After exploring possible sleeper picks from North America yesterday, we turn our attention to Europe today.
From accessibility issues to deep-rooted (read: dumb) biases, European players often suffer much harsher consequences on draft day than their North American counterparts. Everything from their birth certificate to their appearance is judged. Russians have it the worst generally, with NHL scouts going as far as questioning whether or not they’re actually older than they say they are… for no real reason at all.
Due to this, Euro born players can often be had at draft slots much lower than their talent would suggest. The best player not in the NHL right now might be Nikita Gusev, who was drafted in seventh round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now property of the Vegas Golden Knights, he may never come to the NHL, but even having him as an asset in your organization beats the heck out of what most seventh rounders turn into.
So, to further explore possible sleepers out of Europe for the 2017 NHL draft, I turned to some of my most trusted sources across the pond.
Adam Ginning and Niklas Nordgren would be two nice potential picks with the Flames’ first pick. However, the chances are rather slim that one of them is available. Ginning’s reliable defensive work would stabilize the Flames defence and Nordgren is a very dangerous powerplay player and strong set up guy.
Another big-sized defenceman is Slovakia’s Martin Fehervary. A physically matured player, a powerful skater who is using his size, strength and stickwork to keep opposing forwards under control. Very reliable defensively and not committing many mistakes. Reads plays well and can play strong passes.
One of my favourite sleepers is Russian forward Ivan Morozov. He is a very skilled player, good set up guy and can create tons of offence. Not really a physical player and playing in the shadow of fellow Russian prospects such as Grigori Denisenko or Vitali Kravtsov will have him more as a darkhorse. He’s some years away from the NHL but his offensive upside impresses me.
Gritty Czech forward Jan Jenik would be a nice fit with Calgary too, but I am not sure he falls out of the top 100, probably rather not. Jenik is one of the youngest available prospects and likes to make a physical mark. Doesn’t shy away from any contact and is effective around the net. There will be quite a few goaltenders still available for the Flames’ second and third picks. Any guy like Jakub Skarek, Lukas Dostal or Justus Annunen would be decent selections.
Big-sized Russian forward Maxim Sorkin is [also] an interesting prospect. He has quite soft hands for a big guy, plays a decent two-way game and would fit nicely in a power forward type of role. Sorkin can play in all game situations and would make a decent depth player in a bottom six role. Shows nice vision and plays a solid overall game.
At 198th I’d maybe go for Russian overager Georgi Ivanov with the Flames’ last pick. He understands the game very well and I like his work ethic. Can play PK, plays matured at both ends of the ice and can handle the puck nicely, also with traffic around him. Finnish defenceman Peetro Seppala and both Czechs Michal Kvasnica or Lukas Rousek would be nice picks as well, not sure they are both still available though.
Certainly no shortage of options. Next, I spoke with Marco Bombino, scout for McKeens Hockey and owner of the excellent @FINjrhockey Twitter handle. He added two players in particular he felt could be steals at the bottom end of the 2018 NHL Draft.
Otto Kivenmäki is on the smaller side, but there are not many Finnish draft eligible prospects with similar attributes. A world-class skater with blazing speed and sublime agility, his acceleration is almost second to none. He makes tight turns and can leave defensemen in the dust. He’s got great hands and vision as well. The small Ässät center did miss the U18 World Championship where he would have had more exposure. While Kivenmäki will need considerable development time in Finland, I would be fairly surprised if he goes undrafted.
Zdenek Sedlak is the least likely of these two players to be selected. The Czech right wing has a very good shot and generates dangerous scoring attempts from the slot. He has crafty stickhandling skills and attacks into the middle of the ice. His hockey sense and physical game require quite a bit of improvement, however. Can be caught for puck watching in the defensive end, plus his physicality and intensity can be a hit and miss. Solid straight-line speed, decent mobility. Sedlak would be a long-term project for an NHL club, but one that could pay off big time if he can put it all together.
Finally, last but most certainly not least, I posed the same question to Chapin Landvogt, from FutureConsiderations and Hockey’s Future.
