The CHL Import Draft is like the wild west in the best of times and 2021 is nowhere near the best of times.
The annual two-round event goes on Wednesday, where major junior teams across Canada try and entice a European player or two to join their club for the upcoming season.
The Red Deer Rebels will pick 14th overall in the 2021 edition and will only select one player, as 2019 import pick, defenceman Christofer Sedoff will return for the 2021-22 WHL season.
Two factors are making this year’s draft even more of a wild card than normal – the COVID-19 pandemic and a later NHL Draft.
“The information flow for a lot of teams is a lot less than you normally have. With all that, there’s a lot more mystery, probably more than ever,” said Red Deer Rebels assistant GM Shaun Sutter.
With pandemic uncertainty still existent in many parts of the world, players still aren’t entirely sure if or when they will be allowed into North America – or what sort of quarantine or vaccine requirements will be in place if they do decide to come.
“For players in Europe, they have to exit out of their team in order to come here and they sort of have to commit to that. So for some of the players, some of them have interest and then some aren’t sure, just with the whole COVID situation,” Sutter said.
And the NHL draft, which usually helps CHL teams weed out some players or narrow down their focus, won’t take place until July 23, about a month later than normal.
“I think that (it usually) allows the teams to kind of network when everyone converges on the draft. They can network with different team staff and people that have actually physically seen some of the players. I think that’s much different,” Sutter said.
Factor in a lack of scouting, with some European junior leagues not even operating last year and this year’s import selection is rife with unknowns.
“You can watch a lot of players on video… but some of that video might be over a year old. Some of those kids may not have played,” Sutter said.
“So when you go to cross-reference names with people over in Europe or even run them by NHL scouts, there’s a lot of names come up and they’re like ‘oh sorry, I don’t have any reports on that guy.’ Before, they might have been able to provide a lot of information. You’re having to spend a lot more time watching video, to sift through names.”
All that being said, the Rebels will be in wait-and-see mode Wednesday morning, to find out where players land.
“Hopefully we can pick a player that can come over and help us,” Sutter said.
“We feel we’ve made some upgrades to our team. That’s the way we look at it. It’s almost like making a trade, obviously, we don’t have to give anything up. We’re trying to add a piece to make our team better.”
In the last decade, Red Deer has been relatively successful at drawing players over.
Last year’s seventh overall pick, Thomas Chlubna was the first, first-round pick not to come since Eduards Jansons did not report in 2014.
The Rebels have got solid contributions from their import players in the past four seasons, starting with Michael Spacek in 2015.
Alex Alexeyev came to Red Deer in the 2016 CHL Import Draft and was selected 31st overall by the Washington Capitals in 2018.
After being picked in 2017, Kristian Reichel put up 34 goals and 23 assists in 63 games for Red Deer. He signed with the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate in Manitoba after the 2017-18 WHL season.
Oleg Zaytsev, Red Deer’s 17th overall pick in 2018, posted 13 goals and 30 assists in 2018-19 over 66 games.
The Baie Comeau Drakkar will pick first overall, with the draft set to start at 9 a.m.