Based on recent trends, it appears as though more draft-eligible imports are trying their hand in the Canadian Hockey League. I don't want to affix a particular narrative to a small sample of data, but over the last three National Hockey League drafts, 39 selects have been imported players on WHL, OHL or QMJHL teams.
Over the five seasons before that, the total number was 31.
What's the reason for the shift? Either it's in visibility or that countries are beginning to develop better junior hockey players. I'm opting for the latter. Recent CHL imports to be drafted into the NHL have come from non-traditional hockey nations like Germany's Philip Grubauer and Marcel Noebels, Denmark's Niklas Jensen, two Swiss-born studs from the Portland Winterhawks Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bärtschi, and their WHL rival, the Swiss-born-but-plays-for-France Tim Bozon.
What more's, as the top international hockey players look for new avenues to distinguish themselves from the pack, is they're becoming not just good players for CHL clubs, but very important ones. Three imports, two of them drafted, find themselves on the top page of the WHL's leaderboard, Bozon and Matej Stransky. The third is Victoria's Alex Gogolev, who holds the dubious distinction of being a rare 20-year old import, taking up one of three Royals' overage spots and one of two European spots.
The WHL is the league that has seen the biggest gains for imported players. Russians, such as Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, or this season's rookie sensation with Sarnia Evgeny Goldobin, are more likely to report to OHL and QMJHL clubs because there's too big of a time difference between the WHL and Russia. (This seems odd to me, since Russia and British Columbia are closer by miles than Russia and Ontario, but I'm assured this is a reason).
As a result, WHL clubs find players from Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. The Winterhawks have of course had success from Niederreiter and Bärtschi, but this year they brought in Danish-born Oliver Bjorkstrand who has filled the role of the scoring European quite nicely. No country produced more CHL import draft picks than the Czech Republic in the last two years with 26, and 15 of those went to the WHL. Of the 32 Russians who went, just 5 were selected out West. Teams, by convention, draft whichever players they think they can convince to come over and play, and the sparseness of Western Canada and its scattered hockey teams appear to appeal to a broader range of nationalities.
This isn't to say that NHL draft success is consistent with success in juniors, but if imported players are getting better, and coming over at younger ages in their NHL draft seasons, perhaps it's something teams should find worth studying further if there's a competitive advantage to be earned by choosing a player in the import draft for criteria other than "he said he might come and play for us. Let's do it."
Goldobin is the best example in Sarnia, but Sergey Tolchinski is also putting up a season in Sault-Ste Marie that's drawing the eye of scouts and contributing to the Greyhounds' turnaround. Out West, Leon Draisaitl is having a tremendous year as a 2014-eligible prospect, with 42 points in 46 games for Prince Albert while Bjorkstrand, in his draft season, is fitting in nicely with Portland. In the Quebec league, the Remparts are reeling ever since they lost Grigorenko to the bigs. Imports are not just taking up space on rosters anymore, but there's a reason there's a cost associated with bringing in a big-name international player. They're younger, they're fitter, they're better, as international hockey federations draw closer to being able to compete with Canada and the United States in player development.