The Winnipeg Ice secured the goaltending depth it needed and added the Western Hockey League rights to a promising high-end forward at the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft Tuesday.
Centre Henri Nikkanen, whose resumé is loaded with Finnish national team experience, was chosen in the first round (42nd overall) and the club followed that up by selecting up-and-coming Slovakian goaltender Eugen Rabcan in the second round (102nd overall).
Nikkanen, 19, was chosen by the Winnipeg Jets in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL Draft. Rabcan is also 19.
"One’s an NHL-drafted player and a high-end talent and the other is a guy that’s coming into his own here and has a lot to prove," said Ice vice-president of hockey operations and assistant general manager Jake Heisinger.
Making import draft selections was more complicated this year with the NHL draft delayed due to the pandemic.
Normally, NHL draft selections from Europe considering the option of playing in North America would have firm guidance about their development path from their NHL teams.
With the date of the 2020 draft still unknown, that direction was missing for draft-eligible players.
The Ice went with older players, consulting with the Jets on Nikkanen, who is unsigned, and picking Rabcan, who also happens to be a client of agent Andrew Maloney.
Maloney also represents German forward Nino Kinder, who played with the Ice in 2019-20.
"The import draft as a whole is relationship driven and you know people that you trust and then have prior relationship with," said Heisinger.
"So yeah, we have a number of conversations leading up to today and the two guys who we ended up picking we felt were good choices for us."
CHL teams are permitted to carry two imports on their roster. Nikkanen, meanwhile, appears more likely to remain at home to continue his developent.
"He’s played in Finland his whole life," said Heisinger.
"I’m sure like all good players he’s got his options to stay in Finland. And now that we’ve selected him, he has an option here as well. So we’ll kind of see how it plays out here, give it some time and be patient...
"We talked to the Jets about this as well and they were supportive of us selecting him."
Rabcan, undrafted by the NHL, is expected to jump at the opportunity to replace graduating starter Liam Hughes in the Winnipeg net.
He will compete with Hughes’ backup, 17-year-old Gage Alexander, who has only seven WHL appearances under his belt.
"We just felt as a 19-year-old he has really come on strong as of late and in Slovakia he’s starting to put himself on the map with the national team," said Heisinger.
"I think he’s got a lot lot to prove and you know we have a real good relationship with his agent."
Winnipeg still has 2019 import draft pick Michal Teply on its roster. Teply, who led WHL rookies in scoring with 63 points in 53 regular-season games, has signed an entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks but is expected back with the Ice in the fall.
Having Teply, Nikkanen and Rabcan on the roster would put Winnipeg one over the import limit.
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Centre: Henri Nikkanen Height, weight: 6-4, 203 pounds Age: 19 Hometown: Mikkeli, Finland NHL draft: fourth round (113th overall) by Jets in 2019. 2019-20: played for Jukurit in the U20 SM-sarja Finnish League, where he scored 13 goals and 28 points in 28 games. Promoted to Jukurit in Finnish Liiga for the remainder of the season, registering three assists in 27 games.
SECOND ROUND (102nd overall)
Goaltender: Eugen Rabcan Height, weight: 6-3, 192 pounds Age: 19 Hometown: Levoca, Slovakia NHL draft: undrafted 2019-20: had a 2.61 goals-against avertage and .921 save percentage in 30 games for HK Spisska Nova Ves in the Slovakia2 League.
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