CJAHL the big story at NHL draft

Those unconvinced of the calibre of hockey the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres will be playing this upcoming season, take notice.
In this year’s NHL draft, a whopping three picks were made from CJAHL leagues in the first round—two from the BCHL, including third overall pick Kyle Turris, and one from the OPJRA (which led with 15 players from the league being selected in the 2007 class).
The CJAHL is made up of 10 member leagues, including the SIJHL, to which the expansion Sabres belong.
While much is being made of the top two picks in this draft being American-born and the influx of WHL-bred players, the real shock is that Turris, projected by many to have been picked first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, was taken before all but two players available to be drafted on the planet—even though he played in a league many would write off as a second-fiddle feeder league to the CHL.
Kim Davis, western VP of the CJAHL said it’s “absolutely” fair to say that Turris, developed in his league, was arguably the top player available in the world this year.
“We’re seeing is young players are seeing junior ‘A’ as a more than valid league for them to achieve their development goals,” Davis said. “Another way of saying that is that major junior hockey is not the only way. . . .
“Very clearly, that’s stated in these results.”
The pick is, by far, the highest in CJAHL history, passing when Dainius Zubrus—one of the potential big money-getters in this year’s free agent frenzy—was selected 15th overall from the COJHL in 1996.
It’s also the first draft year to have three CJAHL’ers go in the first round, beating 2004, which, with two picks, had been the only draft year with more than one selection from the CJAHL.
And given that of the seven CJAHL first-round NHL picks, all but Zubrus came in 2004 or later, the league’s role as a supplier of top pro hockey talent is a new one.
This isn’t to say the SIJHL will eclipse the OHL in 2008 in player development. It simply means that the structure exists in CJAHL leagues to develop players at a high level to the point where they are viable candidates for an NHL career.
Even past Turris, the CJAHL’s fingerprints are all over this year. Riley Nash, who plays in Salmon Arm, B.C. in the BCHL, was selected 21st overall by Edmonton along with an armful of other BCHL’ers to go in 2007.
Perhaps even more interesting was the selection of Brendan Smith at 27th overall by the Detroit Red Wings. The Toronto-born defenceman plays for his hometown St. Michael’s team in the OPJRA, but still managed to be a first-round NHL draftee.
The Red Wings have a scouting system that’s notorious for finding diamonds in the rough, and for setting trends in player scouting, so this selection may well spell good things for the future of CJAHL-produced draft picks.
“It’s kind of a circle,” Davis said, agreeing that recent first-round NHL picks beget more top prospects in the league, which beget more first-round NHL picks.
“Players and their parents are seeing they can achieve their goals and be well exposed and scrutinized and drafted in junior a teams . . . we want to continue to build and generate interest in players like this, like Kyle Turris.”
So, is the league predicting the success will grow in future seasons? “Only time will tell, but we certainly feel very good about it,” Davis said.
Fair enough—there’s still two spots up the draft order to aim for.

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