Two kids I think may end up surprising down the road are forwards Carl Wassenius and Markus Karlberg. The former is 6’2”, 200 lbs. and was a top-flight U18 player for AIK the past few years until he jumped to Orebro this season and put up 52 points in 41 U20 league games. He’ll definitely be ready for bigger tests next season. The latter got into a few games with the famed Leksand program at the Allsvenskan level (one goal), but had impressed seriously with 47 points in 41 games at the U20 level. He measures in at 5’8” and 165 lbs., so I think he’ll be overlooked as a true draft prospect, but you just never know what Aleksi Heponiemi has meant for skill players of this ilk moving forward.
Should Calgary be looking at goaltending options, I fully think U18 netminder Olaf Lindbom is surely worth taking a look at. He really didn’t have good stats throughout the season, but the Swedish national team program obviously believed in him enough to have him be the starter at the U18 – and he was lights out there. A .949 save percentage can really pop out at you! But the guy I think teams have actually been looking at is Sam Ersson of Brynas. He had strong regular season numbers at the U20 level and manned the net for one SHL game. It may just be a hunch of sorts, but I think he’s a guy a few teams see real potential in.
This all said, look out for the name Erik Portillo. We’re talking about a Frolunda product who will not turn 18 until Sept. 3 of this year and guess what: He’s already 6’6” and 207 lbs. He’s got plenty to work on and his stats were pretty decent, but not above average at the U18 level (for a club bursting with young players in its system), however he did get into two games at the U20 level and put up a 0.71 GAA and .974 save percentage. In other words, he’s the kind of netminder who is going to intrigue people.
If you happen to see Swiss forward Nando Eggenberger hanging around in the fourth round, he may be just the guy to take a chance on. He came into the season being seen as one of, if not the, top prospect in Switzerland. He spent all season in the NLA, a very good pro league, and well, didn’t get very much done there, even though he saw a good bit of ice time along the way. Scouts certainly expected more after he had spent a majority of the prior season in the NLA as well. He collected the same amount of points too, so there was no progress in that department. Damaging his prospect status was a -9 and zero points for la Suisse at the U20. So who is he now? What he is is a big kid with a nice frame to add to who may have just hit a few bumps in the road. Fact is, he’s got a lot of things to like and even though his offensive potential is in question, I think little speaks against his possibilities as a lower line energy player over the long run. And if he does wake up along the way, he could be much more than that.
I’d also like to mention a real outsider for the draft in general, but a guy who I’m believing a team will take a flyer on is 6’1” winger Oliver Okulian. He was offensively dominant in Slovakia’s U20 circuit, collecting 88 points and going +46 in 55 overall games, while playing the whole season as a 17-year-old. Making that more exciting is the fact that he racked up 193 (!) penalty minutes along the way. Is he, as just a 6’1”, 170 lbs. player, seen as a real enfant terrible? The real test was his play at the U18. Players like this can often go unnoticed at that level, but he actually managed to put up 4-4-8 and +5 at the tournament, having no doubt earned a spot in the notebooks of several NHL teams.
Lastly, one of the culturally most interesting prospects in this draft is 6’2” Liam Kirk of the United Kingdom. Sure, he’s gotten some real publicity in the last few months as a number of agencies have reported on him and he was indeed at the combine as well. Although this kid is very raw, he has gathered pro experience (albeit in England’s pro circuit), and dominated in international U20 play at the D2A level. He did so in a manner that provided YouTube with quite a few highlights. More importantly though is that he has shown some pure offensive instincts and makes very strong use of his reach, while showing an extra gear on the attack. In my opinion, I’d call him a poor man’s Kotkaniemi for this draft. A team who takes him will likely get the chance to follow him very closely in the CHL next winter.
As I think both the North American part and this one has shown us, there is a host of interesting prospects hanging around the fringes of the draft, with real potential in them. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to hit on your picks outside the first round to have sustained success, and for the Flames in this draft, it is vital.
I still feel like they make a play for a pick in the top 93, but if not, there’s a still a chance they end up with one or two interesting projects this weekend. The Flames pick in the fourth round (twice), the sixth round and the seventh. Johnny Gaudreau was a fourth round pick, Viktor Arvidsson too. Josh Manson was taken in the sixth round and Ondrej Palat in the seventh.
You can call it wishful thinking, but I will call it hopeful optimism.
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