By: Margann Laurissa
The 2013 CHL Import Draft took place on July 3rd and it was one of the most international drafts in recent history. Although it was most known for what could be the last one ever for European goaltenders, the fact of the matter is that 120 incredibly talented players from twelve different countries found themselves given the opportunity to play Canadian major junior hockey if they so desire. Many teams seemed to go with a youth movement, choosing players who are eligible for both the 2014 and 2015 NHL Entry Drafts. Some, conversely, went for older players who will bring experience and leadership to their teams. In all honesty, thanks to the 2013 NHL Entry Draft being one of the deepest in recent memory, the caliber of talent is even more immense than usual.
Before we start, an honorable mention has to go to Daniel Gibl, who was chosen 47th overall by the Barrie Colts. Unless something is done to reverse the CHL import goalie ban, Gibl, a native of Slovakia, has been bestowed the distinction of being the last European netminder ever drafted to the Canadian Hockey League. The Colts know all too well the importance of a talented European-born goalie, thanks mostly to the MVP-calibre netminding they had from 2011 to 2013 with German import Mathias Niederberger, who recently got himself a contract with the AHL's Manchester Monarchs. It is not known yet if 18-year-old Gibl will report to Barrie to contest for the #1 job with fellow 1995-born puckstopper Alex Fotinos, or for the backup job with 1996-born upstart Mackenzie Blackwood.
Here are ten players who, if they report, are ones to watch out for during the 2013-14 season:
10. Nikolaj Ehlers (6th overall, Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL)
Nikolaj Ehlers may come from Denmark but he is as cultured as a pearl. Growing up, his father Heinz, a former draft pick of the New York Rangers, played pro hockey in their homeland, as well as in Germany, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. In fact, young Nikolaj has spent all of his formative hockey years up until this coming season in Switzerland, playing in the system of EHC Biel-Bienne, a team his father coached and his older brother Sebastian played for. The young Dane actually has a Swiss player card which does not make him an import in the Schweiz Elite Jr. A League. Ehlers has been a great point producer at every level he has played in, especially under-20, a level in which he has already amassed 83 career points (43 goals, 40 assists) in only 60 games. He also got to play eleven games in the NLA, recording a goal and an assist. In 2013, he helped Denmark's under-18 team win gold at their tournament in Asiago, Italy, recording eleven points (including a tourney-best eight assists) in only five games. He will be suiting up for the Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads this coming season, becoming the first Danish player to ever dress for them, and hoping to join the likes of former Moosehead import greats as Ladislav Nagy, Jakub Voráček and Konrad Abeltshauser.
9. Adrian Kempe (107th overall, Barrie Colts, OHL)
Adrian Kempe may find himself instead with MODO's under-20 team for a second straight year but, considering how successful the Barrie Colts have been over the last few seasons, there is every reason to believe that the 6'2" Swedish forward could very well come over to play in the OHL. Kempe could look to his older brother Mario for inspiration; the former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick played two seasons in the QMJHL with the now-twice-relocated St. John's Fog Devils, both years as an alternate captain. The Kramfors-born centre and younger Kempe brother helped Sweden win gold at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, outshining a vastly talented Team Ontario -- whose captain was Kempe's could-be teammate Aaron Ekblad -- by scoring five goals in as many games. Kempe has shown already that he can be a significant talent in the SuperElit so it will remain to be seen if he will come and show that in the OHL, too. (Putting Kempe in here over someone like New York Islanders draft pick Victor Crus Rydberg, who will be playing for the Plymouth Whalers, may be a bit of a stretch but the fact that Kempe is not eligible to be drafted to the NHL until next year is what justifies it.)
