Since its inception in 1992, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft has served as a way for the three major junior leagues to manage international talent entering their storied franchises.
The 30th edition of the Import Draft featured 57 CHL clubs participating; all 22 of the Western Hockey League (WHL), 18 of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and 17 of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Only the Halifax Mooseheads, the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Mississauga Steelheads opted to pass, as they retained both of their previous import draft choices.
The CHL clubs traveled the globe for their selections; a breakdown by countries of origin paints a very diverse picture of a talent pool.
What may garner some eyeballs is how quickly Latvia and Ukraine appeared on the draft board – No. 1 and No. 3, to be exact.
Fitting surprises for the strange situation that was this year’s Import Draft, as it took place before the NHL Entry Draft, not afterward like usual. Normally, the Import Draft is filled with recent NHL draftees who make the decision with their new parent organization to come to the CHL in order to acclimate with the North American game immediately.
Let’s take a look at the Top 10 players, normally all a safe bet to appear in the CHL the following season (there’s already one exception, which is noted below):
Rounding out the top ten was the first Swiss player selected in the CHL Import Draft, as the Rimouski Oceanic selected right winger Louis Robin. A 2003 birth-year skater, he went undrafted this summer by NHL clubs, but after racking up 51 points and 81 penalty minutes in 45 games with Zug of the U20 Elit league in his native Switzerland, the Oceanic must like what they saw. He has been with Zug for the last three seasons; before that, Robin skated in the Lausanne organization from 2014-18. Robin wore an “A” for his Swiss club at the Under-18 Worlds this past spring, recording two points in three games.
The Kitchener Rangers opted for Slovakian forward Filip Mesar, a 2004 birth-year winger who is considered a possible first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. At 5-foot-10, he won’t be an intimidating presence, but those 41 points in 33 games with his HK Poprad U20 team in 2019-2020, and 14 in 36 against professionals a year later looks appealing to any franchise. As it stands now, however, Mesar is not on the Rangers’ preseason roster; perhaps another season of pro hockey in his home country will be Mesar’s preferred route leading into the NHL Draft.
The first of five Swedish products was selected at No. 8, as Jesper Vikman was claimed by the Giants to make it back-to-back net minders in the import draft. Vikman is older than most of the prospects selected, as he is a 2002 birth-year goaltender who was drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2020 (fifth round, 125th overall). Elite Prospects lists him as a dual citizen between Sweden and Finland, but he has spent the majority of his days skating with the AIK club in Stockholm. While the Giants haven’t released a preseason roster to date, Vikman has been skating with the team and he told members of the media that he’s excited to be in Vancouver.
The first goaltender selected was the 6-foot-3, 165-pounder Ivan Zhigalov, who hails from Minsk, Belarus. He caught some scouts’ eyes at the U18 Worlds but went undrafted in the NHL selection process. This will be his first taste of North American hockey, after Zhigalov rose through the ranks with Dynamo Moscow.
Another ’04 birth-year defenseman, Kirill Kudryavtsev was the first Russian product taken in the 2021 CHL Import Draft. A native of Yaroslavl, Kudryavstev has been playing for his hometown Lokomotiv Yaroslavl through his formative years, playing in the top U20 league in Eurasia in 2020-21. He’s been a key piece of a Russian club that has dominated in prestigious international tournaments, helping his country to gold at the Youth Olympic Games with four points in four games, and then gold again at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with two points and a plus-5 rating.
This one’s definitely coming across the pond. Rayan Bettahar, a prospect eligible for the 2022 Draft, is a 2004-birth year defenseman who is listed as a native of Germany on the CHL site, but a dual citizen with Poland, citing a hometown of Nowy Targ on EP. He racked up 29 penalty minutes in three games at the U18 Worlds, so the Broncos know they’re getting somebody who won’t be afraid of fighting some battles in front of the crease and in the corners. Bettahar has been playing for Jungadler Mannheim of the Germany U17 league for three seasons, while getting the call up to the U20 team on occasion.
