Quick: Name the WHL's leading rookie goal scorer. No, it's not Oliver Bjorkstrand, Leon Draisaitl or Brayden Point. It's not Alex Delnov, Miles Koules or even Seth Jones.
I'm not sure even the Seattle Thunderbirds would've imagined it would be Latvian forward Roberts Lipsbergs when they chose him with the 60th and final pick in the first round of the most recent CHL Import Draft.
Through his first 40 games, the 18-year-old from Riga has racked up 19 goals and 36 points, outpacing several other highly regarded import rookies.
Playing for an American CHL team that's rebuilding makes it tough for Lipsbergs to get a lot of publicity, but he's starting to attract the attention of scouts and is a possible NHL draft pick this year after being passed over in his first year of eligibility.
Lipsbergs and Thunderbirds teammate Delnov (the eighth overall import pick) have provided a big offensive boost to a Seattle franchise that's looking to get back into the postseason after a three-year absence.
It's been a tough road for the Birds, as they recently ended a 15-game losing streak that dropped them from a comfortable position back into a battle for a playoff spot. Seattle leads Prince George by five points for the eighth and final berth.
Who knows where Seattle would be without Lipsbergs, whose play has earned him the 61st spot on Central Scouting's midterm rankings of North American skaters.
After scoring just twice in his first 19 games and looking like he may be just a marginal contributor, Lipsbergs caught fire and netted 15 goals in a 15 game stretch before heading off to Ufa for the world junior championship.
“Nothing changed that much for me,” Lipsbergs said before he left for the WJC. “My linemates and I started to play better together and I started to get a little bit lucky.”
Lipsbergs admitted it took him about 10 games to get used to the pace of the CHL game, as well as to adjust to the smaller ice and physicality.
“I like that it’s smaller and faster,” he said. “I expected it, but it still took time. Once I got a couple of goals, everything just got better.”
He had a goal and an assist in six games in Ufa, but the Latvians ended up being relegated to Division I. Lipsbergs scored twice in six games in last year's tournament as a 17-year-old.
This year's relegation is a disappointment, but Lipsbergs believes that increased opportunities for Latvian players in the Russian leagues and in North America will lead to more success on the international stage.
“We’re starting to see some good progress in Latvia,” he said, noting that there’s now a KHL team in Riga. A feeder club, HK Riga, plays in the Russian Minor Hockey League (similar to major junior). Lipsbergs had 14 goals in 58 games for HK Riga last season.
“Our young guys are getting to play against the Russians all the time now, and the teams are good there so that’s good for our country,” Lipsbergs said.
For now, Lipsbergs is tasked with providing a lift to a Seattle team that had shown major signs of improvement before it's long slump, beating the likes of Kelowna, Kamloops and Tri-City in a single week in early December.
Things may be turning around again for the Birds, though, as they ended the skid with a solid 4-3 victory over league-leading Portland over the weekend.
Though his arrival in Seattle looks as if it may have just been a ploy to get noticed for the draft, Lipsbergs insists that wasn't his primary motivation to come to North America.
"I came to play for Seattle and help them win now," he said. "I'm not looking at tomorrow or next week or next season. I'm here for what I can do today."
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