8. Fabrice Herzog (42nd overall, Québec Remparts, QMJHL)
Fabrice Herzog is a name that not many have heard of. If both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Québec Remparts want you on their teams, however, then you have to surely be talented. That is just what the Switzerland native is: A talented hockey player. Herzog has considerable experience in the Schweiz Elite Jr. A league, scoring 77 points in 67 games with EV Zug's under-20 squad. He also got to play twenty games in the NLA, joining former Peterborough Petes forward Lino Martschini, especially when the team needed bodies after the end of the lockout returned Henrik Zetterberg and others to the NHL. For his efforts, Herzog was chosen 142nd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Herzog is hopeful that he will get to play one season in Québec City for the Remparts, too, and possibly a spot on the Swiss World Junior team, as well. Remarkably, on a team rich in import player history (mostly Russians), Herzog could become the first ever Swiss-born player to ever dress for the Remparts. It will also help that his head coach will be former NHL defenceman Philippe Boucher; the Stanley Cup champion and all-star took over the reins as the head coach and general manager after Patrick Roy left for the Colorado Avalanche's head coaching position. (He spent the last two seasons as the GM of the Rimouski Océanic.)
7. Alex Lintuniemi (2nd overall, Ottawa 67's, OHL)
Alex Lintuniemi is expected to be one of the top European-born defencemen going into the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and it will surely help his cause if he commits to the Ottawa 67's. The Capital City Crew are going to be in desperate need for help on their blueline, especially with Michal Cajkovsky graduated and Sean Callaghan traded. Lintuniemi, a solid rearguard at 6'2" and 187 pounds, will surely help that. He will surely help a youthful blueline in Ottawa that also includes Michael Vlajkov, Taylor Davis, Jonathan Duchesne, Jacob Middleton and fellow 2013 CHL Import Draft pick Adrián Sloboda. He has the size, offensive capability and leadership to be a significant contributor. Lintuniemi was the captain of Jokerit's Jr. A SM-liiga (under-20) team as a 17-year-old last season and he even got to play eleven games in the Mestis for Kiekko-Vantaa, scoring three points, including a goal. For a team, as well, that generally prefers Czechs and Slovaks, it will be nice to see how this Finnish rearguard does in the nation's capital.
6. Artturi Lehkonen (85th overall, Kootenay Ice, WHL)
Artturi Lehkonen surprised a lot of people when he slipped to the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, especially when many prognosticators predicted him to be a late first-rounder. That being said, though, the Montréal Canadiens truly found themselves with a great prospect to join the likes of Jacob de la Rose, Sebastian Collberg and Michaël Bournival. Lehkonen has demonstrated that he is capable of being a big-time player, appearing in a complete SM-liiga season this year with KalPa Kuopio, earning that league's rookie of the year honours. He also played at both the 2013 World Under-18s and World Junior Championships. If Lehkonen commits to playing for the Kootenay Ice, he will join a team that is not that has Marek Svato and Roman Polák among its most well-known import alumni, as well as one that has a potential high 2014 first-round pick as captain in Sam Reinhart. Lehkonen still has another year remaining on his contract with KalPa so it is unsure if he will report to Kootenay or not; if he does, though, he will surely be successful.
5. Phil Baltisberger (26th overall, Guelph Storm, OHL)
Phil Baltisberger has shown already that he is a great heir apparent to the resurgence of Swiss defencemen, joining the likes of Mark Streit, Roman Josi, Luca Sbisa and Yannick Weber. Baltisberger has already built a significant reputation for being an offensively gifted blueliner and he knows what it takes to win, garnering two Schweiz Elite Jr. A championships, an Elite Jr. B crown and even being a reserve in 2011-12 when the ZSC Lions won the NLA championship. Baltisberger has 75 NLB career games to his credit so, even though he is not eligible to be drafted to the NHL until 2014, he already has extensive professional credential. He participated in both the 2013 World Under-18s (as Switzerland's captain) and at the World Juniors. This year, he will be bringing his talents to Guelph and playing for the Storm, a team who is losing another Swiss import as Tanner Richard graduates to the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. The Swiss connection on the Storm does not end there either as Pius Suter, a 1996-born under-18 teammate and fellow 2014 NHL Draft candidate, will also be playing for Scott Walker's crew.
4. Mads Eller (57th overall, Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL)
Mads Eller was somehow unchosen at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft but, thankfully, the Edmonton Oil Kings have decided to give him the euphoria of being chosen in a draft. It will also give him bragging rights over his older brother Lars, who actually never got to play Canadian major junior hockey before his NHL career began. The younger Eller has spent the last two years playing for Frölunda's J18 and J20 teams, making a name for himself as a gritty two-way forward who is not afraid to play with an edge. He was instrumental in helping Denmark's under-18 national team win gold in Asiago, Italy, but not before helping his country win bronze at the World Juniors. The Oil Kings have had great success with their imports over the short course of their resurrection in the WHL, with some of them going to the Edmonton Oilers organization (Martin Gernát, Martin Marinčin, the late Kristiāns Pels). It will be highly beneficial to Eller to be as far away from his big brother as possible so that there are no comparisons between them; they are completely different players.
