The Saskatoon Blades had a chance to take a big swing with their first-round selection in the 2020 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft on Tuesday, and they did just that. With the 33rd-overall pick, the Western Hockey League club took highly touted prospect Brad Lambert from Finland.
Lambert, a 5-foot-11, 172-pound center, was born in Lahti, Finland but is a dual citizen of Finland and Canada. He is widely regarded as one of the ‘big three’ prospects expected to headline the 2022 NHL Draft and could go first overall. He is in the conversation with much-talked-about prospects Shane Wright of the Kingston Frontenacs, and Matthew Savoie of the Winnipeg ICE.
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Wright was granted exceptional player status to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old in 2019-20. He proceeded to lead OHL rookies in scoring and was the league’s Rookie of the Year.
Still 16, Lambert has a late 2003 birthdate, which means that he will turn 18 before his draft. He played the 2019-20 season for HIFK Helsinki U-20 in the Finnish under-20 league, scoring 18 goals and 38 points in 42 games playing against older competition, and also represented Finland internationally twice in 2019, at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup and the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Via Elite Prospects, International Scouting Services called Lambert a “dynamic offensive player with great speed, very good offensive instincts, dangerous when given time/space with the puck,” adding that he will be an impact player at the next level.
The skillful young forward has all the tools to be a star in the WHL right now, and his dominance will increase as he gains size and strength. However, if he remains in Finland, and grows into his strength, he will be able to compete against older, more experienced players.
The Blades already have their full allotment of two imports on their roster, but managed their first-round selection because one of them, Slovakian forward Martin Fasko-Rudasm is an overage player. For that reason, many expected the club to think big with their pick on Tuesday, but just how big was uncertain.
In an article in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix prior to the draft, Blades general manager and president Colin Priestner explained the club’s approach:
“We’re still in discussions on what exactly we want to do with that pick, but we have some flexibility there. I wouldn’t expect us to take a role type player knowing we have two good players we really like. I would expect us to swing with the fences with that pick,” (From: ‘CHL Import Draft: Saskatoon Blades prepare for Euro Draft, but there’s a twist,’ Saskatoon StarPhoenix, June 26, 2020).
In the same article, Priestner explained that the club was not counting on Lambert (the cream of this year’s import crop) being available by the time they selected but acknowledged that it would be an “interesting decision to make” if he stayed on the board until the Blades’ selection.
As it played out, Lambert, who has roots in Saskatoon and family history with the Blades, was still available when the team was on the clock. After five teams passed on their first pick in the two-round draft, the Blades made Lambert the 28th player chosen in the draft.
Following the pick, Priestner spoke with Les Lazaruk on CJWW Radio to recount the process and shed some light on the team’s decision to take him.
“We felt that, especially given the uncertainty around this coming season, we didn’t think it would be fair to our two Euros (Fasko-Rudas and Radek Kucerik) or an incoming one to take a player who was fully reporting and was going to compete for a spot, when we already like the guys we have and they are a part of our culture,” Priestner said. “We wanted to swing for the fences a bit on this pick,” he said.
Priestner explained that they did not want to put a player in a situation where they had to turn down opportunities to play elsewhere or make the effort to report to Saskatoon only to be sent home after training camp, and left with nowhere to play simply because there was no room on the Blades’ roster.
Both Blades imports, Fasko-Rudas and Czech defenceman Kucerik, are eligible to return and are highly regarded by the club, so drafting Lambert is in no way an indictment. In fact, their strong play and the team’s high opinion of them gave the organization the freedom to take a shot at a high-risk, high-upside player like Lambert.
Priestner confirmed that both intend to return to Saskatoon for the coming season and have signed their transfer cards.
The Blades traded for Fasko-Rudas from the Swift Current Broncos at the 2020 trade deadline. The Slovakian forward began the season with his original WHL club, the Everett Silvertips, before being dealt twice in the same day. After arrival in Saskatoon, he found chemistry on the Blades’ top line with 2020 Draft-eligible forwards Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic, and produced at a career-high pace with eight goals and 18 points in 23 games.
Fasko-Rudas also represented his country at the 2020 World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.
If he returns, he would be a two-slot player, also filling an overage spot, which was all but confirmed by Priestner when he indicated in his interview with Lazaruk that the Blades are excited at the prospect of returning their entire top line in 2020-21.
Kucerik was drafted by the Blades in the second round of the 2019 CHL Import Draft. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenceman from the Czech Republic brought size to the blue line and he progressed well, adding three goals and 13 points along the way. He too participated in the 2020 WJC, alongside former Blade Libor Zabransky, who captained the host nation.