In the weird world of 2021, it looks like the No. 4 overall pick in the CHL Import Draft may not be coming to North America. Cape Breton took a chance on defenseman Simon Nemec of Slovakia, but he doesn’t appear on their preseason roster. It was certainly worth the risk, as Nemec is rated the No. 3 overall prospect in the upcoming 2022 NHL Draft in Elite Prospects’ consolidated rankings system. The 6-foot-1 native of Liptovsky Mikulas appears to be playing another season with HK Nitra back home. He wore the ‘C’ for Slovakia at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this summer, recording six points in five games from the backend.
Selected in the NHL Draft shortly after the CHL edition, Artur Cholach became the first Ukrainian to be selected by an NHL club since 2007. A native of Lviv, Ukraine, Cholach played with Sokol Kyiv of the Ukrainian Professional Hockey League in 2020-21, playing an increased role in the playoffs (he recorded a pair of goals in nine games). This won’t be his first time playing North American hockey, as Cholach came to the United States to play with the New Jersey Jr. Titans of the NAPHL and AYHL in 2019-2020. Before that, he skated for CSKA Moscow of the Russia 16U junior league, while being called up for a few games at the 18U level with the same club. His 6-foot-4, 201-pound frame made him an appealing late-round choice for the Vegas Golden Knights, who selected him in the sixth round this summer.
Niko Huuhtanen, a native of Helsinki, Finland, heard his name called twice this summer, first by the WHL’s Everett Silvertips at No. 2 overall, and then, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round of the 2021 NHL Draft. After playing many of his formative years with the Espoo Blues organization, this past season Huuhtanen suited up for Tappara U20 in the SM-Sarja — Finland’s top Under-20 league — where he posted 34 points in 37 games, along with 73 penalty minutes. In the 2021 Under-18 Worlds, he recorded two goals and three assists, along with a plus-3 rating, for Finland in seven games.
Baie-Comeau selected Niks Fenenko with the first overall pick of this summer’s selection process, a notable pick as there hasn’t been much talk about the 2004 birth-year defenseman out of Latvia. Fenenko, a 6-foot-1 left-handed blue-liner, has been playing for HS Riga, his hometown club, in the top-tier Latvian league. He skated for Latvia at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship this past spring, finishing with a minus-3 rating in four games. Before his time with Riga, Fenenko spent two seasons playing in the Latvia U17 league with HK Pirati, playing up multiple age groups.
The CHL is still widely considered the top developmental league for junior hockey players around the world. More than 1,100 active professional players first competed in one of the CHL’s three subsidiary leagues before being drafted into the NHL. It routinely bridges the gap between youth hockey and college/professional hockey for hundreds of players each year, and the season is set to start next month.
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The 2021 IIHF U18 World Junior Championships are set to begin Monday in Frisco and Plano, Texas, with a field of teams from 10 different countries. Teams Czech and Germany will begin the festivities with puck drop at 4 p.m. CT, and will be the first of 28 games over the span of 11 days.
Team USA won the U20 World Juniors in Edmonton four months ago, and the U18 squad will be a strong favorite to win as well. Team Canada may have one of its strongest teams in recent memory because of the pandemic and Team Sweden brings a strong group across the Atlantic as well.
With the top countries from around the world all in one location, we take a deep dive into the players’ origins and the youth organizations they represent.
A pretty diverse group with 25 skaters stemming from 19 different youth programs across five different provinces. Team Canada is unique in another way as well, as three players also hail from different countries with Mason McTavish (Switzerland), Cole Sillinger (USA) and Danny Zhilkin (Russia) all claiming dual citizenship. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see that two teams from the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) account for the largest portion of the locker room, with the Don Mills Flyers and Toronto Marlboros producing three members each.
