OK... so I started making my list and before long I had gotten way past 5 notable Euros playing in the WHL, this could easily have been a top 10 list. I've decided to narrow the group to only those Euros who are making their WHL debut this year so that's why guys like Milan Kytnar, Stepan Novotny and Tomas Vincour are not going to be mentioned here.
My list is an interesting cross section of nationalities with one obvious exclusion - Russia. In my opinion this lends even more credibility to my idea to change the annual 6-game CHL/Russia series into a CHL/World series but that's an argument I've made before.
Here are my top five WHL import rookies for 2009-10.
5. Alexander Urbom (SWE)
Urbom is a 6'4, 216 lb Blueliner from Sweden that is expected to play for the Brandon Wheat Kings this year. I say expected because I believe that he is still taking part in his NHL training camp with the New Jersey Devils. The Devils selected Urbom in the 3rd round this past June after a season in the SEL with Djurgardens. His profile at eliteprospects.com reads:
A big and strong player. Urbom is more of a stay-at-home defenseman that likes to play physical and usually has good timing in his hits. Positioning is good. Leads the team with his solid play in the defensive zone. Contributed offensively to some extent in the Swedish juniors, but is likely to become more of a shut-down guy. Offensive smarts and technical skills are fairly average.4. Sergei Drozd (BEL)
I first saw Drozd play last Fall during the World Junior A Challenge in Camrose when he represented Belarus and went under the first name of "Siarhei". He's an average sized forward but in that tournament he showed a lot of skill and passion. He was, in my opinion, the best player on the Belorussian squad. Drozd ended the tournament with 9 points in 5 games, finishing second in overall scoring behind eventual tourney MVP Mike Cichy (MTL).
Drozd went unselected during the 2009 NHL Draft despite playing 11 games in the KHL with Minsk. He has joined the Tri-City Americans this season and picked up two points in his first outing over the weekend.
3. John Persson (SWE)
The Red Deer Rebels were pleasantly surprised during the preseason by their Swedish import as he put up terrific numbers. After Finnish defender Tommi Kivisto started hot but faded last year, I think there is tempered optimism in Red Deer that Persson can be an impact player for the Rebels this season. He's listed at 6'2 and 190 lbs so size isn't going to be an issue for him but as always there will be concern in regards to being able to last for a full North American season.
Red Deer head coach Jesse Wallin described the Swede early in training camp by saying:
"He's a big guy, he skates pretty well, and he's got good hands for a big man. So far, so good. He looked good this afternoon, and got adjusted to the game in North America. He mentioned the size of the ice a couple of times, thats a little different for him. He's looked good so far."
2. Toni Rajala (FIN)
He was one of the real wildcards during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and he's already being considered one of the steals after Edmonton selected him in the 4th round. The tiny Finnish forward will get a late start thanks to a summer knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines during both WHL and NHL camps. A healthy Rajala has the potential to be a dominant junior player as he set a new scoring record at the World U18 tournament last spring in Fargo, ND.
I saw Rajala in attendance at the Oil Kings home opener on the weekend and Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal is reporting that he will finally head to Brandon on Friday. Eliteprospects.com has this to say:
A good skater that accelerates well. Rajala has good puck skills and is a creative player. He has a scorer's touch and puts up points on regular basis. On the downside, he needs to bulk up and become stronger.1. Nino Niederreiter (SWI)
Switzerland has been slowly growing as a hockey nation and has made NHL inroads wtih goaltenders and blueliners but forwards are still a work in progress. Nino Niederreiter hopes to be somewhat of a pioneer in that regard as he brings his game to North America with the Portland Winterhawks.
The talented forward put up 34 points in 30 games last year playing for Davos in a U20 league. The scoring success has followed him early this season as the Swiss product collected 3 points in Portland's opener against Seattle on the weekend. Niederreiter should be a lock for that country's entry into the 2010 WJC in Saskatoon and thanks to his WHL choice this year, he should be accustomed to playing here and will be poised for a successful tournament.
The Winterhawks picked Niederreiter 2nd overall in the CHL Import Draft and although that's an event based more on deals with agents than it is a selection of the best players, thus far the Swiss kid appears to be covering the bet.