March 17, 2014

Important Imports Break Ottawa's European Dry Spell in 2013-14

If the 67’s can take one major positive out of this second rebuilding year, it’s that the Nation’s Capital is finally a viable destination for Europeans again in Major Junior hockey.

A year ago, it would’ve seemed unimaginable that an import would find success with the Barberpoles. 

Outside of Petr Mrazek, their past luck with the second draft of the summer wasn’t anything to write home about, and with the ban on drafting European goalies, it looked as though their best import drafting days were behind them.

But now, forget the likes of Robert Farmer, whose role as a pest quickly fell out of favour, Ladislav Zikmund, who was cut out of training camp, or Richard Mraz, who simply left the team because he didn’t like North American-style hockey.

Enter the 2013 import draft class.

While there were rumblings that Ottawa was looking at forwards Andre Burakovsky and Ivan Nikolishin, now star players in their own regard for Erie and Everett (WHL) respectively, this team desperately needed defence.

While top Russian defensive prospect Dmitry Osipov went to Vancouver first overall, Ottawa took Alex Lintuniemi with the next pick. 

They stayed on the blueline in the second round, taking Adrian Sloboda 62nd overall.

Right out of training camp, Chris Byrne made it a point to play the two together.  Despite a few struggles in the team’s first pre-season game against Gatineau, Ottawa was set to sink-or-swim with their two imports as their top d-pairing.

The two probably would have stayed together throughout the year if they weren’t both hit by the injury bug.

“I had so many injuries this year, so it was a little bit tough for me,” said Sloboda, who was unable to finish the season.  “I had an ankle sprain, now a problem with my knee, I might have to have surgery.”

“But it was still a pretty good season, I like Ottawa.”

Even with Sloboda out, the two saw each other on a regular basis while sharing a billet.

“We talk a lot after the games,” said Lintuniemi on his first year with Sloboda.  “When we have tough times, we talk to each other, we just cheer each other up and have fun.”

“It's been great.  It's a bit tough of course, we both know, being away from home, but at the same time it's a lot of fun.”

However, with the season now in the books, there’s a lot of focus on the off-season.

As much as the 67’s got a lot of production out of the two, they also hold the seventh overall pick in this year’s import draft, and could potentially have to deal one of the two away if they see an opportunity to add another top European.

While Sloboda is getting operated on, Lintuniemi will be getting ready to try and hit the pro ranks.

“I'm pretty excited, hoping to do well in the draft, and just trying to do my best,” said Lintuniemi, who is expected to be a mid-round pick at the NHL draft in June.

“Lintuniemi is very good on D,” added Sloboda.  “He should play in the NHL.  He's big, so he's good for this league.”

Regardless of what happens in the off-season, both young men are hoping for the possibility to be re-united in the Barberpoles next year.

“This team was still too young,” said Sloboda.  “We could be better next year, and the year after next year I think.”

Lintuniemi and Sloboda were a big part of the reason the 67’s stayed in the playoff race at all this season.

All they want now is the opportunity to actually get into the post-season next year. 

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