With the first pick in the seventh round, Edmonton selects, from Dynamo Junior, Kristians Pelss.
Who? From where? Latvia? Are you kidding me? Who drafts from Latvia? In a move that confounded both NHL staff on site and Edmonton fans everywhere, the Edmonton Oilers reached into Latvia's Junior system to select the speedy young forward. Ben attended the draft and his rundown on Pelss included this gem:
When he was drafted he was so obscure that not only did the NHL not have a little insert for him on the draft board, but when they handed out the lists of draft picks about forty-five minutes later his birth city was shown as "Latvia" and his team was left entirely blank.
The reasonable guess is the Oilers took Pelss based on what they saw of him at the Under-18 World Junior Championship in Minsk, in April where Pelss had two goals and an assist in six games. Pelss made the jump to North America this summer and will be playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.
To find out more about the mystery man from Latvia, I went to the aptly named Latvian Hockey News Report and the writer behind the site, Didzis Rudmanis. Didzis was kind enough to speak with us and build a picture of Pelss and his game. We also talked about the state of Latvian Hockey.
After the jump, my conversation with Rudmanis.
Copper & Blue: Were you surprised when you found out that Pelss had been drafted?
Didzis Rudmanis (Latvian Hockey News Report): Not a single player from Latvia - the 12th highest ranked country by the IIHF - had been drafted into the NHL between 2007 and 2009. In 2006 the Thrashers took Arturs Kulda and the Sens selected Kaspars Daugavins, but that's a long time between picks. Although Kristians Pelss is considered to be the best prospect of all 1992-born Latvian players, not many people expected him to be drafted.
C&B: Has he been well-coached in the Latvian system?
Rudmanis: Until the end of 2008-2009 Pelss played in Daugavpils, where he was coached by local specialists, but last season Dinamo-Juniors Riga (it was renamed to HK Riga this summer) was coached by Leonids Beresnevs, one of the most experienced coaches in Latvia; in fact, he coached the Latvian Olympic team at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
C&B: What do you think of Pelss's decision to come to North America? What kind of options does an 18-year-old Latvian have to play high-level hockey on the home front? Elsewhere in Europe?
Rudmanis: He is certainly chasing his dream of playing in the NHL, which is completely reasonable. Since the North American style of play is much different from the one played in Europe, he might end up facing some difficulties adjusting to the European hockey if he decides to go back to Europe after spending a few developmental seasons in North America.
If an 18-year-old player has not yet played outside Latvia or is not in the system of either Dinamo Riga or Metalurgs Liepaja, he should understand that it is very unlikely that he will turn into a professional player. That, unfortunately, is the current reality of Latvian hockey. After the 2007-2008 season, the Latvian federation made the destructive decision to allow the top four Latvian league clubs to spend 2008-2009 in the Belarussian Extraliga (in 2009-2010 there were two such clubs), which stopped the development of the Latvian league, turning it into a half-professional league. These latest few Latvian league seasons have been humiliating for a country that has taken part in the latest three Olympics.
For years, many Latvians have benefited from playing in junior leagues elsewhere in Europe. For example, at the moment there are approximately fifteen Latvian junior players in Sweden, and more in other countries like Finland and Russia.
C&B: He spent the 2009-2010 season on Dinamo Juniors Riga - the Junior club to Dinamo Riga - in the Belarusian Extraliga. What is the level of play in that league?
Rudmanis: The Belarussian Extraliga is a decent league, and could easily be compared to the EBEL (Austrian League), British Elite Ice Hockey League, French Ligue Magnus or other second-tier European leagues. However, as almost all the foreigners in Belarus are either Ukrainians or Russians, there is not much information available for it, which makes it one of the most unheralded leagues in Europe.
C&B: Do many seventeen-year-olds play in that league?
Rudmanis: The number of such young players in the league is rather small, but Pelss played in Belarus already in 2008-2009, when he was just sixteen years old, which is extraordinary.
C&B: Pelss only had nine points in forty-six games. Is that considered a disappointment?
Rudmanis: Although he finished 2008-2009 with seven points in 31 games, which means there was very little improvement year-over-year, I would not consider his offensive performance a disappointment. Dinamo Juniors Riga included players up to five years older than him, so Pelss had a rather small amount of ice-time. I would speculate that he might have had more ice-time playing for DHK Latgale.
C&B: In the Under-18 World Junior Championships Pelss had two goals and one assist in six games. Did you have the opportunity to watch those games? How did he perform against international competition?
Rudmanis: Unfortunately, there was no TV coverage or online streams available for the tournament, so I did not see him in action. But we have no reason to disbelieve Bob Green, who said that Pelss stood out and played very well.
C&B: Seventeen of the eighteen Latvian NHL players have come from Riga and the majority of the non-NHL players that hockey fans may be aware of are from Riga, yet Pelss is from Preili. It's a small town (population 8,656) and seems very isolated. Is Pelss a rarity, or are there growing programs outside of Riga?
Rudmanis: In 1997 an ice hockey arena in Liepaja was opened. It was a crucial point in the modern history of Latvian hockey, as up until then there were only three or four indoor ice rinks, and only one was not in Riga. Currently the number of ice rinks has grown to seventeen. Only four of eighteen players who have played in the NHL did not begin their careers in early 1990’s when the only arenas were located in Riga. In recent years, several players from Liepaja regularly play for the Latvian U18 or U20 teams, but, as of yet, none of them have reached the NHL. Kristians Pelss began his career in Daugavpils hockey school (there isn’t an arena in Preili), and is the greatest alumnus so far.
C&B: What is the current state of the Latvian Juniors system? How does it compare to other systems in Europe?
Rudmanis: The Financial crisis of 2008-2009 hit Latvia severely, which led to a decrease in the number of younger players – many parents could not afford to send their kids to play hockey anymore. However, there are kids growing up and playing hockey in cities, and that would have been impossible just six or seven years ago. Many Latvian junior coaches lack proper education, so I am eager to see how the situation will develop. Unfortunately, when players reach the age of eighteen, they often have no place to play and they retire from junior/professional hockey. It is hard to compare it to the junior systems of the more economically developed Western European countries or Belarus who is led by a fanatical president, Lukashenko, who devotes large amounts of money to hockey. But as long as the Latvian league continues to develop, it is completely in our hands to increase the depth of Latvian hockey.
C&B: Thank you very much for your time.
Rudmanis: P.S. Edmonton should seriously consider drafting 2012-eligible Latvian Zemgus Girgensons, who is currently expected to be a first or second round pick. Up until now, only three Latvians have been drafted in the second round.
Didzis plies his trade trade at the Latvian Hockey News Report, you can follow his posts via RSS and follow him on Twitter @DidzisRudmanis