.
"There is an adjustment period, so the sooner you can get over that and get used to the culture, the quicker they are to potentially be playing in the NHL."
NOTES -- The no-trade clauses veteran Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have are of the limited variety, allowing each to name eight teams to which he cannot be traded. ... The Penguins are not expected to extend a qualifying offer to center Cal O'Reilly, acquired from Phoenix on waivers last winter. That would make O'Reilly an unrestricted free agent, but it's possible the Penguins will try to re-sign him at a salary below the $1.05 million he made on a one-way contract in 2011-12. ... The '12-13 NHL schedule will be announced today.
First Published June 21, 2012 12:00 am