Recent NHL draft has nothing on next year’s

The ink has hardly dried, and the hot stove has hardly cooled off from this past weekend’s NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul.
But if the recent news over the past couple of days is any indication, and with all due respect to recently drafted players such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog, the embers for next year’s draft are just about to heat up.
According to numerous published reports over the last couple of days, the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights were widely expected to take dynamic Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko with the first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft this morning, bringing one of the most highly-regarded prospects for the 2012 draft over to North American shores.
While the Knights have yet to confirm this move as of press time, the fact that one of the top prospects from another continent is willing to come and play in Canada in his draft year is not only exciting as a hockey fan, but also extremely unprecedented in recent history.
The last time a top prospect has come over from Europe to play in North America prior to being drafted into the NHL happened back in 1999, when Czech forwards Patrik Stefan and Pavel Brendl played for the IHL’s Long Beach Ice Dogs and the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen respectively.
Stefan ended up being selected number one overall in the draft by the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, while Brendl was taken in the fourth slot by the New York Rangers, right behind Vancouver’s two selections of Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
However, both players would wash out in their NHL careers, with Stefan’s claim to fame occurring when he fell on a breakaway towards an empty net while playing for the Dallas Stars in 2007, which in turn led to Edmonton Oilers forward Ales Hemsky scoring a game-tying goal with two seconds remaining in the third period.
As for Brendl, who put up 134 points in his first year for the Hitmen, he would play a total of 78 NHL games over the course of four seasons, and only put up 22 points in the process.
Personally, all I have seen of Grigorenko has come from YouTube highlight reels and from when TSN carried the bronze medal game of the IIHF Word Junior U18 championships, but from what I have seen so far I am highly impressed by his skill level.
If the Knights do draft him today, and are also able to snag recent draft pick Max Domi (the son of former NHL pugilist Tie) away from the Kingston Frontenacs later this summer, their team could be one of the most exciting in junior hockey come next season.
With NHL draft picks Jared Knight and Vladislav Namestnikov and emerging talents Seth Griffith and Andreas Athanasiou already leading the attack, coupled with defender Jared Tinordi and netminder Michael Houser on the back end, the addition of Grigorenko will make the Knights a legit threat to not only win the OHL title but also capture the Memorial Cup for the first time since 2005.
But what has me most excited about the Russian possibly coming over to our shores, is the potential contests next year between the Knights and the Sarnia Sting, which would see Grigorenko go up against the man he is currently battling it out with for the number one spot in next June’s draft, Nail Yakupov.
Unlike his fellow countryman, I have had the opportunity to see Yakupov play live last season while covering the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds before arriving here in Fort Frances, and it’s safe to say that I became a fan of the Russian forward overnight.
Yakupov plays the game at only one speed, hyper-drive, and is already being compared to (hopefully) future hall-of-famer Pavel Bure.
With that high burst of energy at his disposable, Yakupov is able to make dazzling moves that other players could only dream of, and he has often made opposing defenders and goaltenders look silly.
As long-time Sarnia Sting beat writer Dave Borody told me, “It’s hard not to stand up in the press and applaud the things that he does.”
The Sting were already going to be a highly scouted team this winter with both Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk among the top five prospects for the 2012 draft (with Windsor Spitfires defender Nick Ebert and Everett Silvertips blue-liner Ryan Murray also in the discussion.)
But if a Knights team with Grigorenko is going up against Sarnia, they might need to put in additional seating in both arenas for the number of NHL scouts that would be coming to watch the game.
Or in the case of junior hockey diehards like myself, they might need to add extra bandwidth to the OHL’s internet broadcast package so that the website doesn’t crash.
At any rate, it’s easy to see why so many Europeans want to play in the CHL, as they will go up against top players from both Canada and the United States as they try and reach their ultimate goals of playing in the NHL.
And for us hockey fans, the opportunity to watch and see these talents develop both on and off the ice, no matter what their final career destination may be.

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