2019-20 Season Overview: Crossroads for Many Players of Asian Descent

With the 2019-20 NHL season upon us, there are 5 players of Asian descent on NHL opening rosters, at least 10 in the AHL and 3 in the ECHL, in addition to a bevy in the junior leagues and overseas in the KHL.

Defenseman Matt Dumba is an integral component of the Minnesota Wild’s defence, and he has now returned from a season-ending injury that derailed the Wild’s playoff chances last year. The 25-year-old Filipino-Canadian was leading all NHL defensemen in scoring when he was injured last December, and picked up where he left off, scoring a goal in his first game back.

Winger Taro Hirose of the Detroit Red Wings

Joining Dumba on NHL rosters to start the season are:

  • Winger Jujhar Khaira, a fixture in Edmonton’s bottom six for the last two seasons
  • Winger Devin Shore, a reliable bottom six winger for the Anaheim Ducks
  • Rookie winger Taro Hirose (DET) after an impressive late-season cameo (7 points in 10 games)
  • Rookie centre Nick Suzuki, who won a spot on the Montreal Canadiens opening roster after a stellar pre-season, including this impressive overtime winner:

The 13th overall pick from the 2017 Draft, Suzuki will look to parlay his stellar junior scoring numbers, including winning the OHL Playoffs MVP, into being a regular contributor for the Canadiens.

AHL players of Asian descent include AHL veterans like Tyler Sikura (Rockford) as well as younger players who are quickly aging out of prospect status, such as winger Kiefer Sherwood (ANA), winger Dylan Sikura (CHI), defenseman Mitchell Vande Sompel (NYI), winger Dennis Yan (TBL), and winger Josh Ho-Sang (NYI).

Winger Josh Ho-Sang of the New York Islanders

After being selected in the first round by the Islanders in 2014, Ho-Sang has had an eventful relationship with the team, with controversies ranging from oversleeping the start of training camp to poor defensive play which culminated with a public trade request.

Younger prospects populating AHL rosters include:

  • Winger Kailer Yamamoto (EDM), who’s development since being drafted in the first round in 2017 has been non-linear at best and needs to dominate the AHL this season to re-establish his bona-fide NHL top-six upside which the Oilers could desperately use
  • Centre Pavel Shen (BOS), making his North American debut after playing sparsely for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL
  • Centre Jonathan Ang (FLR)
  • Winger Jason Robertson (DAL).
Winger Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars

The leading scorer in the OHL last season, Robertson will start his professional career in the AHL and recently talked with the Dallas Morning News about his experience as a hockey player of Asian descent.

In the ECHL, winger Cliff Pu (FLR) has had a difficult transition to professional hockey after being traded twice in the same season – the 2016 third-rounder will look to rekindle the scoring that made him a substantial part of the return for Jeff Skinner. Two of the most promising Japanese-born players of this generation, wingers Yuri Terao and Yushiroh Hirano, will also play in the ECHL this season.

Winger Yushiroh Hirano of the Wheeling Nailers (ECHL)

Terao is making his North American professional debut after three years in the Asian league, and Hirano will be looking to build upon his promising rookie season last year when he posted 19 goals and 57 points in 67 ECHL games and earned an AHL contract from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins). The second Japanese-born player to play a game in the AHL, Hirano recorded an assist in his one game for Wilkes-Barres last season, the first point by a Japanese-born player in the AHL.

Other hockey players of Asian descent in the junior leagues include:

  • Defenseman Jett Woo (VAN), returning to the WHL for his overage season after an offensive breakout last season with 66 points in 62 games
  • Overage winger Tyler Ho
  • Centre Ryan Suzuki (CAR), who’s looking to dominate the OHL after being drafted in the first round in the 2019 Draft
  • Winger Nick Robertson (TOR), who’s already scored 7 goals and 11 points in just 5 OHL games
  • Defenceman Jordan Spence (LAK)
  • Draft-eligible centre Nicholas Wong of the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
  • Rookie winger Trevor Wong of the Kelowna Rockets (WHL).
Defenseman Tyler Inamoto of the University of Wisconsin.

In the NCAA, there are also a significant number of players of Asian descent, including a trio of NHL draftees: defender Tyler Inamoto (FLR), winger Parker Foo (CHI), and centre Austin Wong (EDM).

In the Russia-based KHL, Kunlun Red Star Beijing has an unprecedented number of players of Chinese descent, including defencemen Victor Bartley, Jason Fram, Brayden Jaw, and Mikaël Tam, as well as forwards Spencer Foo, Garet Hunt, Cory Kane, Luke Lockhart, Tyler Wong, and captain Brandon Yip. KRS is currently 10th in the Eastern Conference, with a 5-8-2-1 record. Tyler Wong currently leads the team in scoring with 5 goals in 13 games.

Kunlun Red Star Beijing’s Brandon Yip (#18) celebrates with Jason Fram (#55), Spencer Foo (#15), Andrew Miller (#71), and Mikaël Tam (#77) after scoring a goal against Barys Nur-Sultan on September 30, 2019.

After the dissolution of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays moved to the Russian league and won the SWHL pre-season tournament in Beijing. There are a large number of not only players of Chinese descent, but also Chinese-born and Chinese-trained players – some of the key such players for the Rays include:

  • Defender Zhixin Liu, a key part of the Chinese national team and a member of the Rays since their founding 2 years ago
  • Rookie defender and new Harvard grad Kaitlin Tse
  • Captain Xueting Qi, who’s returning to the ice after a few years in a coaching role
  • Defender Melanie Jue
  • Goalie Kim Newell in her first season as a starter after backing up one of the best goalies in the world in Noora Räty
  • Forward Leah Lum
  • Forward Rachel Llanes, now in her seventh professional season
Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays celebrate after wining the SWHL pre-season tournament in August 2019.

There are also three Chinese teams in the second tier of Russian Hockey (VHL), KRS-BSU Beijing, ORG Beijing, and Tsen Tou Jilin, in addition to a Chiense team, ORG Junior Beijing, in the Russian junior league, focused on developing primairly Chinese-born players in preperation for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The Asian League of Ice Hockey is also returning for its 17th season, with the East Hokkaido Cranes replacing the Nippon Paper Cranes. Last season, the Daemyung Killer Whales won their first championship in franchise history.