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Knights take Russian defenseman in 2nd round of NHL draft

Updated July 24, 2021 - 5:59 pm

Sort of like college coaches on signing day, the NHL draft usually ends with clubs gushing about the new players and how high they were rated on their board. This year was no exception.

But after a difficult scouting year culminated Saturday, Golden Knights assistant director of player personnel Bob Lowes sounded almost relieved it was done.

“It really had its trials and tribulations,” Lowes said. “But you know what? We got through it.”

The Knights selected five players on the final day of the draft, highlighted by talented defenseman Daniil Chayka in the second round (No. 38). Center Zach Dean of Gatineau in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was taken in the first round Friday.

The work by the team’s scouting department leading up to the draft was made even more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, with in-person viewings limited and some players forced into playing situations that weren’t always conducive to development.

More significantly, several scouts also contracted COVID-19 while on the road, according to Lowes.

“I think five or six of us all got COVID, and it wasn’t pleasant for a few of us,” Lowes said. “If you want to know how tough it is to be on the road normally, it’s tough when you’re trying to avoid not getting sick. Or if you do get sick, having to spend 14 days in a hotel somewhere, and you’re sick. It’s no fun. We’re really proud of our work this year.”

The 6-foot-3-inch, 187-pound Chayka was projected by some draft analysts to be selected in the first round despite a difficult season in his native Russia playing with CSKA of the Kontinental Hockey League and two lower-level teams.

He played the previous two seasons for Guelph in the Ontario Hockey League after moving to the Toronto area in 2017 at age 14.

In 56 games during the 2019-20 OHL season, he had 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) and averaged 22:29 of ice time.

“I would say I’m a two-way (defenseman), but I’m more of an offensive player,” Chayka said. “The way I played in the OHL, especially my second season there, coach allows me to join the rushes and I feel more confidence. It’s probably the best part of my game is the offensive game.”

Chayka helped Guelph capture the OHL title in 2018-19 and was named to the second all-rookie team. He’s also won gold medals with Russia in several international tournaments, including the 2018 under-17 world championship and the 2019 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup.

The OHL was the only major junior league in Canada to cancel its season entirely after the provincial government didn’t grant approval. Chayka headed back to Russia in order to play and represented his country at the World Junior Championship.

“He has excellent skill to play the game with good pace at his size and a great stick,” Guelph coach George Burnett said. “He’s a winner. He’s won at every level. He won before he came to our program. He won with our program and continued to play well on the international stage.”

The Knights mined Europe for each of their picks Saturday, selecting centers Jakub Brabenec of the Czech Republic (No. 102) and Jakub Demek of Slovakia (No. 128) in the fourth round.

Both players are expected to play major junior in Canada this upcoming season, as is sixth-round pick defenseman Artur Cholach of Ukraine.

Sweden-born goaltender Carl Lindbom, a standout on the international stage despite being undersized, was taken in the seventh round.

“We pride ourselves in the due diligence that we do,” Lowes said. “We believe in how good a person you are is whether you’re going to reach your potential or not. I think we’ve got some real good character kids in this draft.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.