The Kelowna Rockets have three imports listed on their preseason roster, but none of them will be in the fold when training camp opens this weekend.
Lassi Thomson, Pavel Novak and Daniil Gutik are all auditioning for professional teams in their native countries — Finland, the Czech Republic, and Russia, respectively. Therefore, they haven’t committed to Kelowna or signed WHL contracts for this season yet.
Thomson, a potential returnee as a first-round NHL draft pick, has already inked a pro deal in the Liiga, with Ilves, and thus isn’t expected back in Kelowna — at least not to start the season.
Gutik is in Yaroslavl’s camp, hoping to stick in the KHL, while Novak is trying to crack a second-division team, Ceske Budejovice. Failing that, they could both land in Kelowna in time for the Rockets’ regular-season opener on Sept. 21.
“Normally, we have them here by now, getting them acclimatized to living in this city, but it’s going to take a little longer — and, for these guys, I’m willing to wait,” said Rockets general manager Bruce Hamilton, who selected those two in June’s import draft and envisioned both becoming top-nine forwards for his Memorial Cup host team.
“The import draft is the import draft. We’ve been lucky over the years to get most of our guys, and I still think we have a real good chance to get these guys. It’s just going to take longer.”
Lure of the Memorial Cup
It’s become more challenging to recruit European players in recent years — as the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs also found out this summer when second overall pick Martin Chromiak opted to stay in Slovakia — but Kelowna is a prime place to play and there is no bigger showcase for draft-eligible prospects than the Memorial Cup, which is the final tournament of the draft year.
For that reason, Hamilton is remaining optimistic and taking a patient approach. He’s certainly not panicking at this point.
“These guys are no different than all our guys over here, they want exposure. And one thing they know here, they’re going to be playing in May,” Hamilton said matter-of-factly.
NHL Draft Potential
Indeed, that opportunity has to be enticing for Novak, who will enter his draft year projected as a second- or third-round pick after a strong showing at this month’s Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and for Gutik, who will be on the radar as an overager for 2020 after going undrafted in 2019 despite being ranked as high as the second round by some scouts.
“I had lots of NHL people tell me they couldn’t believe he didn’t get picked,” Hamilton said of Gutik. “If he doesn’t get on the big team in the KHL and decides to come here, he’ll be very motivated to have a big year — to get picked the second time around.”
Hamilton liked what he saw of Novak at the Hlinka, noting “all the reports were real good on him (coming out of that tournament).”
Import Draft Rationale
The Rockets were already high on Novak prior to the Hlinka, taking the talented winger in the first round of the import draft, at 13th overall, then taking more of a flyer on Gutik in the second round (73rd), while also retaining the rights to Thomson.
CHL teams are only permitted two import players on their active roster and the Rockets finished last season with just one after releasing Libor Zabransky, who will get another shot in the WHL this fall with Saskatoon selecting him as a re-entry in the import draft.
“He’s a guy, in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have done anything with,” Hamilton said of Zabransky, expressing some regret over parting with that Czech defender. “The coaches, we were going to try to play other guys, but he went to the USHL and did well, and I hope for his sake he does real well in Saskatoon because he’s a really good person. He’s going to be a good player.”
Looking Forward, Not Back
Kelowna wanted to open that import spot for a forward this season — for an offensive catalyst to possibly pair with Nolan Foote.
Novak could be a nice fit on the top line with Foote and Liam Kindree. Gutik could look good there too. They could have been competing for that role, but now Kelowna is competing to get them overseas and into the lineup.
“Novak surprised me because I thought everything was good and he was coming. But he’s going to go through this process and we’ll see what happens,” Hamilton said. “He’s represented by CAA, which is a big agency, and I’ve got lots of confidence that in time it’ll get worked out and he’ll surface here.
“If we get him, what I need out of him is to be a top-nine forward,” Hamilton added.
Ditto for Gutik, who is a year older, but the Rockets were aware that he might not report.
“All along, I knew there was a real risk attached with him, and I also knew that it was going to be into September sometime before we would find out what he was going to do,” Hamilton said. “In his case, he’s not going to come over here if he can play pro hockey over there. But we liked his upside, and I think (Gutik) would probably play in our first six forwards. I would hope he would anyways.”
Risk With Russians
That pick was something of a gamble, but Kelowna’s odds of getting Gutik were seemingly bolstered by hosting the Memorial Cup. It was still a long-shot but a shot worth taking — and Gutik would be wise to take his shot with the Rockets should he fall short of the KHL, especially if his goal is getting to the NHL after getting passed over in this year’s draft.
From a scouting perspective, developing in North America could do wonders for Gutik’s stock, but Russia will attempt to keep him at home — even if that means spending another season in the MHL junior league or perhaps turning pro in the second-tier VHL.
“Those guys over there, their top players, they don’t want them coming over here very bad either,” said Hamilton, with Kirill Kaprizov and Vasily Podkolzin being two recent examples. Podkolzin was selected in last year’s import draft by Medicine Hat but didn’t report to the WHL for his draft year and now has two seasons left on his KHL contract before he can join the Vancouver Canucks.
“The kids end up having to make the call, so we’ll see what happens with him,” Hamilton concluded on Gutik.
The Rockets have had mixed results with Hail Mary picks in the past, getting Mikael Backlund as a ringer for their 2009 championship team but missing out on Zemgus Girgensons in 2011.
Holding Out Hope For Thomson
Speaking of Backlund, who joined the Rockets following the World Juniors that year, there is a glimmer of hope that Thomson could return under similar circumstances.
“Potentially,” Hamilton acknowledged, “it depends how their team is doing I guess.”
Backlund was a surprise addition, coming straight to Kelowna from that tournament in Ottawa after struggling as a pro in Sweden’s second division for the first half of the season and being unsatisfied with his role there.
Thomson will likely be representing Finland at the 2020 World Juniors, taking place in the Czech Republic this winter. The chances of that same scenario playing out with Thomson may be slim, but Hamilton isn’t closing the door on the stud defenceman who was selected 19th overall by the Ottawa Senators in June — and signed by them to an entry-level contract in July — after shining with Kelowna during his draft year.
The Senators were in favour of Thomson returning to Kelowna — especially with the Memorial Cup there — but ultimately left that decision up to him, and he chose to pursue the pro route.
“He’s going to start over there (in Finland). I know about that league and how good it is,” said Hamilton, whose son Curtis spent two recent seasons playing in the Liiga.
“The first month or six weeks may be fun, and then if you’re not playing a lot, it isn’t fun. And if you’re not developing, then Ottawa is going to make a decision.”
Kelowna could have a decision to make too, should Thomson wind up returning with both Novak and Gutik reporting in the meantime.
That would be a good problem to have — three imports would be much better than none — and the Rockets would find a way to make room for Thomson, who racked up 17 goals and 41 points over 63 games last season in being named the Western Conference rookie of the year in the WHL. But he endured homesickness and sustained a season-ending concussion, which led him back to Finland with the appeal of a pro contract keeping him there for now.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.