Influence of CHL Import Draft felt around the hockey world

By Kevin Forbes
Photo: Tomas Jurco (DET) improved his stock dramatically when he decided to leave Slovakia and play with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. Jurco was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)


Every summer, a few days after the NHL Entry Draft, another less-heralded draft takes place that may have a comparable impact on the process of shuttling young hockey talent along the path to becoming NHL players.

The CHL Import Draft allows for each of the CHL’s 59 teams to add up to two European players to their rosters. Arrangements are regularly made ahead of time between teams and their targeted players to increase the likelihood of the player reporting. This often leads to an interesting progression of picks, where it is not always the best player available being selected, but the player with the best chance of showing up.

For the CHL teams, the Import Draft allows them to inject further talent into their roster without sending away existing assets. For the Import players, the Draft offers them a chance to play on the smaller ice surfaces in North America and with a schedule similar to that of the NHL or the other North American pro leagues. By playing in North America, the chances of a player catching the eye of an NHL team scout rises substantially and could mean the difference between being drafted into the NHL or playing out the rest of their career in the European pro leagues.

Despite the overwhelming success of the Import Draft for both CHL teams and players, no Import player has yet to bridge the gap and be selected first overall into the NHL draft. The closest was Gabriel Landeskog last year, a Swede playing for the OHL‘s Kitchener Rangers, who was drafted second overall by the Colorado Avalanche. That all may change this year, with Sarnia’s Nail Yakupov and Quebec’s Mikhail Grigorenko, both Russian forwards, garnering plenty of buzz as the top prospects eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

This is not the first time a pair of Russians were at the head of a draft class. At the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Russians went both first and second overall. But Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were both drafted from their Russian club teams. Are Yakupov and Grigorenko an indication that there is a gradual shift taking place in the path that European players use to get to the NHL?

If such a shift exists, the individual hockey associations in Europe as well as the IIHF have been working hard to ensure they get proper input on the process. But squabbles between CHL teams and European hockey associations, as well as those countries’ club teams continue to occur.

Also a factor is the role that NHL teams play in the process. More and more, European prospects drafted by NHL clubs are finding their way to the CHL soon after being selected, either under the direct advice or the indirect encouragement of their new NHL squad.

Perhaps nowhere is the CHL’s influence more apparent than the annual World Junior Championships. In what may be another nod towards the rise of importance of the CHL when it comes to developing European talent, World Junior rosters, not just those from Canada or the United States, are dotted with players who regularly play in cities like Halifax, Plymouth and Brandon, rather than Moscow, Farjestad, and Riga.

Here’s a look at the CHL’s impact on the European rosters for the upcoming 2012 World Junior Championship.

Czech Republic

Perhaps no European team is more affected by the CHL influence when it comes to the World Juniors as the Czechs are. In fact, almost half of Team Czech Republic are from the CHL.

Noteworthy might be a player who isn’t there: Martin Frk, a top prospect for the 2012 NHL draft. A forward for the Halifax Mooseheads, Frk played for his country last season but after being selected this year, asked to be excused after missing the bulk of the first half of the season with a concussion. Due to IIHF regulations, Frk is now not eligible to play in the QMJHL while the tournament is being played. He will miss three games with the Mooseheads.

Even with the exclusion of Frk, the forward corps of Team Czech Republic featured a decidedly QMJHL flavor. Five QMJHL forwards, with the Rimouski Oceanic’s Jakub Culek (OTT) and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar’s Tomas Filippi the most notable, played for their country as well as Radek Faksa from the OHL‘s Kitchener Rangers and Dominik Uher (PIT) from the WHL‘s Spokane Chiefs.

On the blue line, there is a pair of WHL defenseman in Kamloops Blazer Marek Hrbas and Vancouver Giant David Musil (EDM). Finally, Petr Mrazek from the Ottawa 67s was one of the main stories of the tournament with his play between the pipes. Mrazek’s inclusion on the team is a move not without its own controversy. A Detroit Red Wings prospect, Mrazek was initially blocked from competing due to unresolved issues with his former club team in the Czech Republic. Eventually cooler heads prevailed.

Not as lucky was Dallas Stars prospect Matej Stransky. A forward with the Saskatoon Blades, Stransky is putting up solid numbers in the WHL and was eligible to compete for Team Czech Republic, but his former club team denied the permission.

Denmark

Moving up from Division 1 after a successful tournament last year, Denmark sent a young team to represent them in the Top Division. The majority of Team Denmark plays in Oddset Ligaen, the top Danish hockey league.

Nicklas Jensen, a first round pick by the Vancouver Canucks last summer is the CHL’s sole representative on the Danish team. Jensen is playing his second season with the Oshawa Generals and was one of Denmark’s top players.

Finland

The bulk of Team Finland plays in SM-Liiga or Mestis, Finland’s top two hockey leagues. Of the top European hockey countries competing in the World Junior tournament, Finland is perhaps most successful at keeping their young talent inside their national system.

Only two Finnish players on their World Junior squad currently play in the CHL, but their importance to their squad cannot be understated. London Knights defenseman Olli Maatta might only be 17-years-old, but he’s one of the top defenseman eligible for the NHL Entry Draft next June. Unfortunately for the youngster, a concussion cut his tournament short. Meanwhile, Chicoutimi Sagueneens netminder Christopher Gibson has already been drafted, but the Los Angeles Kings in the second round last summer. The goaltender turned 19 during the tournament and shared goaltending duties for the Finns.

Latvia

Joining Denmark in the promotion from Division 1, Team Latvia had few returnees from last year’s squad which led to a rough tournament for them. The majority of their team plays in Latvia in leagues either associated with the Belarusian Extraliga or the Russian MHL.

