Half-dozen players with California ties selected during 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago
The 2009 California Brick team decided to hold a reunion in late June – it was called the NHL Draft.
Five players from that team – Sasha Chmelevski (Huntington Beach native), Cole Guttman (Los Angeles), Ivan Lodnia (Anaheim), Jake McGrew (Orange) and Jason Robertson (Los Angeles) – heard their names called by NHL teams during the two-day event in Chicago from June 23-24.
And a sixth player with ties to the state – former Los Angeles Jr. Kings standout Kailer Yamamoto – was selected in the first round.
The six players are the most with California ties taken in any year since the draft was instituted in 1963. Five had been taken twice before, in both 2009 and 2011.
The Edmonton Oilers took Yamamoto with the 22nd pick in the first round. The Dallas Stars tabbed Robertson in the second round (39th overall) and the Minnesota Wild used their first pick, one round later, to select Lodnia 85th overall.
In the sixth round, the San Jose Sharks picked McGrew (159th overall) and Chmelevski (185th overall), bookending the Tampa Bay Lightning’s pick of Guttman at No. 180.
The five California natives scattered during and after their Pee Wee years, with Chmelevski, Robertson and Lodnia relocating to Michigan. All three ended up in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
Yamamoto, who is from Spokane, Wash., came to California to play Bantam and Midget hockey before returning home to star for the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs.
Guttman and McGrew, neither of whom garnered much pre-draft attention, played in California through Midgets primarily with LA Hockey and the Jr. Kings before beginning their junior careers this past season. Those two and Lodnia helped form the backbone of a loaded LA Selects team that won the elite division of the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in 2012.
Guttman was not ranked by NHL Central Scouting despite scoring at a point-per-game clip in his first season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. That did nothing to diminish his interest in the draft, however.
“I had spoken to a couple of times, and including Tampa Bay a little bit, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to get picked or not,” the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Guttman said. “I really was watching to see my friends get drafted.
“(When I got the call) I was excited. Jake and I are good buddies and I stay in touch with Ivan. I was really happy when I saw their names pop up. To have so many guys drafted, it’s cool to see how much California hockey is growing. It’s a testament to our parents and coaches.”
Guttman, who will serve as Dubuque’s captain next season, has committed to play NCAA Division I college hockey at St. Cloud State University.
McGrew, a sturdy (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) and strong skater with a scoring touch (a league-best 29 goals in 32 Tier 1 Elite Hockey League games in 2015-16), often rode shotgun on Guttman’s line growing up. Though he’d had some conversations with the Sharks during the season, there was every reason to believe this wouldn’t be his year.
A Spokane teammate of Yamamoto’s, McGrew blew a knee out during the first practice of the regular season after a collision with a goaltender.
“I played six preseason games, and the Sharks only saw me once or twice,” said McGrew, who recently resumed on-ice workouts. “I wasn’t even watching the draft. I got up at 6 a.m. that morning, went to the Lake Forest rink, got on the ice and tried not to pay any attention to it. I was on the ice when I got a call and started getting text messages and tweets saying I’m going to San Jose.
“Even though my agent said (the Sharks) had talked to him, I thought, ‘Wow, it happened.”
McGrew had a front-row seat for Yamamoto’s exploits this season, and he said it is a mistake for people to solely focus on his teammate’s lack of stature (5-foor-8, 153 pounds) and bushel of skill (99 points, including 42 goals were sixth in the WHL).
“He is hard to play against,” said McGrew, who as a Jr. Duck played against Yamamoto for one season. “Not only is he fast and crafty, not afraid to expose you with the puck, but he’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas. He works his butt off every shift.
“Everyone thinks he just plays a finesse game, but he can also play a gritty game and get pucks deep. And he can turn away from you on a dime.”
Yamamoto reinforced the have-no-fear mantra in an interview with NHL.com saying, “I think the biggest thing is that you can’t have fear in your game. You have to have that confidence, and if you don’t have that confidence, it’s not going to go well for you.”
Robertson is on the opposite end of the size continuum. At 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds, the former Jr. King is one of just nine players in OHL history taller than six feet to score 40 or more goals, a group that includes Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and the Ducks’ Corey Perry.
The Kingston Frontenacs forward told the Stars’ official website that his emergence this past season (he went from 18 goals to 42) was tied to an increase in confidence.
“It became significantly higher,” Robertson said. “I knew the (Frontenacs) coaching staff had my back and would always push me to be a better player.”
Lodnia, McGrew and Chmelevski learned the game close to home – very close to home – at Anaheim’s KHS Ice Arena, which Lodnia’ father, Konstantin, owns. Konstantin Lodnia immigrated to America after a hip injury ended his hockey career in Russia. His determination and work ethic are attributes scouts often use to describe Vanya.
“He’s the reason I’m sitting here talking to you,” Ivan said at the draft. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The 5-foot-10, 181-pound Lodnia had 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 66 games for a stacked Erie (OHL) team. The Wild believes his upside is immense.
“He is an extremely skilled kid,” said Brent Flahr, Minnesota’s senior VP of hockey operations. “He played on an Erie team that was deep. Next year, he’s going to put up significantly higher numbers.”
Chmelevski teamed with Lodnia on Team USA’s Ivan Hlinka Tournament entry in 2016 and led the Americans to silver with nine points in four games. He kept scoring with Ottawa of the OHL, posting 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) in 58 games.
He balanced that with a strong focus on academics, winning the Bobby Smith Trophy, awarded to the OHL Scholastic Player of the Year.
“I’m a skilled forward who likes to make plays on both sides of the ice,” he told the Sharks’ official website. “I like to get my teammates involved.
“You want to keep working hard and let your skill take you there.”
He summed up the sextet’s sentiments perfectly.
“You can’t really describe it when you put the jersey on,” Chmelevski said. “You just think about everything you’ve done the last 15 years of your life, how you’ve put everything aside. You couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Photos (except Guttman)/Matt Mackinder
— Chris Bayee