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Thunderbirds hoping to strike gold in CHL Import Draft

The Thunderbirds hope Sami Moilanen's production can be made up with import pick Andrej Kukuca (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

With the NHL Draft wrapped up this past weekend, the Seattle Thunderbirds and the rest of the junior hockey world now will turn their attention to the CHL Import Draft.

The draft takes place Wednesday and is unique in that it involves three different leagues picking players from Europe that they may very well have never seen play live. There is a lot of mystery and a certain amount of gambling involved in the draft.

Seattle picks 56th this year and hope to replicate some of its recent import success.

Because most junior teams don’t have international scouts they rely on some chance viewings at tournaments and reports from contacts overseas. Even if a team is confident in their pick, there is still the unknown of whether the player will come over – import players are under no obligation to report – and if they do, there is no way of knowing how they will adapt to North America and the North American style of games.

Imports don’t always work out, but some teams have struck gold.

In 2012, the Prince Albert Raiders took Leon Draisaitl with the second pick in the import draft and he went on to score 78 goals in two-plus WHL seasons while becoming the second overall pick in the NHL Draft.

Since the draft began in 1992, the Thunderbirds have selected a total of 30 players with current import Sami Moilanen being the last. Each team is limited to just two import players and with Alexander True also being an over-age player who would take two slots, the expectation is that Seattle will be drafting a replacement on Wednesday.

True and Moilanen were the latest in what has been a successful import run over the last five years.

Seattle’s first successful import was Jan Hrdina in 1994 out of the Czech Republic. In Hrdina’s first season he scored 41 goals on his way to an 100-point season. He ended his stay in Seattle with 147 points in 99 games. He was followed by Oleg Saprykin in 1998 from Russia. Saprykin also has a successful run with the Thunderbirds that saw him post 77 goals and 159 points over 114 games.

In 2012 the Thunderbirds picked up two imports in Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs. The Russian Delnov had been late round pick of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and hopes were high. Delnov spent two full seasons in Seattle and showed flashes of talent. He potted 49 goals over that span but it always felt like he had more to give.

Lipsbergs ended up playing three seasons with Seattle and was a natural goal scorer. His 79 career tallies are the most by a Seattle import player.

The T-Birds found succsess again with True and Moilanen. Hailing from Denmark, True brought size to the lineup and solidified himself as Seattle’s third line center. Its in the playoffs where True really made his mark. In 44 playoff games with the Thunderbirds he scored 22 goals and none bigger than the WHL Championship winning goal against Regina this past spring.

Moilanen burst on the scene for Seattle last year with 21 goals in his rookie season. Out of Finland, the diminutive winger showed off his speed, grit and determination this past season. There was some thought that he might have been drafted this past weekend but he ended up getting passed over. However, he will be in the rookie development camp with the Colorado Avalanche.

Who the Thunderbirds select on Wednesday is a mystery but with the departure of True and Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear to the pros, the money is on an offensive-minded forward.

Whether that guy will work out will have to play out over the season. For the Thunderbirds, they’re hoping they can find another Hrdina, Saprykin, Lipsbergs or True.