The CHL Import Draft is already one of the wildest and unpredictable events on the hockey calendar, but this year's edition is further complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you're not familiar with the Import Draft, here's a crash-course: all three major junior circuits participate for the same pool of talent, which basically encompasses the world, minus Canada and the United States. So you can draft a kid from Russia or Finland, but you can also pick talent from Japan or the United Kingdom. The draft is two rounds long and each franchise can have two imports on its roster, so many teams will often pass on picks if they have players returning from last year's squad.
There are no trading of slots in the Import Draft and there's no guarantee a player will report just because you picked him. Because of this, teams often do a lot of research and networking in the lead-up to the draft and player agents act as crucial conduits to talent. Other teams simply throw caution to the wind and grab a big-name player, hoping they can convince him their program would help the kid on his path to the NHL.
And speaking of the NHL, once a player is drafted by the big league, that NHL franchise will sometimes steer a player towards major junior so they can get accustomed to North American culture, the smaller ice and the style of play here.
Which brings us to the here and now. To begin with, the NHL has yet to conduct its 2020 draft, which would have been this past weekend had it not been for the global pandemic. So European prospects who would have already known their NHL affiliates will not get that career advice.
There's also the matter of when the 2020-21 CHL season will begin. Again, due to the pandemic, that is up in the air. WHL commissioner Ron Robison recently announced that rinks in his league would have to be allowed at least 50 percent seating capacity to make the start of the season financially viable. And in both the WHL and OHL, you need two countries (Canada and the U.S.) appeased.
So let's get into some early news. The first overall pick in the Import Draft went to OHL North Bay, with the Battalion taking hot-shot Russian right winger Matvei Petrov. He's a 2021 NHL draft prospect and will report, according to agent Dan Milstein. Acadie-Bathurst of the QMJHL picked Czech goalie Jan Bednar with the second selection overall and it sounds like the 2020 NHL draft prospect is coming over, but I don't have any inside info either way on that one.
The first name that carries real intrigue is left winger Danil Gushchin, a 2020 NHL draft prospect who spent this season in the USHL with Muskegon. A terrifically talented Russian national, Gushchin was selected fourth overall by OHL Niagara, but I am told he is no guarantee to suit up for the IceDogs just yet. Gushchin also has offers from Finland for his services next season and uncertainty about when the major junior season will begin next year is a big question mark for him and his camp.
At No. 9, the WHL's Tri-City Americans took Czech goalie Tomas Suchanek, a 2021 NHL draft prospect with a lot of upside. I've been told Suchanek does indeed plan on playing for the Ams next season.
Two of the biggest names in the class are Brad Lambert and J.J. Peterka. Lambert, a Finnish national with Canadian roots, is a top prospect for the 2022 NHL draft thanks to his offensive dynamism. He was taken by the WHL's Saskatoon Blades, the same team his father Ross and uncle Lane spent time with during their junior days. Lane Lambert is currently an associate coach with the New York Islanders. Brad Lambert spent his U15 year in Saskatoon before heading back to Finland, so it makes sense for the Blades to take a swing at the elite center, though Lambert recently signed up to joined JYP for 2020-21 after playing in HIFK's system this season.
Peterka was an impressive youngster on Germany's world junior team this year, playing on a line with fellow 2020 NHL draft prospects Tim Stutzle and Lukas Reichel. All three played against men in the DEL this season, but that didn't dissuade OHL London from taking Peterka in the Import Draft. Though the Knights may not see Peterka next season, there's always the possibility of him playing the season after that if whichever NHL team drafts him wants Peterka to get some North American experience before he gets to the next level of his career.
Another interesting trend was the lack of Swedes in play. This has been trending for years, since Sweden has a very strong junior system itself, while teenagers often earn ice time in the SHL and second-tier Allsvenskan. Just three Swedes were taken this year, beginning with 2021 NHL draft prospect Fabian Lysell (selected by WHL Vancouver). Lysell is incredibly talented and could be a top-10 pick next summer, though I haven't heard either way about his major junior interest.
With the second-last pick of the Import Draft, OHL Saginaw took another Swede in Albin Grewe, who was also one of the few players taken who has already been drafted into the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings prospect has tons of grit and can put up offense, which will help a Spirit squad that is losing Damien Giroux (MIN) to the pro ranks next year. All signs point to Grewe joining Saginaw, while defenseman Pavel Mintyukov - the Spirit's first-round import selection - is definitely coming over. Mintyukov is very intriguing because he's a late 2003 birthday, meaning the two-way defender isn't NHL draft-eligible until 2022.
One more Russian of note: right winger Nikita Chibrikov, who was taken by WHL Lethbridge. I've been told the 2021 NHL prospect will not be coming over.