World Juniors offers rare draft spotlight for Latvia

Scott Wheeler2017 Draft Center, Europe, OHL

When NHL Draft hopeful Renars Krastenbergs picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and beat Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Parsons on a move to his backhand for Latvia’s first goal of the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, he put his underdogs on the map.

On his birthday, no less.

The Air Canada Centre burst into chants for Latvia as Krastenbergs tied the game on his team’s second shot, tying the game 1-1 against the powerhouse American group

For Krastenbergs and all but three of his teammates — Rudolfs Balcers, Karlis Cukste (San Jose Sharks), and Martins Dzierkals (Toronto Maple Leafs) — the 2017 World Juniors presents a unique opportunity to shine.

It’s a chance to grab the spotlight from opponents whose draft-eligible prospects are near-locks at the 2017 NHL Draft.

“First game. First goal. It feels good. Everyone is watching right now in Latvia and it’s like 2 a.m. in the morning,” Krastenbergs said after the 6-1 loss to Team USA on Monday.

For Krastenbergs, this is a chance to show scouts he’s a legit NHL prospect.

“It’s a big opportunity for me,” said Krastenbergs, Latvia’s player of the game. “I have to show people what I can do.”

After a four-year absence from the World Juniors while trying to work out of Division I, the Latvians finally won last December’s tournament in Austria, to advance to this year’s main event in Toronto and Montreal from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2017.

As a rookie in the Ontario Hockey League, Krastenbergs has three goals and 10 points in 31 games. And while the Oshawa Generals forward frequently has scouts in the stands for his games in the OHL, many of his teammates aren’t as lucky.

Kristians Rubins, a defensemen for the Medicine Hat Tigers with 13 points in 26 games this year, is the only other Latvian playing in the CHL. Last summer, he was invited to the Winnipeg Jets’ rookie camp.

Another teammate, Eduards Tralmarks, was also invited to an NHL development camp with the Vancouver Canucks. He’s committed to the University of Maine and plays with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League.

Many of the Latvian players have tried to come to North America to find draft success. After being passed up at the 2016 NHL Draft, Erlends Klavins also joined the USHL.

For most of them, a strong showing at the World Juniors can make the difference.

Deniss Smirnovs, in his first year as a draft-eligible, plays in Switzerland’s under-20 junior league, where he has four goals and 14 points in 18 games after posting 68 points in 41 games at the under-17 level last year.

The 2017 draft couldn’t be further from his mind.

Unlike Krastenbergs, Smirnovs is trying to keep his mind off of the selection process, knowing he’s a long shot to be selected.

Instead, the World Juniors represents a different experience.

“I don’t think about the draft,” Smirnovs said. “I’m just trying to work hard for the World Juniors and prepare for the World Under-18 Championships.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve played in the top division and the atmosphere is very good and we’re just enjoying our time playing in Canada.”

But the allure is still there.

And teammates are hoping to catch eyes in North America.

Kristaps Zile, the team’s captain, is already playing in the KHL with Dynamo Riga after posting 12 points in 15 games in the MHL to start the year. Gvido Jansons is one of the top defensemen in the NAHL, a top American junior league, where he has 26 points in 25 games with the Aston Rebels. Next year, he’s bound for Arizona State University.

Valters Apfebaums plays out of Latvia’s top professional league, where he has three points in nine games this season. Last year, he played in Latvia’s second tier professional league, posting 23 points in 19 games.

Together with Dzierkals, the group will guide all of Latvia’s draft-eligible forwards.

“We won the (Division I) tournament last year and we knew this year would be in Toronto and Montreal so it was a big inspiration for us to get here and help get these guys drafted,” Dzierkals said.

“It’s a good tournament because scouts from every NHL team is here and they have to do everything they can because this could be their last chance to show themselves for the NHL teams.”

A run, Dzierkals figures, will help that.

“These 1997s, 98s, 99s…it’s a really, really good year for Latvia and we’re going to go for big things,” he said. “I don’t know about history, but quarterfinals is our goal right now and I feel like we can do it 100 percent.

“For sure.”