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By Margann Laurissa
In recent years, it seems as though more international free agents are being signed to NHL contracts, whether out of college or professional hockey. For example, NHL teams have taken notice of the likes of Borna Rendulić, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Michael Raffl, and Ádám Vay.
Despite all the progress that is being made with international scouting, there are still several players from unconventional nations who fly under the radar of NHL scouts when it comes time for the annual free agent pool. Whether it be the fact that they play in countries where hockey is not necessarily popular or the fact that their teams are obscured by others in their homelands, a number of players who deserve to have their NHL dreams fulfilled is almost immeasurable. In this list today, I am going to introduce you to my top 10 list of international free agent players, all born between 1985 and 1995, who have proven that they deserve to be looked at for possible contracts.
Please note that, in order to qualify, no player was to have previously played in North America by the time of this article’s publication (i.e., Nemanja Vučurević, Bryan Kolodziejczyk, Jordan Challis and Diederick Hagemeijer) or has already attended an NHL camp (i.e., Robert Rooba and Won Jun Kim).
10. Eduard Zakharchenko (Ukraine) — DOB: August 4, 1995
Born in Vladivostok, Russia, but raised in Kherson, Ukraine, Eduard Zakharchenko started playing junior hockey as a teenager but it was not until 2013 when he made his way to the MHL. For two seasons, the 6’1″, 185-pound goaltender played for HK Chelny. He appeared in 36 games over two campaigns before joining HK Kremenchuk for their playoff run in 2015. Zakharchenko had a 1.53 goals-against average in ten games, helping HK Kremenchuk finish as a runner-up in their league’s playoffs, winning a silver medal. In 2015-16, Zakharchenko joined Generals Kiev, one of Ukraine’s best-known hockey teams, and he responded with a 1.49 goals-against average in 23 games, as well as a 1.49 goals-against average in the playoffs to help them win a playoff silver medal. He was also named the Ukrainian Hockey League’s top goaltender. This past season, Zakharchenko returned to HK Kremenchuk. His 1.46 goals-against average and .946% save percentage during the regular season, coupled with his 1.67 goals-against average and .923% save percentage in the playoffs, helped him win a third playoff silver medal. Next year, he will be joining the EIHL’s Nottingham Panthers. On the international stage, Zakharchenko has represented Ukraine a total of eight times: two World Under-18s, two World Juniors, three Men’s World Championships, and one Olympic qualification. He won a silver medal at the 2015 World Juniors and a gold medal at the 2016 Men’s World, a tournament in which he was named Best Goaltender.
9. Andrey Ilyenko (Georgia) — DOB: August 16, 1994
Born in Russia, but calling Tbilisi home, Andrey Ilyenko is a relative newcomer to the scene, despite the fact that he has been playing professionally since 2012. The 5’10”, 154-pound goaltender has played his entire Georgian Hockey League career with the Tbilisi Fiery Crusaders, joining them at the age of eighteen. Three years into his professional career, Ilyenko joined the Georgian national time for the first time in 2015. He was named the Top Goaltender of the D3 Men’s World Championships that year and he was in net for his country’s first ever IIHF win, a 35-save performance against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Over the last two years, he has helped Georgia become one of the better teams at the D3 Worlds, winning a silver medal in 2016 and a bronze medal just this year.
8. Roberto Gliga (Romania) — DOB: April 24, 1993
A native of Bucharest, Roberto Gliga has known from an early age that, in order to develop as a hockey player, it is sometimes best to leave home.
In 2007, when he was only thirteen years old, he traveled to Switzerland to play youth hockey. After a successful second year there, Gliga returned home to Romania, and he got to play his first six MOL Liga games with Steaua before he even turned sixteen. After a second year back home, the 6’1″, 198-pound center left home again, this time for Sweden. For the next three years, between 2010 and 2013, Gliga appeared in 136 SuperElit games for Tingsryd AIF J20. He even played three games in the Allsvenskan in 2013. He played the 2013-14 season back home with ASC Corona Brașov and then played two seasons in France with Caen. This season, he returned to Corona. Internationally, Gliga has been a regular fixture on Romanian national teams. Since 2009, he has played in three World Under-18s, five World Juniors, and six Men’s World Championships. He has been named Best Forward at four tournaments, has won ten medals (four gold, three silver, three bronze), and has captained at every level.