Stanislav Svozil was a member of the Czech’s U20 team earlier this year, where he picked up an assist in the tournament and the team finished with a 2-2-0 record. The U18 squad is slightly different than previous tournament teams. Of the 25 rostered players, only four are not currently playing in the Czech Republic, making this year’s group a homegrown bunch with little influence from the CHL or other international junior leagues. Those Czech roots run deep through the youth ranks, with three players from HC Plzen and three more from HC Prerov, including the 6-foot-1 Svozil who last played for the club’s U16 team.
The Finns have had great success in this tournament, winning a medal in four of the last five events including two gold and two silver. Defenseman Kalle Ervasti has ties to the States, having spent his 16U season with South Florida Hockey Academy (SFHA), scoring 61 points in 59 games for the club. In addition to him, the Blues, Jokerit and Pelicans are among some of the most represented programs on the team, but Karpat leads the way with four former players, including standout forward Samu Tuomaala.
A country on the rise in the sport of hockey, from NHL MVP Leon Draisaitl, to last year’s third overall pick in Tim Stützle. Germany is back in the top level of the World Juniors tournament for the first time in six years, and the players are part of an international development plan to build up the country’s competitiveness in the event. Part of that comes from an investment at the youth level, where a program like Starbulls Rosenheim and its 2017-18 under-16 team that produced three members of this year’s national team.
It’s one of the smallest countries by land area in the tournament and the national team is limited in terms of resources it can tap into for players. Just eight youth hockey programs account for Team Latvia’s entire roster makeup, and SK Riga alone produced five forwards, two D and a goalie who last played youth hockey for the club’s U16 and U15 teams. While their origins are similar, the players’ current situations vary greatly with skaters actively playing in Finland’s U20 SM-Sarja, Switzerland’s U20-Elit, Norway U21 and Russia’s MHL.
The Russians will bring plenty of offensive firepower to the tournament with Ivan Miroshnichenko and Matvei Michkov headlining the list of forwards. Fyodor Svechkov, Nikita Chibrikov and Ilya Ivantsov are also dangerous, in addition to several others. Eleven members of the team originated from the Central Federal District of Russia; the region surrounding the city of Moscow. One of the most storied and historic youth programs in the country, Dynamo Moscow, accounts for six of the players.
Without a tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19, the Swedes should still be considered as defending champs after defeating Russia in the 2019 event. This year, it may not have the big names on the roster that it normally boasts, but the country should certainly be considered in contention this week anyway, given its history in international play. Frolunda is one of the most recognizable youth programs in Sweden, most likely because it produces international and professional players at an impressive clip. Five Indians alumni, including some of Sweden’s top prospects, will suit up for the Swedes. Keep an eye out for forwards Liam Dower-Nilsson, Noah Hasa, Fabian Lysell and Ludwig Persson as well as defenseman Simon Edvinsson.
Just one player (Attilio Biasca) is currently playing junior hockey outside of Switzerland. The rest of the current roster resides in the surprisingly competitive U20-Elit Swiss League. Biasca suited up for the U20 team in January and has spent the 2020-21 season in the QMJHL. The Swiss will rely heavily on his experience because the country hasn’t fared very well in the U18 tournament. In 21 tournament appearances, Team Swiss has won a medal just once, and it was 20 years ago. Switzerland’s roster is comprised of 25 players from 17 youth organizations, with Kevin Pasche, Nathan Cantin, Benjamin Bourgo and Louis Robin hailing from Lausanne’s U15 team.
Hockey in the States starts with the three M’s: Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. The U18 team, however, starts with just one M… Michigan. Ten players on the roster either reside in, or played their most recent youth hockey in the Mitten State. Dylan Duke, Ty Gallagher, Sasha Pastujov and Red Savage played for Compuware’s 16U team in 2018-19 before all four of them went on to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) in Plymouth, Michigan. Five others also played for Michigan-based youth programs including HoneyBaked (2), Fox Motors, Little Caesars and Oakland Jr. Grizzlies.
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