When the NHL is in action on the ice rather than bickering in boardrooms, it is the undisputed heavyweight champion of professional hockey leagues. It is the best league in the world, boasting nearly all of the best players in the world.
But since the NHL is 2-1/2 months into the lockout with no end in sight, it’s time to take a look at the best leagues that are actually playing games and that kind of thing.
STARTING LINEUP: The rule of thumb here is that any team in any of these leagues could beat any other team on any given night.
Kontinental Hockey League (26 teams)
The KHL played its first season in 2008-09, picking up where the Russian Elite League (1961-2008) left off. Its inception was viewed with some skepticism as league owners and representatives boldly declared it would challenge the NHL as the best league in the world. It’s not NHL-caliber yet, but the KHL can claim to be the best league that’s currently playing hockey. With the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk spending their lockout downtime skating around Russian rinks, the KHL has cornered the market on the world’s best players, and also has local boys Alexander Radulov, Nail Yakupov and Ilya Bryzgalov on the marquee. But it’s not just Russians returning home: Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Backstrom, Joffrey Lupul, Jakub Voracek, Joe Pavelski and Victor Hedman are NHL stars from other countries who picked the KHL.
American Hockey League (30 teams)
The biggest collection of the best young talent in the hockey world can be found in the AHL, the NHL’s top feeder league. And with the NHL sidelined, the AHL takes the title as North America’s top league. The best example is the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate in Oklahoma City, where Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Justin Schultz – among other NHLers-in-waiting – are skating for the Barons. There’s probably close to 100 players in the AHL who’d be skating in the NHL if not for the lockout, which is more prime-time talent than any other league can boast.
Sweden Elitserien (12 teams)
The Swedish Elite League discouraged its teams from adding players who would depart if/when the lockout ended, but there’s still a smattering of NHL talent (hello, Alex Steen and Cody Franson), most notably in the form of young Colorado Avalanche star Matt Duchene. (An even younger Avs star, Gabriel Landeskog, returned home and suited up for Djurgardens, an iconic Swedish team that’s fallen on hard times and is playing in the country’s second division this season.) Duchene is joined on Vastra Frolunda by NHLers past and present Viktor Stahlberg, Fabian Brunnstrom, Joel Lundqvist, Fredrik Sjostrom, Christian Backman and P.J. Axelsson. That’s a pretty solid talent stockpile, but Frolunda was below .500 in eighth place in the 12-team league. In other words, the Swedish League might lack in big names but it definitely rates with the KHL and AHL in overall quality. A lot of skill players whose NHL days are behind them skate in Sweden, including: Marcus Nilson and Jason Krog (HV71); Rickard Wallin and Christian Berglund (Farjestads); Mattias Weinhandl and Niclas Havelid (Linkoping); and, Ladislav Nagy, Richie Regehr, Kyle Cumiskey and Niklas Sundstrom (Modo). Finally, the odd couple of L.A.’s Anze Kopitar and Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan toil for Mora in the second division…so keep your head up, Landeskog.
Finland SM-liiga (14 teams)
Like its Nordic counterpart, the Finnish League relies more on the locals than locked-out NHL talent. There are, however, a few top-end imports led by Mikko Koivu, Erik Karlsson, Valterri Filppula, Rich Peverley and Kyle Turris, as well as promising NHL youngsters Kris Russell, Derek Stepan, Craig Smith, Mikkel Boedker, Lars Eller, Jason Demers and Frans Neilsen. As you’d expect, some Finnish NHLers have come home to play, with Jussi Jokinen, Antti Niemi and Lauri Korpikoski headlining that group. Other notables are Anders Lindback, Kurtis Foster, Maxime Talbot and the irascible Jarkko Ruutu.
Switzerland National League A (12 teams)
The Swiss League trails the KHL, Sweden and Finland in general merit, but it more than makes up for it in star power. Joe Thornton and Rick Nash are back in Davos, where they spent the 2004-05 lockout, and Tyler Seguin and Patrick Kane are in Biel. And while those players are putting up points – including Seguin’s 20 goals in 21 games – Biel is eighth in the 12-team league and Davos ninth. It is Logan Couture’s Geneve Servette club holding down first place by a comfortable margin with Henrik Zetterberg’s Zug squad in second. John Tavares, Jason Spezza, Patrice Bergeron, Max Pacioretty, Michael Del Zotto, Jason Williams, Brooks Laich and Tyler Ennis are also scattered around the Alps, yodeling away and enjoying Toblerones a-plenty.
Czech Republic League (14 teams)
Closer to the Swiss League than the top four, the Czech League nevertheless has one of the best lines around with Tomas Plekanec centering Jaromir Jagr and Jiri Tlusty for first-place Klado (owned by Jagr). Marek Zidlicky also skates for Kladno, and there’s an abundance of Czech-born NHLers, led by Tomas Kaberle, Ales Hemsky, David Krejci, Vinny Prospal, Milan Michalek, Martin Hanzal, Ondrej Pavelec and Ladislav Smid. It should be noted that Kris Beech, who was the key player that went to the Capitals in the Jagr trade with the Rangers in 2001, is also in the Czech League…but it’s not due to the NHL lockout. (The other two players the Caps received? Ross Lupaschuk is in Austria and Michael Sivek retired in 2008.)
THE BENCH: The best of the rest of the world's pro leagues.
ECHL (23 teams): The loop formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League is the feeder league to the feeder league, one rung below the AHL. The Alaska Aces, of all teams, have been the biggest beneficiaries of the lockout, with NHLers Scott Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky, Joey Crabb and Nate Thompson suiting up.
Deutsche Eishockey League (14 teams): Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux were ripping it up in the German League for Berlin, at least before Giroux returned to North America with (Flyers alert! Flyers alert!) a neck injury. Jamie Benn, Paul Stastny and Blake Wheeler join German nationals Marcel Goc, Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff. What, no Uwe Krupp?!
Austrian League (12 teams): Despite missing six games, Detroit Red Wings bubble NHLer Jan Mursak was vying for the scoring lead with 32 points in 19 contests. Thomas Vanek had five goals and 15 points in 11 games before returning to Buffalo. Other NHLers include Johnny Boychuk, David Clarkson, Dustin Jeffrey and Bryan Bickell.
British Elite Ice Hockey League (10 teams): Paul Bissonnette, the Coyotes tough guy better known as Twitter’s BizNasty, had six goals and 16 points in seven games, so you can gauge the caliber of the UK League from that. To be fair, he’s outpacing NHLers Anthony Stewart (five goals and 10 points in 16 games), Matt Beleskey (five goals and 16 points in 16 games) and Tom Sestito (eight goals and 18 points in 15 games).
Low minors: Below the ECHL in North America, in descending order, are the Central Hockey League (10 teams), Southern Professional Hockey League (9 teams) and Federal Hockey League (6 teams).