Red Deer Rebels centre Oleg Zaytsev’s return to the team is uncertain and with that the team will make one selection in the CHL Import Draft on Thursday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Rebels hoping luck is on their side at CHL Import Draft

The CHL Import draft often plays out as fool’s gold.

On the surface, a European player might look like a shiny, impactful piece but for as many times as teams hit on a good player, there’s a miss list a mile long.

There are so many intangibles that go into picking a player that you have limited viewing on, that speaks another language and has plenty of options – paid options to play close to home.

Thursday, the Red Deer Rebels will attempt to strike lightning in a bottle with the 25th overall pick in the import draft.

The import draft includes every team across the Canadian Hockey League, each can select one or two players who do not hold residency in Canada or the United States.

“We’re hoping to get a good player at pick 25. Everyone knows who the good players are, the mystery is with many is a lot of them have contracts and will they be free to come or available to come? That’s always the big mystery,” said Rebels assistant GM Saun Sutter.

“You weigh the risk with all that and there’s some players you know are coming based on your communication with the agent. But there is a lot of mystery around this draft.”

Although earlier this week, the Rebels were believed to be picking twice, as of Wednesday it has been decided that they will only pick once.

That largely hinges on the status of Russian import forward Oleg Zaytsev.

Selected 17th overall in the 2018 CHL Import Draft, Zaytsev is mulling over offers to play professional hockey in Russia, according to Sportsnet’s Elliot Friedman.

In his 31 Thoughts blog, Friedman said teams were scared away from Zaystev in the 2019 NHL Draft because they thought he was ready to sign in the KHL. Zaytsev recorded 13 goals, 30 assists for 43 points in 66 WHL regular season games last year and was ranked 66th among North American Skaters on the Central Scouting final list.

Red Deer expected a decision from Zaytsev on Tuesday, but with no firm answer, they decided to keep their import slot open for the 18-year-old.

“I think Oleg is too good of a player. If we were taking two players, it would be really tough for us to get a player of Oleg’s calibre with our first pick, let alone second,” Sutter added.

While Zaytsev wasn’t perfect last year, he is one case study in the imperfections of the import draft. Red Deer was unsure if he would come to play in North America when they picked him. They liked his talent and thought he was interested in playing in North America, so they took a shot.

“You take calculated risks. There’s no real assumptions to be made. We had no idea Oleg Zaytsev was going to come that’s why we took (Ivan) Drozdov when we knew Alexander Alexeyev was coming back,” Sutter said.

“You want to try and get a good player and you think there’s a chance they might come. There are some times when you do have to take chances. This year, it’s not a real strong year. There will probably be a lot of young guys taken, that still have some development in front of them.”

That’s a stark contrast to Red Deer’s 2017 import selection, Czech Republic product Kristian Reichel. Red Deer picked him 27th, sure that he was going to come. Reichel came to the Rebels, scored 34 goals in 63 games and earned a contract with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.

Sutter said it’s really a wait-and-see game, despite all the time and effort that goes in.

“It’s really about the network you have and how hard you want to work at it. There’s some teams that put a lot of work into and sometimes you can get nothing out if it,” Sutter explained.

“You can have a real good feel for everything and still, something weird happens… There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes into it, so do you want to roll the dice or pick a lesser player that you know is going to show up.”

Red Deer also hit on defenceman Alex Alexeyev with the 49th overall selection in 2016 and on Michael Spacek. He was the 47th overall pick in 2015 and led the Rebels in scoring with 30 goals and 85 points in 2016-17.

All and in, the Rebels will take the best player available Thursday based on the information they have gathered and hope to make it work.

“We get a good feel about who’s going where or who’s attracting the most interest. Some years you have a specific need and some years it’s best player. In the position we’re in, we have to look at best player,” Sutter said.

The CHL Import Draft is Thursday at 9 a.m.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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Oleg Zaytsev, was the Red Deer Rebels 17th overall pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

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