The Thunderbirds took a big step in bolstering their offense during Wednesday’s Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, choosing Denmark’s Alexander True in the first round and using their second-round choice on Austria’s Florian Baltram.
The T-Birds will surely be losing a great deal of offense this offseason, so replacing some of those points was going to be a major focus for general manager Russ Farwell and company. It seemed like a given that Seattle would draft at least one forward – likely two – as the team will have the potential to return its entire defensive unit from last season, as well as adding newly-signed Sahvan Khaira to the mix.
“We were going in hoping to pick forwards,” Farwell confirmed. “Both guys came to us as real character kids and we did quite a bit of calling around, as much as you can for this draft. We talked to former coaches and guys that knew them and they’ve both established themselves as good players in the leagues they were in.”
Both True and Baltram will have a chance to compete for center positions, as Mathew Barzal and Scott Eansor appear to be the only two players locked in for those spots for the 2014-15 season. The new import players, as well as incoming rookies Lane Pederson and Kaden Elder, will fight for the other two spots, with Farwell feeling comfortable that whoever doesn’t wind up in the middle will be more than comfortable on the outside as well.
“Pederson played the wing when he was up with us at the end of the year and played very well there,” Farwell said of the 17-year-old forward from Saskatoon. “Elder played both wing and center last year in Midget.
“If they play well at center, they’ll play there, but every guy was a center in minor hockey. Eventually it sorts itself out – the more positions you can play, the more ice time you get. It’s going to be competitive and guys will push each other and raise the overall level of our team.”
One of the biggest question marks for any team surrounding the Import Draft is whether or not the players that it selects will be interested in moving to North America to hone their skills.
The draft’s first overall pick, Pavel Zacha, was selected by the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Zacha, a native of the Czech Republic and projected top-10 NHL draft pick next year, is advised by Allan Walsh, who took to Twitter to question Sarnia’s decision to draft Zacha.
“Sarnia was advised that Pavel Zacha has a professional contract in Czech Republic for 2 more years and has no interest in playing for them,” Walsh tweeted. “Sarnia just wasted the #1 overall pick in the CHL Import Draft on a player who’s not coming and has a professional contract.”
If Walsh’s statements prove to be true, it’ll be a huge blow for Sarnia, who could’ve potentially used the pick on another talented European player.
Farwell doesn’t believe that either of Seattle’s picks will be wasted, as both have indicated that they’re very excited at the prospect of playing in the WHL.
In a statement given to the team, True said: “I am very excited to be selected by the Thunderbirds. It always has been a dream to come to North America to play hockey. I feel I am good in both ends of the ice and take responsibility in the defensive zone.”
True’s mother currently lives in San Diego and he comes to the United States to visit her often, which should make his transition easier.
Farwell is also confident that Baltram is excited to come to Seattle and doesn’t foresee any problems in getting him to come over.
“They’ve both confirmed they’re very excited about coming,” he said. “This is something they’ve both really wanted to do.”
Neither Denmark or Austria are generally thought of as hockey hotbeds, but the wider diversity in nationalities represented in this draft is indicative of the game’s growing influence. As the smaller nations develop better talent, we’ll start to see more and more players come from there as they face the world’s top competition.
“Hockey is becoming a bigger sport in the world,” Farwell said of the game’s increasing impact. “Denmark was at the Under-18 tournament this year and they were certainly overpowered, but it’s a great indicator watching some of those guys play against the likes of Gropp and Barzal and the Canadian and U.S. teams.”
With a younger group of forwards, it was thought by many that Seattle might look to take an 18-year-old who had either already been drafted by an NHL team or might have experience playing against older competition in his native country. Farwell expressed that he wouldn’t have been opposed to taking an 18-year-old, but that ultimately he wanted to take the best player available, and in both situations that happened to be someone born in 1997.
“We would’ve been happy to take one 17-year-old and one older guy if he was there. We had our eye on one guy in the draft, but he got taken before we picked,” Farwell said. “[True and Baltram] were both kids that we thought were good fits from a character standpoint and from what they’ve accomplished and were our best options.”
It’s often difficult for CHL teams to put together a full scouting report of international players, as they generally don’t have overseas scouting staffs who can see the players live on a consistent basis. Instead, they’ll often rely on a small sample of games from international tournaments, reports from those they know in the business, and any tape they can get their hands on to influence their decisions.
According to Farwell, both True and Baltram project as players with offensive upside who will be responsible in their own zone as well. The two-way game is extremely important to T-Birds coach Steve Konowalchuk, so the two new additions should complement his system well.
“[True] is a slight guy right now, so he’ll need to fill out,” Farwell said of the 6-foot-3, 163-pound Danish forward. “He’s a hard-working kid and was real impressive on faceoffs at the Under-18 tournament. He has very good upside as a player and stood out to us as a very competitive kid. We’re hoping he can step right in and play center.
“With Baltram, we’re going to have to wait until camp to figure out what position he’s actually going to play. He’s played all three forward positions and he led his age group in scoring in his league. He’s a versatile player and will help us wherever we need him to.”
With both drafts now in the rearview mirror, the Thunderbirds can begin to turn their attention to the question that’s been on everyone’s mind since last season – what will they do with their abundance of 20-year-olds?
After picking up two forwards that are expected to play immediately in Wednesday’s draft, Seattle has the option to go a number of different directions with its three overage roster spots. If the staff feels that True and Baltram can put up points in bunches, it may be more inclined to hang on to one or two 20-year-old defensemen.
If it feels that the two players will serve more defensive roles, Seattle may instead hang on to some older forwards with the hope that they can replace some of the offense that was lost.
Whatever the case may be, the pieces are now in place for the team to work towards solidifying its roster for training camp in August.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski