By Tim Pigulski
Last Thursday, the Thunderbirds selected 10 players in the annual WHL Bantam Draft, led by first-round pick Jarret Tyszka, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound defenseman from Langley, British Columbia. The Bantam Draft is key for any team to maintaining success over time as the 15-year-olds fill out the team's list before eventually having the chance to earn a shot on the WHL roster.
Now that the Bantam Draft has passed, the Thunderbirds and general manager Russ Farwell will turn their attention to the Canadian Hockey League's yearly Import Draft, where teams from the CHL select players from all over Europe with the hope that they'll bring their skills to North America, which often offers better visibility for NHL-draft hopefuls than the leagues in their home countries.
The Import Draft is usually dominated by players in the 17- and 18-year-old age groups – those either hopeful of being drafted by an NHL club, or those who have already been selected and are asked by their professional team to hone their skills in a North American environment.
Last season saw the Thunderbirds pass on both of their import picks, including their first-rounder at 13th overall, as they still had the two Europeans they had selected in 2012. Alex Delnov, who was selected with the eighth overall pick that year, and Roberts Lipsbergs, who was taken with the final pick of the first round, 60th overall, are both unlikely to return next season.
This year Seattle will again have two picks, including one in the first round that looks like it will occur somewhere in the 40-45 overall range based on the Thunderbirds' finish. With the CHL's recently-implemented Import Draft rules, Seattle will be prevented from trading up for a higher pick.
The Import Draft always presents an impressive pool of talent, but teams must also consider the likelihood that a player will choose to report to the team that selects them. This will be the first year that 1997-born players are eligible to be drafted into the CHL, a class that boasts a good amount of high-end talent, according to Ross MacLean (@rossmaclean) of International Scouting Services.
"From the 1997 age group the top prospects are Oliver Kylington of Sweden, Pavel Zacha of the Czech Republic and Denis Malgin of Switzerland," said MacLean, the head scout at ISS. "Add to that list (1996-born) potential NHL first-round picks William Nylander (son of former NHLer Michael Nylander) of Sweden, Kasperi Kapanen (son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen) of Finland, Kevin Fiala of Switzerland, and Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak of the Czech Republic and you get a sense of the potency of the European crop right now."
While it's possible that commitment issues and teams skipping their choices may cause some of these elite-level talents to drop a bit, it seems unlikely at this point that any of them might fall as far as the last third of the first round where Seattle might be picking. When their time finally does come around, the Thunderbirds seem most likely to take a goal-scoring forward, perhaps a center, as they only have two true centers with significant WHL experience on the roster in Mathew Barzal and Scott Eansor.
Despite the late picks, the Thunderbirds still have a very legitimate shot at offsetting the losses of Delnov and Lipsbergs. Centers Vladislav Kamenev from Russia and Aleksi Saarela from Finland are talented centers that could be available a bit later in the first and would provide an immediate impact. Last season, a number of high-impact players were picked up outside of the draft's first round, including Everett's Ivan Nikolishin (70th overall pick) and Saskatoon's Nikita Sherbak (109th overall), who led all rookies in scoring with 78 points in 65 games played last year.
Over the past few seasons, Seattle has done an admirable job in getting its European draftees to commit to playing in the Pacific Northwest. Before Lipsbergs and Delnov, Marcel Noebels and Dave Sutter came over from Germany and Switzerland, respectively. The year prior, Mikhail Sentyurin left Russia to play in Seattle, although his WHL career was derailed due to issues associated with being released from his Russian team, which forced him to miss training camp and the beginning of the season, after which he was never able to get on track.
In likely losing both Delnov and Lipsbergs this offseason, the Thunderbirds lose a combined 62 goals and 53 assists from their two European players. While teams often select the best player available in the Bantam Draft regardless of position, they're more likely to draft an import based on need, as the import player is usually able to join the roster immediately, although this isn't necessarily always the case.
"There are always many considerations to be made with the Import Draft and it doesn't always follow a best player available flow," MacLean said. "Certain teams will always have difficulties convincing Europeans to come play for them and others are able entice top players that most teams could not, be it through the market they play in, the exposure to NHL scouts, their coaching staff, or their management team."
Due to the nature of the draft and the question marks that surround each prospect, the Import Draft as a whole is a toss-up.
"We see very strong import players go in almost every position of the draft," MacLean said. "So if a team has done their homework and call to sell the situation well to a player or to a player's agent they can certainly obtain an impactful player with later picks."
After a second-round playoff exit this year at the hands of WHL finalist Kelowna, the Thunderbirds will surely be hoping to make a splash in the Import Draft, where Farwell has stated that picking up a forward is a priority. With a budding program filled with young talent and a rink located in a large North American market, he should have an advantage over many WHL and CHL teams.
It's impossible to know who Farwell and his scouting staff have spoken with at this point and who they believe might commit, which makes it difficult to predict exactly who the Thunderbirds might choose. At such a critical juncture for the team – which is loaded with young, high-end prospects in players like Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Ethan Bear, and numerous others – it's a sure bet that Seattle has been and will continue working hard to entice Europe's prime talent.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.