(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN.)
Canada: Joe Nieuwendyk
One of the most decorated players to ever suit up for the Florida Panthers, Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk brought his three Stanley Cup rings, Olympic Gold Medal, Conn Smyth Trophy and 1,126 career points to the Sunshine State in 2005. Although the Panthers got the oldest version of a skater known affectionately “Nieuwe”, the aging legend still managed to score 64 points in 80 games for the Cats before retiring in 2007. Nieuwendyk’s time in Florida was a lot like dating an aging Playboy model: Sure you didn’t get her in her prime, but you can always look back at her glory days and think to yourself, “Yeah, I got that.”
Sitting at the top of the all-time leading points list along with fellow Finnish players such as Selanne, Kurri, Sandstrom, and Koivu, Olli Jokinen has made a significant mark during his pro years which he spent in both the Finnish Elite League and the NHL.
Before taking his talents to North America in 1998, Olli Jokinen was making a name for himself in his hometown league, the SM-Liiga. Kicking off his pro career at just 17-years-old, Jokinen found himself breaking a record for the most points recorded for a player under 18 years old (recently broken by Aleksander Barkov), earning himself the Jarmo Wasama memorial trophy which is given to the rookie of the year. Following the success he found in Finland, Olli decided to take his talents to the NHL where he was drafted 3rd overall by the Los Angeles Kings, later being traded to the Islanders and eventually making his way to Florida. Although the Panthers failed to make the playoffs during Jokinen’s 7 seasons with the struggling franchise, he managed to find his own success during his years with Florida, recording a career high of 85-plus points in back-to-back seasons. Jokinen currently holds the all-time points and goals record for the Panthers.
USA: John Vanbiesbrouck
One of the driving forces behind the Panthers’ miracle run to the Stanley Cup in 1996, John “Beezer” Vanbiesbrouck is one of the most decorated American goaltenders of all-time. A 3-time All-Star and Vezina Trophy winner in 1986, Beezer still holds the record for all-time victories among American born goaltenders with 374. In five seasons with the Panthers, Beezer compiled 106 regular season victories and 13 postseason victories. At age 49, Beezer would possibly still have a chance of making an impact on the Cat’s questionable goaltending duo, but for now fans will have to cling to memories of 1996.
Sweden: Kristian Huselius
Selected by the Panthers in the 2nd round (47th overall) of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, forward Kristian Huselius spent four seasons wearing Panther red. Although he didn’t make his debut with the Panthers until 2001, Huselius’ speed and playmaking were on full display when he finally took the ice. In four seasons for the Cats, Huselius scored 127 points before he was traded to Calgary in 2005. Although fans hope that someday goaltender Jacob Markstrom will be looked back on as the Cat’s top Swede, for now the honor belongs to Huselius.
Russia: Pavel Bure
Although his jersey is about to be raised to the rafters in Vancouver, Russian forward Pavel Bure spent four years raising both eyebrows and expectations when he suited up for the Florida Panthers from 1998-2002. During Bure’s 4-year stint in the Sunshine State, he was able to tally 152 goals en route to winning back-to-back Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies.
Bure was able to score 779 career points while appearing in seven All-Star games and earning an induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
To put it bluntly, Bure brought the most Russian-related hysteria to South Florida since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Slovakia: Jozef Stumpel
While Slovakian natives such as old-timer Robert Svehla and current player Tomas Kopecky may be Florida Panther fan favorites, it’s hard not to give the “best Slovakian” nod to Jozef Stumpel who appeared in 957 NHL games, recording 677 points. Stumpel saw productive years with the Florida Panthers tallying 111 points in 199 games until he retired in 2008.
But it was earlier in his career when Stumpel made a name for himself, notching 75-plus points in back to back seasons with both the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings.
While Stumpel may not be draped in medals and NHL awards, he currently sits 7th all-time in points for Slovakian born skaters averaging an impressive 0.71 points per game.
Czech Republic: Martin Straka
Although he only appeared in 67 games with the Florida Panthers, Martin Straka made his mark in the NHL tallying 717 points (257g-460a-717p) in 954 career games with teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. Straka is best known for his dominance between the late 90’s/early 2000’s where he played with the Penguins for the second time in his career notching 346 points in 403 games. Nestled nicely between Petr Sykora and Milan Hejduk, Martin Straka has put up the 4th highest points per game total amongst Czech born NHL players (0.75).
Adding to these accomplishments, Straka skated with the Czech Republic men’s ice hockey team during the 1998 Olympic games in Nagano Japan, earning their countries first and only gold medal in ice hockey.
REST OF THE WORLD CATEGORY
Latvia: Sandis Ozolinsh
A veteran of several NHL teams, 7-time All-Star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh soaked up the sunshine with the Panthers from 2001-2003. An astoundingly gifted offensive-defenseman, Ozolinsh averaged .64 points a game for his career and is still currently the all-time Latvian points leader in both the NHL and for his home country. In 1996 he was able to hoist the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche and still holds eight individual Avalanche records. In his two seasons with the Panthers, Ozolinish earned 55 points in 88 games played.
Although Latvia may be known for producing famous folk songs, Ozolinish was able to use his stick as an instrument of offensive destruction in the NHL for many years.
Belarus: Ruslan Salei
While he may no longer be on this Earth, former NHL defenseman Ruslan Salei’s mark left on Belarusian hockey will echo for some time. Arriving in Florida in 2006, Salei spent 2 seasons with the Panthers, recording 55 points in 147 games played.
Sadly, Salei lost his life in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in 2011. At the time of his death, Salei was the NHL’s all-time leading point scorer from Belarus with 204 points in 917 games. Although Andrei Kosititsyn has since surpassed that total, Salei’s legacy in the NHL will live on.
Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN