The CHL Import Draft is one of the more fascinating rituals in the hockey world. Major junior’s three leagues – the OHL, QMJHL and WHL – all participate for the same pool of players from outside of North America (but for all intents and purposes it’s almost always Europeans), but there is no guarantee that the players they select will come over and play for them.
Some franchises offer more appealing landing spots than others and often the teams reach out to players beforehand to gauge their interest, so the order in which players are drafted isn’t a traditional meritocracy. Also, some franchises take wild swings on big-name players hoping that they can convince the kid to come over later.
Traditionally, the Import Draft has followed the NHL Draft, which gave some clarity heading in, since NHL prospects often get guidance from their new parent clubs as to where they should develop. Due to the NHL’s pandemic schedule this season, that was not the case – making the waters even murkier.
Having said that, the picks are in for the two-round draft and there was a lot of intrigue. Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL held the first pick and selected Latvian defenseman Niks Fenenko, who will be eligible for the 2022 NHL draft. There isn’t much of a book on him yet, but Fenenko did play for Latvia’s national team at the world under-18s.
Let’s break down the rest of the draft under a few categories.
The Big Names
The first major name off the board came at No. 4 when QMJHL Cape Breton selected Slovakian defenseman Simon Nemec, a top-five prospect for the 2022 NHL draft. Nemec is an elite two-way player with great hockey sense and skating ability. He’s already been playing in Slovakia’s top pro league, so the Eagles will have their work cut out for them in trying to lure him over. Sticking in the ‘Q,’ Saint John raised eyebrows when the Sea Dogs took Calgary Flames prospect Yan Kuznetsov 22nd overall. Kuznetsov, an excellent defensive defenseman who played for Russia at the world juniors, ended this past season in the AHL with Stockton after completing his sophomore season at NCAA UConn. It’s hard to see him not going back to the AHL next year.
Fellow Russian Ivan Miroshnichenko was taken by QMJHL Acadie-Bathurst 43rd overall and he is coming off an excellent world under-18s with the national squad. Miroshnichenko had been linked to USHL Muskegon in the past but he’s under contract with Avangard Omsk now and it might be hard to pry him away. Strong, speedy and skilled, he’s got top-10 potential for the 2022 NHL draft.
In the second round, the OHL’s Erie Otters got bold, selecting Slovakian power forward Juraj Slafkovsky. Another potential top-10 pick in the 2022 NHL draft, Slafkovsky has been playing in Finland’s junior ranks with TPS but could jump to the Liiga next season. Like Nemec, he already has a world juniors under his belt.
Another 2022 prospect from Slovakia, Filip Mesar, went to OHL Kitchener ninth overall. Mesar had an impressive 14 points in 36 games against men in the nation’s Extraliga.
The wildest pick, however, came from QMJHL Charlottetown. The Islanders tabbed Russian scoring phenom Matvei Michkov with the 112th pick overall. Given that Michkov is in the elite SKA-St. Petersburg system and coming off MVP honors at the world under-18s, it’s hard to see him coming over anytime soon.
The NHL Draft Prospects
Technically a lot of these players are draft-eligible next month, but I’m going to focus on a couple of the high-end kids we will likely see chosen in the 2021 NHL draft for this section. The first name is Niko Huuhtanen, the Finnish right winger who went second overall to WHL Everett. Huuhtanen is a power forward with a great shot and a penchant for crushing opponents, but his skating needs work. He is ranked 87th overall in Draft Preview.
With the 118th pick, OHL Barrie selected Sweden’s Oskar Olausson, who ranked 19th overall in Draft Preview and already has a world juniors to his credit. Olausson made his SHL debut this past season and his combination of dynamic skating and size make him intriguing.
I don’t pretend to know all the players in the Import Draft, but I am familiar with a number of them and several really caught my eye this past season. The first who comes to mind is Team Belarus goaltender Ivan Zhigalov, who was taken seventh overall by QMJHL Sherbrooke. Zhigalov, a big and poised 2021 NHL draft prospect, didn’t see much action at the world under-18s but I have a feeling this kid could thrive if given the opportunity.
A player that came onto my radar because of the world under-18s was Finland’s Joakim Kemell, a talented right winger who was taken 32nd overall by WHL Regina. Kemell looks bigger than his 5-foot-11 frame would indicate and he has a wicked shot. The Pats need some high-end talent to play alongside phenom center Connor Bedard and I think Kemell could fit that role perfectly.
Heading back in net, QMJHL Rimouski got another one of my favorite goalies for the 2021 NHL draft with Czech national Patrik Hamrla. Big and poised, Hamrla saw his first Extraliga action this past season but was strangely stuck as the third goalie on the Czech Republic’s world under-18 team. I think he has a ton of potential and could certainly unlock it in an Oceanic jersey.
The CHL had a short-lived ban on import goalies and it backfired big-time. With everything back to normal in the past few years, major junior teams have once again been grabbing netminders from Europe and benefitting from their presence. One of the top names this year is Leevi Merilainen, an Ottawa Senators prospect coming off a sizzling year in the Finnish junior ranks. OHL Kingston nabbed his rights with the 48th pick overall. Elsewhere, WHL Victoria selected Austrian national Sebastian Wraneschitz at No. 60. While undersized, Wraneschitz proved to be quite the battler at the world juniors for Austria, which was missing top player Marco Rossi.
Earlier in the draft, WHL Vancouver took Vegas Golden Knights pick Jesper Vikman, a raw talent with great size out of Sweden.
All the traditional Euro hockey powers were represented in the Import Draft and it was hard not to notice the growing number of Germans and Belarussians selected, but some ‘non-traditional’ countries got on the board, too. Ukraine’s Artur Cholach went third overall to OHL Barrie, while WHL Seattle expanded its horizons twice with Italy’s Allesandro Segafredo and Leon Okonkwo Prada of the Netherlands. OHL Guelph snagged Leo Hafenrichter from Belgium and OHL Niagara took Alex Graham from Great Britain.