NHL Prospect Notebook: Analyzing implications of Russian invasion on junior hockey

Russia players celebrates a win over Germany during the 2021 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. (Jason Franson/CP)

Let it be clear that the loss of life and the unimaginable situation in Ukraine takes precedence over anything having to do with hockey. Many people I’ve spoken to in the hockey world are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a temporary thing, taking the wait-and-see approach. I don’t view it that way. This invasion will be as much a part of the history books as world wars were to people my age, as we grew up in school.

But because we are a sports network, the politics of the invasion have spilled into the sporting world, making it necessary to discuss its implications.

I tend to look at things from a draft perspective as that’s where most of my hockey network resides and that’s where my focus has been since Sportsnet took over the NHL rights.

There are several elements that touch the draft, based on some of the measures the hockey world has taken in response to the Russian invasion.

CHL Fallout

First, from the CHL perspective. The most important item for the CHL during this time is the protection of its Russian and Belarusian-born players. By my count, there are 36 of them scattered across three leagues and 60 teams in Canada and the U.S. By all accounts, those players will be given the opportunity to play out the rest of the season and playoffs.

But what happens after that? Will players return home? Can they return home? Do they want to return home? Will there be a push for those players to return to their respective countries and participate in junior or minor pro leagues in Russia? Ultimately, is this what Putin wanted even before he lead Russia into Ukraine?

Next season, will player visas be renewed? Will the CHL clamp down and sanction Russian or Belarusian athletes from participating, and will that be a decision made in perpetuity? What about the players, mostly innocent bystanders in all of this, will they want to play in North America or will they be hesitant in returning? These are just a few of the questions being bandied about in the CHL community.

How about the CHL import draft? Typically the draft takes place after the Memorial Cup. That would place the 2022 import draft into late June or the first week of July. I don’t see this conflict having any sort of resolution before that time. I suggested on Hockey Central Tuesday, that the CHL should place a one-year ban on the drafting of Russian and Belarusian players. It would be something to revisit in 2023. Take the responsibility out of the hands of teams and allow the presiding CHL to shoulder the blame and collectively represent all 60 teams.

While I agree these young athletes shouldn’t be pawns in this disaster, I believe even more so, that all of sport needs to unite in its stance against this atrocity.

One thing is for sure, the CHL announcement yesterday included the cancellation of the 2023 Canada-Russia series. Due to the pandemic, the event has not been held since 2019. Typically, the series is key in player evaluation for that year’s world juniors. In order to stay in lockstep with Hockey Canada and the IIHF, this popular event will not take place in 2023.

NHL Draft Concerns

From an NHL draft perspective, our February rankings include four Russian born players. We learned Thursday that our No. 9 prospect Ivan Miroshnichenko has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. There is hope that it is curable, and we hope the very best for the young man.

No doubt, that will impact his draft position when he’s been a top-10 projected player all season long. The others are No. 7 Danila Yurov, No. 15 Pavel Mintyukov and No. 24 Alexander Perevalov.

How much, if at all, will their stock by diminished by the invasion?

There are a number of teams who, before the invasion, were hesitant to draft Russian players based on a fear they may not come to play in North America, they have a better option to make money at home rather than develop in the AHL or fear they may come and prefer to go back home. The invasion exacerbates teams’ desire to draft Russian players. Obviously concerns about visas exist NHL-wise as well. What about fan fallout? What about the player himself, would he want to come over or fear backlash from the government, friends or family. In any case, the plight of these four players and a few others, rated outside the first round, will be interesting to watch.

Rocket to a Blade

In another edition of Difference Makers, Saskatoon’s Trevor Wong joined me to discuss his hockey career and his Hockey Gives Blood Ambassadorship. Great story about Trevor. I hosted the 2018 WHL Draft in Red Deer. Wong was projected as a top-10 pick that year, but slid to Kelowna at No. 18. He had committed to play NCAA hockey at Denver and so teams passed on him until Kelowna took a chance. There was a lot of buzz around the room after that pick and after the draft ended with everyone wondering how the Rockets could get Wong to decommit. After two-plus pandemic-shortened seasons, Wong is happy and playing well in Saskatoon. He was a great interview.

Sammy Signs

Amidst this world chaos, the Edmonton Oilers extended Russian defenceman Dmitry Samorukov by a year. One of my favourite players when he played for Guelph, Samorukov has NHL top-six potential. After winning an OHL title in 2019 , Samorukov the 2019-20 season in the AHL, the 202-21 season on loan playing at home for CSKA Moskova. Through 37 games with Bakersfield this season, Samorukov as two goals and 12 points.

Leaked Oil

More from another Oilers prospect, Ty Tullio, who got the mic’d up treatment before his Oshawa Generals took to the ice Sunday against Kingston.

Taylor and Tyler Part II

As Elliotte Friedman pointed out in 32 Thoughts, several players were signed to entry-level deals Wednesday based on the time frame where such contracts don’t kick-in until next season.

I’ve watched several of these players and in these tough times, it’s great to see them get rewarded. Here’s a quick note on one of the Penguins signees. I think about the path of Portland goalie Taylor Gauthier, who was one of a small number of players to play in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects game (2019 - Red Deer). Typically a player identified early by Hockey Canada gets drafted. Gauthier competed in all levels of the Program of Excellence from the U-17s through to the U-18s, the Hlinka-Gretzky and as a third goalie for the 2021 world junior team. The draft never happened for Gauthier who spent the first four and a half years in Prince George, before a trade earlier this season saw him move to Portland. His numbers have never overwhelmed, but he’s a fierce competitor and is extremely athletic as evidenced by an elite minor baseball career before deciding to stick to just hockey. Before leaving Prince George, and on a continuing basis Gauthier is mentoring the top rated North American goalie Tyler Brennan, who moved into the starters role upon Gauthier being traded.

Good luck Taylor and Tyler.

Eye on Juraj

On a final note, our March draft rankings will be released next week and there’s been a lot of talk in the scouting world about the emergence of Juraj Slafkovsky as the biggest threat to unseat Shane Wright as the projected first-overall pick. He appeared on 32 Thoughts, and you can hear it here.

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