The WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings looked to Latvia to use their highest pick ever in Wednesday’s CHL Import Draft.
Brandon selected left-winger Rihards Bukarts seventh overall, picking up the CHL rights to a talented player who has played on Latvia’s under-18 and world junior teams and doesn’t turn 18 until Dec. 31.
"He’s competitive, high skill, good skater and he’s had good experience ... and I think he is going to be a good fit with our team," Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon said.
As always in the Import Draft, ability is one thing, availability is another. However, McCrimmon has spoken with Bukarts representatives with Newport Sports Management and is "optimistic" that he will be able to secure an international transfer for Bukarts and bring him to Brandon.
"Well, that’s the next step in the process," McCrimmon said. "We are optimistic that he will be available and here for training camp, and yet, it’s too early to confirm that. But that’s something that we’ll start working on here shortly."
A native of Jurmala, Latvia, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Bukarts was selected ninth overall in the 2012 Kontinental Hockey League’s Junior Draft by Dinamo Riga to become the highest Latvian ever picked in KHL history. Bukarts scored 18 goals and notched 35 points in 62 games last season with HK Riga, essentially the KHL’s junior league, and added a goal and an assist in six games at the world juniors.
Bukarts is eligible for the 2014 NHL draft and was ranked high on McCrimmon’s list.
"We had four or five guys that were players that we were considering and we had identified this player early on as a player that we thought would be a good fit for our organization in terms of what he brings to the table," McCrimmon said. "We had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people that have watched him play. I have a great deal of respect for (agent) Craig Oster’s opinion. He has seen him many times himself and again, because he has played in some of the more high profile events, accessing opinions on the player was something that we were able to do and comfortable with the reports that we had."
Oster is confident Brandon will be able to secure a release for his client.
"My expectation is that he is going to be playing there (in Brandon) next year," Oster said. "My understanding is that he does have a junior contract in Latvia, but I’ve been assured that it shouldn’t be an issue in terms of getting his release."
At seventh overall, Bukarts is the highest import player ever picked by Brandon, joining the likes of Norwegian defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (ninth overall in 2002), Finnish forward Sami Sandell (10th overall in 2004), Czech centre Jakub Sindel (13th overall in 2004) and Finnish sniper Toni Rajala (14th overall in 2009), who all become solid contributors.
If the Wheat Kings are able to secure Bukarts’ transfer, he will join returning 19-year-old Czech forward Richard Nejezchleb to fill the Wheat Kings’ two imports spots.
ICINGS: The Vancouver Giants used the No.1 overall pick to select Russian D Kmitry Osipov, 17 ... Former Wheat King D Ayrton Nikkel, 18, was acquired by the Saskatoon Blades from the Everett Silvertips yesterday. In return, the Silvertips received D Matthew Pufahl, 20, and a 2015 fifth-round bantam pick. Nikkel was originally acquired by Brandon from Saskatoon as part of the Brayden Schenn blockbuster deal ... The Blades also traded C Shane McColgan, 20, to the Portland Winterhawks yesterday in exchange for a 2014 third-round bantam draft pick and a 2014 seventh-round selection, trimming Saskatoon’s list of overagers to five ... The Montreal Canadiens have given Brandonite Ryan White, 25, a qualifying offer to retain his NHL rights ... Former Wheat King and ex-Dallas Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan has joined the Vancouver Canucks as an assistant coach.