January 19 2016 08:00AM
I've always found it a bit strange that the Calgary Flames share a building with the Calgary Hitmen yet so rarely draft players from that club. Then again, consider that the Flames' past experiences with Hitmen players as prospects were basically just 2000 picks Brent Krahn and Wade Davis, and minor-league free agent signing Brent Dodginghorse.
When the Flames selected Belarusian import forward Pavel Karnaukhov in the fifth round of the 2015 Draft, he was just the third Hitmen player they ever drafted. The bar is admittedly set pretty low, but the hope is that he'll be the best Hitmen player they've ever drafted, too.
Originally from Minsk, Belarus, Karnaukhov (pronounced Karna-OOH-hove) came over to North America as a 17-year-old after being chosen by the Hitmen in the 2014 CHL Import Draft. Prior to that, he had played with Krasnaya Armiya Moskva, the junior team affiliated with CSKA Moscow in Russia's MHL.
"Probably speed," said Karnaukhov about the biggest difference between Russia and the WHL. "Here it's small rink. That's why here is so fast game. But I like this game."
Karnaukhov ended up adjusting to the smaller North American ice and more physical game rather well in his rookie season. He put up 20 goals and 42 points and ended up as the 119th-ranked North American skater by the NHL's Central Scouting Service. The Flames selected him at 136th overall.
For his part, Karnaukhov was excited to be drafted by the team that shares a building (and ownership) with the Hitmen, noting that the Flames were his first choice of destination at the draft.
"To be here in one city, same family, one rink, sorta close, I think is better for me," said Karnaukhov.
Hitmen head coach Mark French has seen a lot of improvement out of Karnaukhov in just a short time-span. Listed in his draft year as 6'3" and 194 pounds, he's added muscle to his frame and is now listed as 210 pounds - and it shows on the ice.
"When we saw him last year he was a bit of a gangly tall kid and this year he's a big powerful man," said French. "So I think the biggest thing that I've seen, a difference, is how hard he worked over the summer and now he's a big man, and I think that really helped him in Flames camp."
Those who saw a lot of Karnaukhov's games in his draft year saw some progression as he adjusted to the WHL game, but for the most part he alternated between steady performances where he was mistake-free but didn't stand out and nights where he made a difference. He's a much more consistent difference-maker this season.
"He's probably one of our most competitive kids," said French. "He loves competing. For me, his skating is much stronger which allows him to stay on the puck. He's got a real good change of pace now where he can separate from defenders so I would agree instead of just playing a steady game there's times in games now where he's standing out much more."
French praised his focus when he was injured, noting he kept himself in great shape while he was sidelined with an upper-body injury throughout much of November. Karnaukhov's commitment to fitness probably contributed to him jumping right back in without rust when he returned: he had points in the first three games after his return and worked himself into first-line duty.
Karnaukhov has 19 points in 28 games so far this season, but doesn't seem satisfied with his performance. When asked what he needs to improve, Karnaukhov answered without hesitation: "Everything."
"He is a sponge," said French. "He takes every tidbit of knowledge that he can get from anybody on our coaching staff, anybody from the Flames staff. He's very passionate about trying to get better. And I think ultimately that's what's going to propel him to be a pretty solid pro."
While 2015 pick Oliver Kylington has already gone pro with the Stockton Heat, and 1996-born picks Andrew Mangiapane and Rasmus Andersson are eligible to join him next season, Karnaukhov is a 1997 birthday. That means he's guaranteed to be returning to the WHL for at least one more season. Based on how much he's improved in roughly a year and a half in North America, the Hitmen (and the Flames, most likely) are excited to see how good he can get at the major-junior level.
"You add another year under his belt, I think he's going to be a dominant player as a 19-year-old," said French.