Wednesday, July 2, 2014

An Import-ant Draft

The last scheduled major event of the WHL offseason took place Wednesday with the annual CHL Import Draft. Seattle was looking to replace both import players on their 2013-14 roster, Alexander Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs, so it was no surprise that when it was time to make their two selections they chose a pair of forwards.

Now, I can't verify this, it is only my opinion, but it appears the T-birds went into the Import Draft with a game plan of picking not just two forwards, but to get two '97 born players. In the end they get the tall and the short of it with 6'3" Danish center Alexander True and 5'10" forward Florian Baltram out of Austria. These two will now join a fairly impressive group of '97 born players who should be part of the Thunderbirds roster this coming season, as well as a few more seasons after that.

So add these two to the list of 1997 born players that includes Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar, Logan Flodell, Lane Pederson and the recently signed Donovan Neuls. Am I missing anyone? All will be eligible for the first time for the NHL Entry draft next spring. And that list doesn't include Ryan Gropp, who has a late '96 birthdate and thus is also eligible for the NHL Draft next spring for the first time. How did the T-birds go from 24 wins in 2012-13 to 41 wins this past season? With a roster comprised of 10 players from the same birth year (1994). This puts them on a similar path.

We are looking at the potential of all of the above mentioned players being together through the 2015-16 season. Let's not forget a pretty good crop of 1998 born players that will join them such as Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan, Sahvan Khaira and quite possibly, the unsigned Dante Fabbro.

As for the two Import picks? Well, not to sound like Yogi Berra, but you never know what you have until you have them. At a minimum you hope recent history repeats itself because the last time Seattle made two import selections in the same draft, they ended up with a couple of good ones in Delnov and Lipsbergs. All they did was combine for 112g, 102a and 214 points over the past two seasons. If True and Baltram can get remotely close to those numbers this import draft will be an unmitigated success.

Both True and Baltram have shown they can score in their respective European leagues. Now we'll wait to see if that translates into the WHL. True comes from a Danish hockey system that has produced a couple of recent top NHL draft picks in Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nikolaj Ehlers. I'm not comparing his talent to either of those players (although Ehlers is apparently his cousin; good bloodlines) but True has already played for Denmark's World Junior team at age 16, even scoring a goal. True has length, at 6'3". He is listed at 179 lbs. so his frame has room to add weight and muscle.

The T-birds lost some scoring from last year so True will be looked on to produce some offense. Maybe they got a two-for-one deal, and have just drafted Alexander(Delnov Brandon)True(ook)?

Like True, Baltram played for his National World Junior team. Representing Austria this past winter at age 16 in Group B where he registered two points. There have been other Austrians in the WHL recently who have fared well, especially Michael Grabner and Dominic Zwerger with the Spokane Chiefs.

Because both True and Baltram played with their National World Junior teams this past winter I would expect that to be the case this winter, and for that matter, the following season as well. So there are going to be a couple of Decembers and Januarys where Seattle will be a bit shorthanded because you have to believe that among the current roster, Barzal, Gropp and possibly Ethan Bear are strong candidates for Team Canada's World Junior team and that Elder and Volcan (and if he eventually signs with Seattle, Fabbro) will get their chance in the future too.

The next step is to get both players over here to play. That doesn't seem to be an issue. True was reached at his home in Hoersholm, Denmark, after the Import Draft and made it sound as though he is eager to be a T-bird. “I am very excited to be selected by the Thunderbirds. It always has been a dream to come to North America to play hockey. I feel I am good in both ends of the ice and take responsibility in the defensive zone.”

As for Baltram, Seattle's GM Russ Farwell had high praise, “Florian played for a U-20 team in Austria and was the best player in his age group in the league,” said Farwell. “He was the leading scorer among his age group and he has a great reputation character wise and is a proven scorer”.

With the Import Draft behind us, the next scheduled event is training camp. There is the possibility of a trade or two between now and then, especially with Seattle's surplus of 20 year olds but I have a feeling this time around Farwell may wait until camp to sort that situation out.

Lastly, I want to personally thank both Alexander Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs for their two years of service with the Thunderbirds. As mentioned, both produced solid numbers on the ice. For two years running Lipsbergs led the team in goal scoring. And unlike some import players from the past who didn't have the best grasp of the English language, both were well spoken and eager to converse with me. Delnov would talk to me on occassion about his family back home and Lipsbergs in particular had a peculiar but infectious sense of humor. I might even miss the Russian music that emanated from their seats behind me on the bus two years ago.

Now enjoy the summer and see you in late August at training camp!