7. Ivy Van Den Heuvel (Netherlands) — DOB: August 24, 1988
A native of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ivy Van Den Heuvel started his professional career at the age of sixteen, appearing in fifteen games in the Eredivisie with the Tilburg Trappers.
After another season in Tilburg, Van Den Heuvel spent the next three seasons (2006-2009) with the Amstel Tijgers, recording 83 points in 116 games. The 6’2″, 187-pound forward then spent two seasons with Eindhoven Kemphanen before rejoining the Trappers in 2011. Since 2015, the Trappers have been in the Oberliga (Germany’s third-highest professional league) after several years in the Eredivisie. This past season, Van Den Heuvel had a personal best 26 goals. During his career, he has won five Beker Cups, two Dutch championships, and two Oberliga titles. On the international stage, he has represented the Netherlands a total of seventeen times: two World Under-18s, three World Juniors, nine Men’s World Championships, and three Olympic qualifiers. He has won three silver and three bronze medals since 2005.
6. Mate Krešimir Tomljenović (Croatia) — DOB: August 3, 1993
A native of Zagreb, Mate Krešimir Tomljenović left home at fifteen to play junior hockey in Slovakia. He spent two seasons in Dubnica and another three-and-a-half campaign in Zvolen. In 2013, however, the 5’11”, 165-pound goaltender returned home to Croatia to join the affiliates of KHL Medveščak, but he returned to Slovakia a year later with HC Detva. In 2014-15, Tomljenović spent the entire season in Croatia before heading to Poland for the 2015-16 season. This year, he was once again back home with Medveščak, playing for their affiliate. Internationally, Tomljenović has been a fixture on Croatian national teams since 2011, when he played for his country for the first time. In fact, that year, he was named the top goaltender at the Men’s World Championships at the age of seventeen; he had recorded a 1.44 goals-against average and a .927% save percentage in four games. In seven career Men’s World Championships, he has won four medals: one gold, two silvers, and one bronze.
5. Balázs Sebők (Hungary) — DOB: December 14, 1994
A native of Budapest, Balázs Sebők has spent nearly a decade playing in Finland. He made the trip there all the way back in 2009 when he joined Karpat’s under-16 team. Over the course of the next four years, he played in the junior C SM-sarja, junior B SM-sarja and II-divisioona, and junior A SM-liiga. Some of his teammates over the seasons have included current NHL players Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes) and Markus Nutivaara (Columbus Blue Jackets), as well as Vili Säärijärvi, a Detroit Red Wings draft pick who plays for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads. In 2014-15, Sebők played in the Mestis for Hokki Kajaani, and he led all rookies with 32 assists that season. Since 2015, Sebők has played in the Liiga for KalPa Kuopio. On the international stage, the 6’1″, 205-pound forward has represented his native Hungary seven times, including four Men’s World Championships. He has won both gold and silver at the World Juniors, as well as a silver medal at the Men’s World Championships.
4. Luka Gračnar (Slovenia) — DOB: October 31, 1993
A native of Jesenice, Luka Gračnar grew up next door to Los Angeles Kings captain Anže Kopitar and his family. Gračnar spent three years playing in his hometown between 2007 and 2010 before opting to make the move to Salzburg, Austria, almost seven years ago. It has been where he has played ever since.
While playing for EC Salzburg’s junior teams, Gračnar made his first appearance in the EBEL during the 2010-11 season. He made another cameo in that league two years later and, by the 2013-14 campaign, he was in the EBEL permanently. This coming season, Gračnar will play his fifth EBEL season; to date, he has helped EC Salzburg win three championships. Internationally, Gračnar has represented Slovenia thirteen times; two World Under-18s, four World Juniors, five Men’s World Championships, two Olympic qualifiers, and one Olympics. In fact, he played one game at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He has won two gold, two silver, and one bronze medal; he was named Best Goaltender at the 2011 and 2013 World Juniors, and he was named MVP at the 2014 D1A Men’s World Championships when he was only twenty years old.