3. Jørgen Karterud (35th overall, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL)
Jørgen Karterud is one of Norway's biggest rising stars (literally; he's 6'4" and 190 pounds) and, since he was born on May 6, 1994, he was one of the oldest players chosen in the 2013 CHL Import Draft. After being ranked by NHL Central Scouting for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, he went unselected but, to his great delight, he found himself being chosen 35th overall in the Import Draft by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Karterud has demonstrated that he can play with the best of the best during his career with Vålerenga IF. He has two under-19 league gold medals, one under-20 league gold medal and one under-19 league silver medal to his credit; as well, he has won an IIHF World Under-18 silver medal and a World Junior gold medal, meaning he will play at the top pool of the World Juniors this year. He has great professional experience, too, scoring his first goal in the GET-ligaen at the age of seventeen in December 2011. He appeared in 39 GET-ligaen games this season with Vålerenga, playing with the likes of former Erie Otters forward Sondre Olden, goaltender Steffen Kent Søberg (the first Norwegian goalie ever drafted to the NHL), former Chicago Blackhawks prospect Ryan Garlock, and OHL graduated superstar twin brothers Justin and Tyler Donati. Karterud will bring size and speed to the Greyhounds' forward corps this year, much like Swedish import Michael Schumacher did over the last two years in the Soo; as well, he is expected to supplement the offensive production lost by the graduation of Nick Cousins. The only real adjustment he may have to make is wearing a different jersey number; he usually wears #28 but, since it is being worn already by fellow import Sergey Tolchinsky, he has decided that he may halve it and go with #14, if possible.
2. André Burakovsky (5th overall, Erie Otters, OHL)
André Burakovsky is one of the best 1995-born players in Sweden and there is no reason to not believe that he would be very successful if he chooses to report to the Erie Otters for the 2013-14 season. The Otters have been woeful more often than not and it seems that it may be because they are putting a lot of the pressure on different players at different times, many times backfiring. Everyone knows just how magnificent Connor McDavid has been so far in his young OHL career but that does not mean that his supporting cast -- Connor Brown, Connor Crisp, Adam Pelech, Stephen Harper, among others -- is not just as fantastic. That being said, however, other than only a select group of forwards, the scoring well in Erie is quite dry. The Austrian-born forward has demonstrated quite resoundingly that he has the potential to be a big-time scorer and he already has significant professional experience, appearing in 43 games for Malmö in the Allsvenskan last year. He has represented Sweden internationally on three occasions so far and he is a good candidate for the Tre Kronor World Junior team, where he can join possible OHL teammate Oscar Dansk. The 2013 first-round pick of the Washington Capitals has great size (6'1", nearly 180 pounds) and he would surely bring an extra element to the Otters. They are going to do whatever it takes to lure him to Pennsylvania; hopefully, it will be worth it.
1. Rihards Bukarts (7th overall, Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL)
Rihards Bukarts is one of the most promising prospects out of Latvia and with good reason. With great bloodlines, which includes an older brother Roberts who plays in the KHL (and scored 115 points in one season of North American midget hockey), Bukarts has shown already that he has the ability to be a superstar... and he is not even eligible to be drafted to the NHL until 2014. He has even made history by himself; on September 16, 2011, he became the youngest player to ever score a goal in the MHL, at the age of fifteen. This past January, at the age of seventeen, he played at the World Juniors for Latvia. For the 2013-14 season, he will join the Brandon Wheat Kings, a team that has shown great admiration for imports of all countries. Over the course of their history, the Wheat Kings have developed players from ten other European nations; Bukarts will be their franchise's first ever Latvian player. Judging by the fanfare he has already received from his fellow hockey players in his homeland, he is going to be a great player for the Wheat Kings and the fans at Westman Place should start getting excited.