Import draft a gamble worth taking

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:51 PM ET

It would have been understandable had London Knights general manager Mark Hunter recused himself from the 2005 Canadian Hockey League import draft.

He was, after all, prejudiced against the proceedings.

Since buying the franchise in May 2000, the Knights have been burned so many times, Hunter considered not participating this time around.

It costs $2,000 to select a player and it's non-refundable, even if the player doesn't cross the pond.

The Knights have drafted Europeans who haven't shown up, they've drafted Europeans who have shown up but can't cut it in the OHL, and they've drafted Europeans who can play at this level but after one game got homesick and went home, never to return.

"Sometimes you do get a good player to come, so you keep going back," Hunter said of why last June the Knights invested $2,000 in the 57th selection.

That player turned out to be right-winger Sergei Kostitsyn, the league's rookie scoring leader with 19 goals and 37 assists in 38 games. And with two assists last night against Toronto St. Mike's, he's been held pointless in only 11 games.

The 18-year-old from Novopolotsk, Belarus, was a Montreal Canadiens seventh-round pick last August.

His brother, Andrei, who turns 21 next month, was the Canadiens' first-round pick, 10th overall, in 2003 and has been with Hamilton in the AHL for two years until being called up recently to the NHL.

Hunter said they had an idea who they were drafting, but there are years "it's a risk because you don't know who you're taking.

"The first step is they've got to come. Then when they do come, you've got to keep them here. They do need moral support because it's a trying time for these young men and they have to be dedicated about the game. They have to say 'I am going to come here, I am going to stay here and I am going to play well,' and he has that attitude.

"He has great vision. He can pass. He can shoot. He's got to get stronger yet, but he's got a good chance to go to the next level."

Kostitsyn impressed coach Dale Hunter so quickly that he's been on the power play all season, with a dozen goals with the man advantage.

"He's got lots of ice time and he deserves to be out there," Mark Hunter said.

"He enjoys the game. You have to watch these young men, and it's not just the Europeans, but if any of them are not happy and not enjoying the game, you sure worry about them."

Knights centre Rob Schremp, the OHL's scoring leader with 37 goals and 57 assists in 33 games, plays with Kostitsyn quite a bit and enjoys it.

"Sergei is a great player," Schremp said. "He's so strong on his skates and it's very hard to knock him off the puck. His legs are like tree trunks.

"He's very patient with the puck and that's hard to find in young players. And coming over and playing a different style, he's adjusted very well.

"He's very poised with the puck. He doesn't seem to get rattled too easily, which is a big thing. Especially being a first-year guy, you see guys getting a little flustered."

One reason many Europeans struggle is the language barrier, but Schremp said that hasn't hindered Kostitsyn, which has helped with his productivity.

"He is limited in what he can do because, obviously, he can't speak that great of English, but he's really making an effort," Schremp said.

"He's been one of our best European players to come in and try and be a part of the team. I don't want to put a stamp on them, but it's hard for them with the language barrier and whatnot, but he's come in and tried to understand what goes on and we love him in the room.

"Sergei is always hanging around the boys and when we have team functions, he's always out with the boys."

Mark Hunter said when you're selecting 57th in the European draft, it is a crap shoot.

"It does worry you, because the other kids didn't turn out," he said.

"It's better if you get a top-10 pick, but you have to take a gamble and roll the dice and see what you can come up with."

For Hunter, the roll finally came up sevens.


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