The NHL has been consistently dominated by players from as many as eight particular countries: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and arguably Switzerland as well. Consequently, these countries are usually the ones we see competing against each other in the later rounds of the Winter Olympics or the IIHF World Hockey Championships. However, there are some hockey stars from more unconventional nations competing among the top dogs of the best league in the sport.
While it remains dominated by players from the aforementioned countries, the NHL has been seeing players from countries like Germany, Denmark and Austria not only get a chance to play, but also hold down consistent roster spots and even become stars in their respective positions. Most importantly, several of these players from unlikely hockey nations have also been able to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup above their heads at least once in their careers thus far. Furthermore, three of the players on this list play on the same team. Several of them hail from one of the biggest powers in European politics, two are from smaller former Soviet countries, and the number one player on the list is from one of the smallest countries in Europe that boasts a population of only 2.05 million people.
Despite their unconventional hockey upbringings, these 10 men are deserving of their recognition as key players in the National Hockey League, and have proven time and time again that they’re just as capable as those who grew up immersed in their country’s hockey-mad culture from the day they laced up their first pair of skates. Here’s a list of the Top 10 hockey players from non-traditional hockey nations, as well as how much money they’ll be making for the 2013-14 NHL season.
10 Marcel Goc (Centre, Florida Panthers) [Salary: $1.7 million]
He may not exactly be among the flashier players in the league today, but Germany’s Marcel Goc is certainly a versatile player who is adept in the faceoff circle and has two-way skills that are useful for any team to have. The 30-year-old native of Calw (a small German town 33 kilometres west of Stuttgart) has been enough of an important role-player that the Panthers named him as one of their three assistant captains for this season. Goc is taking home about $1.7 million this year, but will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
9 Mikkel Boedker (Right Wing, Phoenix Coyotes) [Salary: $2.3 million]
This Danish winger was taken eighth overall by Phoenix in the 2008 NHL draft, and at the still relatively young age of 23, Mikkel Boedker has been steadily showing why the Coyotes made him the highest-ever drafted Dane in NHL history. Boedker is on pace to put up 56 points by the end of this season, and the lightning-fast native of Brondby, Denmark is arguably among the best up-and-coming two-way wingers in the game. Boedker is taking home $2.3 million this season, and will make $2.8 million next year before getting a chance at an even bigger paycheck when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2015.
8 Frans Nielsen (Centre, New York Islanders) [Salary: $2.5 million]
On pace to put up 62 points by season’s end, Islanders centre Frans Nielsen has truly started coming into his own so far in 2013-14 at the age of 29. The native of Herning, Denmark is a skilled playmaker who knows how to make the players around him better. After having been drafted by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 entry draft, Nielsen also has the bragging rights of being the most successful NHL player in shootouts of all-time, with a success rate of 62.5% as of March 2013. The Dane is making $2.5 million this season, with his salary increasing by $500,000 over each of the next two seasons before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
7 Mikhail Grabovski (Centre, Washington Capitals) [Salary: $3 million]
Now easily the best Belarusian player in the NHL after Andrei Kostitsyn bolted for the KHL, Mikhail Grabovski has shown he is still a top-six calibre player despite his controversial track record and well-documented attitude problems throughout his seven-year career. The skilled German-born centre is on pace for 69 points so far this season, and has shown his feisty demeanour and slick playmaking skills with the Capitals after a sketchy five-season stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Grabovski, who captained Belarus’ national team at the IIHF World Championships in 2011, is taking home $3 million this season.
6 Michael Grabner (Right Wing, New York Islanders) [Salary: $3 million]
Although his career has been marred by inconsistency over his four years so far in the league, Michael Grabner is still an extremely fast and offensively adept NHL player, and his $3 million paycheck is proof of that. The Austrian is still a major offensive player for the Islanders (despite having so far gone 22 games this season without a point), and was nominated for the Calder Trophy following his rookie year in 2011. Grabner has also played often for Austria’s national team; however, the team itself has met relatively little success, failing to qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The team did manage to get promoted to the elite level of the IIHF World Championships this year.
5 Dainius Zubrus (Right Wing/Centre, New Jersey Devils) [Salary: $3.1 million]
In a lengthy career that has seen him don Flyers, Habs, Capitals and Sabres uniforms, Dainius Zubrus has been with the New Jersey Devils since 2007, and is still putting up a respectable amount of points on the board at 35 years of age. The Lithuanian is among a club of players who have played over 1,000 NHL games, and the first from his homeland to do so. Although he represented Russia at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, he represents Lithuania at IIHF-sanctioned tournaments. Zubrus is making $3.1 million this year, and will keep making that amount until he hits the free agent market in 2016.
4 Dennis Seidenberg (Defenseman, Boston Bruins) [Salary: $3.5 million]
Being one of only two players from your country to win the Stanley Cup is certainly something to brag about. Dennis Seidenberg’s past few seasons with the Bruins has earned him that right. The German defenseman excelled in the 2011 playoffs where Boston won it all, being talked about at one point as a possible Conn Smythe winner. The big-minute, powerplay-skilled Seidenberg is making $3.5 million this season, and the German international and three-time Olympian will see his paycheck rise steadily over the next few seasons – he’ll be making $4.5 million by 2015-16.
3 Christian Ehrhoff (Defenseman, Buffalo Sabres) [Salary: $4 million]
Not only is Christian Ehrhoff a solid defenseman for Buffalo (even as he’s hit his 30s), he’s also still a very active and loyal international player. Ehrhoff has played for Germany in three Olympics, four World Championships, and at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004. With a $4 million paycheck, Ehrhoff has certainly earned his keep: his offensive skills as a defenseman and his abilities both on the powerplay and in his skating has kept him as a defensive mainstay for every team he’s played for thus far. Ehrhoff will keep logging big minutes for the Sabres until 2022.
2 Thomas Vanek (Right Wing, New York Islanders) [Salary: $6.4 million]
Traded to the Islanders this season from the currently dead last Buffalo Sabres, Austrian offensive powerhouse Thomas Vanek has already fit in nicely in Long Island following eight years in Buffalo. Making $6.4 million this year, Vanek is a naturally gifted sniper who can battle in front of the net with the best of them. His goal scoring abilities are nothing short of stellar, and having played at the All-Star Game in 2009 is further proof of his skill. Following this season, Vanek will hit the free agent market, where his next paycheck could be even bigger.
1 Anze Kopitar (Centre, Los Angeles Kings) [Salary: $7.5 million]
Being able to boast that you’ve played in two all-star games and won a Stanley Cup by the age of 26 is pretty impressive by itself. For Anze Kopitar, this is exactly what has happened, but the fact that he’s accomplished all of it after humble beginnings in the tiny Balkan nation of Slovenia is even more awe-inspiring. An assistant captain of the Kings, Kopitar is as dynamic and creative as they come, with his soft hands and fantastic goal scoring ability helping him consistently put up almost a point per game every season so far. Kopitar makes $7.5 million this year, and will be trying for a bigger salary when he’s due to hit the free agent market in 2016.
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