The Everett Silvertips have some big skates to fill in Friday’s Canadian Hockey League import draft.
Finnish sniper Niko Huuhtanen has signed to play professionally in his homeland, meaning he will not return to Everett for his 19-year-old season. Therefore, Tips general manager Dennis Williams is tasked with replacing one of the team’s top offensive forces.
Huuhtanen had a major impact in his one season with Everett. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound winger with a booming shot piled up 37 goals and 40 assists during the regular season. Then he had five goals and five assists in five playoff games before suffering a leg injury that forced him to miss the Tips’ final playoff contest.
Huuhtanen was eligible to return to the Tips next season and fill one of the teams’ two import roster slots, but he instead signed a pro contract with Jukurit in Finland’s top division. He joins winger Eetu Tuulola and defenseman Kasper Puutio as Finnish players who had eligibility remaining with the Tips, but instead returned to play professionally in Finland after one season in Everett.
”I thought our staff and team did a good job with his development over the year,” Williams said about Huuhtanen. “But he has to make those type of decisions for himself and with his family. I’m not disappointed by it, we all have decisions to make and you can’t please everybody, you have to look out for what you think is best for yourself and your family.”
Huuhtanen choosing not to return leaves the Tips with work to do in Friday’s import draft. Everett holds the 57th-overall selection in the first round, which is a far cry from last year when the Tips had the second-overall pick and used it on Huuhtanen.
In addition to Everett’s change in draft position, this year’s draft is complicated by other factors that shrink the pool of prospective players. The most significant of those is the CHL’s decision to make players from Russia and Belarus ineligible for this year’s draft in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Picking that late you’re just kind of sitting there with a list of guys and seeing who’s available, so it’s a bit of a waiting game,” Williams said. “It’s not easy. I know Sandro (Benin), our European scout, has done an unbelievable job of forming a list and talking to players and agents. But it’s getting harder and harder to get player to come to the CHL, they have a lot of options now, and with what we’ve gone through the last few years with COVID I think a lot of players are staying put, and I totally understand that. And then with the Russian players, that takes away another large pool of players looking to come over. So there are challenges, but we’ll wait patiently and see what’s there at 57.”
Everett doesn’t have to look far back to find evidence of hitting the jackpot at 57th overall. In 2019 the Tips also had the 57th pick and selected Czech center Michal Gut. Gut had a solid first season in Everett, then last year he exploded for 18 goals and 53 assists in 53 games.
However, Gut’s status for next season was still up in the air as of Wednesday. Gut, who is entering his overage season, was still trying to decide on his plans for the upcoming season. He could return to the WHL, where he would be a two-spotter and absorb both an import and an overage roster spot, or he could play professionally in Europe. Complicating that decision is that Gut is one of six quality overage options Everett has for its three overage roster spots, along with forwards Jackson Berezowski, Ryan Hofer and Jacob Wright and defensemen Dylan Anderson and Aiden Sutter (defenseman Ronan Seeley would also be a candidate, but he’s signed an NHL contract and is expected to play in the Carolina Hurricanes system next season).
Gut’s decision will affect whether Everett uses its second-round pick, which is 117th overall. Teams can only have two European players on their protected lists.
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