3. Przemysław Odrobny (Poland) — DOB: October 21, 1985
A native of Gdańsk, Przemysław Odrobny is the oldest player on this list at 31 years of age.
He started playing professionally for his hometown PLH team, Stoczniowiec, all the way back in 2002, when he was just about to turn seventeen. He spent the next nine years there before joining KH Sanok for two years. Odrobny had a successful sixteen-game stint with KTH Krynica to start the 2013-14 season before heading to Jastrzębie for the next season and a half. In 2015, Odrobny, a 6’4″, 205-pound goaltender, decided that the time had come for him to explore options outside of Poland. He found his way to France’s Ligue Magnus where he joined the team Morzine-Avoriaz-Les Gets. He then signed a two-year contract with the Milton Keynes Lightning, a team in England, where he serves as a development coach as well as a roster player. Since 2008, Odrobny has been a mainstay in net for Poland’s national World Championship team. He has won one gold medals, as well as two silvers and two bronzes. He has led tournaments in goals-against average and save percentage three times each, and he has been named Best Goaltender twice.
2. Daniel Bogdziul (Lithuania) — DOB: February 24, 1994
A native of Vilnius, Daniel Bogdziul started playing competitive junior hockey in neighboring Latvia when he was sixteen years old. That season, 2009-10, he led Metalurgs Liepāja’s under-18 team in scoring with 81 points in only eighteen games. After one more season with Metalurgs, Bogdziul made another move, this time to Finland, joining the under-18 and under-20 teams of Ilves Tampere. The 6’3″, 192-pound forward was joined by fellow Lithuanian and good friend Aivaras Bendžius, who is a very talented player in his own right.
In 2013, after leaving the junior A SM-liiga, Bogdziul opted to give the MHL a try, signing with Donbass Donetsk’s affiliate, Molodaya Gvardiya Donetsk. He eventually returned to Latvia, joining HK Rīga in 2014. Over the last two seasons, Bogdziul has broadened his horizons. For the 2015-16 season, he played for Hasle/Løren, a team in Norway’s 1.divisjon; he responded by having his offensively best professional season with 47 points. This past season, in addition to participating at the Baltic Cup, Bogdziul played for GKS Katowice, a team in Poland. Internationally, Bogdziul has always shone. He has represented Lithuania at seventeen competitions (excluding the Baltic Cup): three World Under-18s, five World Juniors, seven Men’s World Championships, and two Olympic qualifiers. In those combined tournaments, he has won one gold, two silver, and six bronze medals. He has led three tournaments in scoring and has been named Best Forward twice. Bogdziul’s younger brother Dominyk currently plays in North America so it is about time Daniel joins him.
1. Konstantin Komarek (Austria) — DOB: November 8, 1992
A native of Vienna, Konstantin Komarek started playing under-20 hockey with a hometown team, Wiener Eislöwen, at the age of fourteen. The now 5’11”, 194-pound forward played 25 games during the 2006-07 campaign.
After another season at home in Austria, Komarek left home for Luleå, Sweden, where he spent the next four years of his hockey career. As time passed, he was able to make his SHL début in 2011, scoring his first professional goal on January 18 of that year. In 2012, he returned home to Austria. Despite being list on the NHL Central Scouting rankings for European skaters several times, he perpetually went undrafted and uninvited to NHL camps. Komarek played two more seasons in Austria, both for EC Salzburg, winning two EBEL championships, before returning to Sweden this past campaign with the Malmö Redhawks. Next season, he will play for Karlskrona HK. On the international stage, Komarek has represented Austria ten times: three World Under-18s, three World Juniors (including a Top Division appearance at the 2010 tournament in Saskatoon), and four Men’s World Championships. He has won one gold (just this past year, in fact), one silver, and two bronze medals. His nine points in five games at the 2017 Men’s World Championships earned him a spot on the tournament’s All-Star Team, and he will be on full display at the Top Division Men’s World Championships in 2018.