However, they did boast two CHL players. Forward Kristians Pelss is a seventh round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers from 2010 and plays junior in Edmonton as well with the Edmonton Oil Kings. Nikita Kolesnikovs is an undrafted 19-year-old defenseman who has split this season, his first in North America, between Shawinigan and the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, where he currently plays.

Russia

As mentioned, Russia‘s team boasts two of the top prospects eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Nail Yakupov of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and Mikhail Grigorenko of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Both players find themselves fourth in league scoring and a strong showing on the international stage for either one could be the deciding factor that catapults one of them over the other to be the first overall pick next summer.

Joining the young duo up front are two more OHL forwards in Alexander Khokhlachev and Ivan Telegin. Khokhlachev was selected in the second round by the Boston Bruins at last year’s draft and currently leads the Windsor Spitfires in scoring. Nineteen-year-old Telegin was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fourth round in 2010 and his rights currently reside with the Winnipeg Jets while he plays for the Barrie Colts.

The lone Russian defenseman with CHL pedigree is Artem Sergeev, an undrafted blue liner who plays for the Val d’Or Foreurs in the QMJHL. Goaltender Andrei Makarov also got his CHL start in the QMJHL but when the Lewiston MAINEiacs dissolved over the summer, he headed west and landed with the Saskatoon Blades. Makarov was expected to be the starting goaltender for Russia when they started the tournament, but was quickly supplanted by Andrei Vasilevski.

The migration of players from Russia to the CHL is thought to, in part, be an effort to diffuse the stigma of the "Russian factor". Due to disagreements between the NHL and the Russian Hockey Federation as well as the KHL, NHL teams have been less than eager to use high draft picks on top Russian talent for fear that the players will never become available.


Slovakia

Similar to Team Czech Republic, the Slovakian entry featured a healthy dose of CHL talent both up front and on the blue line.

Tomas Jurco, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who plies his trade with the Saint John Sea Dogs, is the most notable. He’s joined up front by fellow Red Wings prospect Marek Tvrdon. Tvrdon plays for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL and Vladimir Dolnik of the Everett Silvertips rounds out the group.

The Slovakian blue line carries a very distinctive CHL feel, with five of the seven players named to the defense currently playing in North America. They’ll be led by Adam Janosik and Martin Marincin. Janosik, a Tampa Bay prospect, comes from the Gatineau Olympiques, while Marincin, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick in 2010, is playing his second season for the Prince George Cougars. Martin Gernat, another Oilers prospect playing in the WHL for the Edmonton Oil Kings will also be expected to carry a heavy load for the Slovaks while Michal Cajkovsky and Peter Ceresnak, both from the OHL will provide further depth.


Sweden

As is the case for Finland, Sweden‘s team is made up primarily of players playing in their national pro leagues, both the Swedish Elite League as well as the Sweden’s second highest league, Allsvenskan. But they still feature a smattering of CHL talent.

Johan Mattsson might be the top goalie with the Sudbury Wolves, but the 19-year-old Chicago Blackhawks prospect found himself behind Johan Gustafsson (MIN) and Anton Forsberg (CLB) when it came to the tournament.

Up front, there is a trio of NHL drafted forwards. Rikard Rakell is in his second year with the Plymouth Whalers and was drafted with the last pick of the first round last year by the Anaheim Ducks. Victor Rask and Ludvig Rensfeldt both opted to come to North America to play in the CHL after they were drafted. Rensfeldt, a Blackhawks second rounder in 2010 is in his first season with the Sarnia Sting, while Rask, a second round selection by Carolina in 2011 is playing his first year with the Calgary Hitmen.


Switzerland

As can be seen in both international competition and NHL draft results, hockey in Switzerland has been steadily improving over the years and this incarnation of Team Switzerland is no exception. Although former WHLer Nino Niederreiter (NYI), their top player from the past two seasons has moved on to pro hockey, Switzerland continues to feature a healthy cohort from the CHL.

Up front, the attack was led by Brandon Wheat King Alessio Bertaggia and Rouyn-Noranda Huskie Sven Andrighetto. Tanner Richard of the Guelph Storm also was a key component of the Swiss attack and Lino Martschini of the Peterborough Petes provided depth. Sven Bartschi of the Portland Winterhawks, one of the WHL’s leading scorers, was expected to help carry the Swiss offense, but injury caused the Calgary Flames first rounder to miss a large chunk of games.

On defense, 19-year-old Dario Trutmann might still be undrafted, but he was a key player for the Swiss. This is Trutmann’s second year with the Swiss World Junior squad and it’s also his second year with the Plymouth Whalers. Dave Sutter of the Seattle Thunderbirds might have a last name familiar to those in Western Canada, but the 19-year-old is pure Swiss born and will provide further depth for his country’s team.


Division 1

The reach of the CHL’s Import players also touches the second highest division of the IIHF’s World Junior Championship. The Division 1 championship recently finished and the championship squad from Germany featured nine CHL players, including the tournament’s top goaltender Mathias Niederberger from the Barrie Colts, the top defenseman in Konrad Abeltshauser (SJ) from the Halifax Mooseheads and the tournament scoring leader Tobias Rieder (EDM) from the Kitchener Rangers. However, due to age, only Rieder is eligible to play for Germany again next season when the team moves up to the Top Division.

In addition to Team Germany, four other CHL players competed for their home countries in Division 1. Three players lined up for Team Norway, including the tournament’s top forward Sondre Olden (TOR) of the Erie Otters, while one player, Roman Graborenko of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles played for Team Belarus.