Last month, Kucerik was invited to attend the Czech Republic’s Under 20 Summer Training Camp and heading into 2020-21, the Blades view Kucerik as a top-four defenceman who will bolster a promising young defence core that features draft-eligible blueliners Rhett Rhinehart and Aidan De La Gorgendiere. All will move up the depth chart after the graduation of stalwarts Nolan Kneen and Scott Walford.
Sure, taking Lambert was a gamble for the Blades, but a calculated one.
“If Brad stays in Finland, which we expect that he will, we still have two Euros, (but) if Brad is not enjoying his time in (Liiga) in Finland, then we obviously will have a really interesting decision on our hands,” Priestner said. “If it gets to the point where we feel like recruiting him is more than a home run swing and somewhat of a realistic option, then we will put the full court press out to sell him on everything that Saskatoon is about and why it is a great place for him to spend the next couple of years before his NHL draft and hopefully get him to a point where he can be the number one overall pick,” he said.
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Even if Lambert remains in Finland, the Blades are confident that they would be in good shape moving forward with the players they have, so it was worth taking a shot at landing a difference-maker.
“The quality of the player is not in question at all,” Priestner said. “Normally in the Euro draft, you want to take people that are one hundred percent coming and committed to signing, but in this case we know we have two (in Fasko-Rudas and Kucerik) so we felt (that we should take) the very, very best player, and that happened to be somebody in Lambert who has a lot of ties to Saskatoon,” he said.
Lambert is already under contract with JYP in the Finnish Liiga first division next season. The option to play two seasons against older, more experienced competition before he enters the NHL Draft is the main reason why the Blades’ chances of signing him are very slim.
“With Brad, if there was ever a chance that he wanted to come (to Saskatoon), then we would obviously accommodate that for him, but we know the odds are a little bit outside, so we’re going to do what we can to sell him on our program,” Priestner said, adding, “We wanted to have his rights because we feel that he is a franchise player on the ice and having the family connections to the Blades has I think set us apart from the other teams in the CHL.”
Persuading the blue-chip prospect to come to Saskatoon will be a tough sell, but the decision to take the chance was worth it.
Though the Blades have an outside chance of landing Lambert, if anybody in the CHL has some extra cards to play it’s them.
As Priestner mentioned, Lambert’s family has deep ties to Saskatchewan and Saskatoon. His father Ross and uncle Lane were both born in Swift Current, SK and each played and starred for the Blades in the 1980s. Ross put up 28 goals and 106 points in the 1982-83 season, while Lane scored 104 goals with 233 points in two seasons from 1981-83.
Lane, who is now an associate coach with the New York Islanders, enjoyed a long professional career highlighted by 283 NHL games split between the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques. He started his coaching career with four seasons in the WHL, two as an assistant with the Moose Jaw Warriors and two as head coach of the Prince George Cougars, followed by six seasons in the American Hockey League, four as a head coach.
He reached the NHL in 2011 with the Nashville Predators and spent the last nine seasons as an assistant or associate coach with three teams, including the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals.
Brad’s cousin Jimmy Lambert is from Bridge City and played three seasons with the Saskatoon Contacts’ U18 AAA team before moving to the Vernon Vipers in the ‘Junior-A’ British Columbia Hockey League, and then to the University of Michigan.
Brad’s mother is from Finland, and that is where he was born and resides, but he played a season in Saskatoon with the AA Under-15 Saskatoon Generals in 2015-16.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the NHL Playoffs, now slated to last deep into the summer, and the WHL’s uncertainty about the start of next season, had an impact on the CHL Import Draft even though the selections themselves took place as scheduled.
“Traditionally, the CHL Import Draft takes place after the NHL Draft. This year, it’s before,” Blades director of scouting Dan Tencer said in an article on the team website. “Not only is the NHL Draft a great time to network with contacts (agents, other scouts) in person, it’s also an opportunity to find out which team selects a player you might be interested in and gives you time to find out whether or not they’ll push for him to come to North America. Without the benefit of seeing how the NHL Draft plays out, it’s a bit harder to peg down the plans for some of the higher-end players.”
Every club in the CHL will face uncertainty regarding their import players this season due to the ramifications of the pandemic. Every country has a unique set of protocols, policies and restrictions on international travel.
Mark Scheig of The Hockey Writers authored an article that outlines many of the brand new challenges that face CHL imports this season.
There are myriad possible outcomes to the Blades courting Lambert and their import situation for the coming season. What we do know is that selecting a premium player is justifiably exciting, even just to entertain the idea of bringing in a star of Lambert’s magnitude and all the buzz that comes with it.
Although it’s unlikely that he will lace up his skates at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, it’s not impossible. The Blades were in a no-lose situation with this pick, and fans should be encouraged by the simple fact that their front office is willing to take big swings in an effort to significantly improve the club.