For the first time in a few years, the Seattle Thunderbirds used both of their picks in the annual CHL Import Draft. The T-Birds needed to fill the slots on their roster previously occupied by Sami Moilanen, who signed a pro deal back in his native Finland, and Nikita Malukhin, the Russian winger Seattle chose not to bring back for a second season.
Before we get to the two players the T-Birds selected let me put down a few thoughts about Moilanen and Malukhin.
Here's the one thing you need to know about Sami. After Seattle lost the 2016 WHL Championship series to Brandon, they still brought back a solid core to compete for a title in 2017. At training camp that August, before the start of the 2016-17 season and just a few practices into camp, I asked then head coach Steve Konowalchuk what could be the difference between losing the title in 2016 and winning it in 2017. Along with his roster of core players being a year older, one of the first things he said to me was in 2016 they didn't have Moilanen. He had only seen Sami skate at a few sessions but he already knew he was going to be an impactful player and provide the team with needed depth up front.
Of course Seattle would go on to win the WHL Championship in 2017 and Moilanen had a big goal in the Game 6 clincher. He had a terrific rookie campaign. Still though, because of injuries last season, I don't think we ever saw the full potential of Moilanen. He got hurt just before going to prospects camp last summer with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and never got the chance to show the Avs what he could do. He had a terrific start to last season then got hurt in December at training camp with Finland's U-20 team, an injury that cost him a chance to play at the World Juniors. He came back in time for the playoffs, then was hurt in the opening round loss to Everett.
I think those injuries were a huge reason he decided to forego a third year with the T-Birds and go back home and start earning a paycheck rather then continue as an amateur. He was undersized but didn't shy away from physicality but it almost made the injuries inevitable. His size, or lack there of, seemed to make him play with a chip on his shoulder. I'll always remember him as the missing piece that completed the puzzle that led to championship.
Malukhin was Seattle's lone selection in the 2017 Import Draft. I never got the sense that Seattle brass were counting on him to be the next great T-Birds player from Russia. I think from the very beginning they took a "let's bring him over and see what he's got" very reserved approach with him. He had size and a heavy shot. He was a very quiet and polite young man. I think his foot speed and skating were his biggest liabilities. Malukhin is the poster child for the CHL Import Draft. You just don't know what you've got until they get here and then you hope for the best. Teams are relying a lot on word of mouth. He wasn't a bad player, he just didn't fit at the WHL level.
Which brings us to Seattle's two newest import players, Slovak winger Andrej Kukuca and Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek. I know close to nothing about either. I can read their stat pages and try to formulate an opinion, but that's it. I've never seen them play, yet they are going to be counted on to fill a couple of significant gaps on the T-Birds roster for the 2018-19 season.
The 19-year old Kukuca is going to need to be a top six, if not top three forward. He's going to have to be this year's Moilanen and produce offense. Without his injuries Moilanen was on a 30+ goal pace last season as an 18-year old. He would have been projected to potentially score 40 this season with the T-Birds as a 19-year old. Can Kukuca fill that void? His numbers from playing in Slovakia say he's an offensive talent. Will that translate to North America? That's a lot of pressure for a young man who won't meet his new linemates until late August.
There's not as much pressure on Kubicek. Seattle does have a lot of returning d-men but they also lost two big-time veteran contributers in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand. Still, Kubicek's arrival is going to ratchet up the competition for both ice time and roster spots among the T-Birds d-corps. Kubicek is, like Seattle second year d-man Jake Lee, entering his 17-year old season, but he's a late birthday and won't be NHL draft eligible until 2020, one year after Lee is most likely drafted. His inclusion gives the T-Birds a nice group of d-men to grow together over the next few seasons. It could be him, Lee, Reece Harsch, Owen Williams, Tyson Terretta, Cade McNelly and Ty Bauer together for the next 2-3 years. This coming season, veteran Jarret Tyszka is on hand as well. There's not a lot of elbow room in that d-man room. Will someone get elbowed out?
One thing I noticed about Kubicek playing back in his native Czech Republic? It appears he got consistent opportunities to play with and against older players, including four games on the Czech U-20 team as a 16-year old. He's participated in international competition, so while young, he has some seasoning. He's the same height as the older-by-two-years Kukuca (6'2") but already 20 pounds heavier.
The label every player selected in the import draft gets is "potential". Let's see if that potential gets realized, beginning this September.