Spitfires Go Russian in CHL Import Draft

The Windsor Spitfires are trying to strike gold again. Two years after selecting Mikhail Sergachev in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, the Spitfires went back to Russia in the 2017 CHL Import Draft on Tuesday.

The CHL Import Draft is two rounds, with all 60 teams having two selections. Most teams pass on their second selection, though, if they already have two Import players, which is the limit per team.

However, Spitfires’ general manager Warren Rychel chose to select two players and grabbed a Russian forward and defenceman with picks 46 and 106.

With his first pick, Rychel chose 18-year-old center Kirill Kozhevnikov out of Mamonty Yugry of the MHL. The 6’1”, 205 lb forward had 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points in 46 games. He also saw limited action in the KHL with Yugra Khanty-Mansiyk. Check out this goal by Kozhevnikov from October 2016:

For Windsor’s second pick, they grabbed Lev Starikov from Ufa Tolpar. The 6’7”, 200 lb defenceman is 16-years-old and isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2019. In 2016-17, Starikov played 39 games for Ufa Tolpar with two goals, eight assists and 10 points through 39 games. His unique combination of size and offensive ability will fit nicely into the Windsor system.

According to the Windsor Star, both players are expected to report to Windsor next season.

Golden Opportunity Awaits

Two years ago, the Spitfires drafted Sergachev as a just-turned-17-year-old and he went on to win the OHL Most Outstanding Defenceman in 2015-16. Sergachev was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2016 before being dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this month. During the summer of 2016, the Spitfires also brought in Finnish forward, and Anaheim prospect, Julius Nattinen in a trade with Barrie.

Jesse Puljujärvi and Julius Nattinen Show off their 2016 World Junior Gold (J. DeLuca/THW).

Both Sergachev and Nattinen are expected to stay in the pros. This means the Spitfires have two major holes to fill.

Starikov will get ample opportunity to show he deserves big minutes on a Spitfires’ defence that had multiple graduates. While he will be eased along, he will likely climb the depth charts as long as he shows he’s capable. Bigger defencemen have also been a trademark for the Spitfires since Rychel became general manager, including 6’7″, 230 lb Logan Stanley and 6’3″, 230 lb Sean Day.

Koznevikov is in a similar boat. While he’s older than Starikov, he is expected to jump into a prominent role up front. His offence could be crucial as the Spitfires look to replace the production from veterans such as Nattinen, Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jeremiah Addison (Canadiens) and Cristiano DiGiacinto (overage).

If either Sergachev or Nattinen is returned to Windsor, the Spitfires must either deal the returnee or release one of the new Imports. First-year Imports cannot be dealt.

Hoping History Repeats Itself

The Spitfires have a solid history with Russian players coming to Windsor in the draft. In addition to Sergachev, they drafted forward Andrei Loktionov in 2008. He had 66 points in 51 games for Windsor in 2008-09, his only season in the OHL. Loktionov played 155 NHL games before moving to the KHL for the last three seasons.

In 2010, the Spitfires welcomed forward Alex Khokhlachev. He played for the Spitfires from 2010-13 scoring 81 goals and 193 points in 152 games. Like Loktionov, he played in the NHL with the Boston Bruins but moved to the KHL for the 2016-17 season.

Alex Khokhlachev
(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Both Loktionov and Khokhlachev became fan favourites in Windsor for their slick, creative play in the offensive zone.

The CHL Import Draft, held every year after the NHL Draft, has been a vital part of Canadian Junior Hockey since 1992. It allows players from overseas to develop their skills in North America. Over the course of this year’s draft, 25 players were selected by OHL teams. Breaking them down by country, they are:

Russia – 7

Sweden – 6

Czech Republic – 4

Finland – 2

Switzerland – 2

Belarus, Germany, Denmark and Slovakia – 1 each.