While many future NHL first-round selections have used the World Junior A Challenge as a showcase of their skills – think Kyle Turris, Nikita Filatov and Jaden Schwartz – for others it has been a proving grounds of sorts.
“Oh, absolutely," said Stu MacGregor, head scout for the Edmonton Oilers, when asked if the tournament can determine whether or not a player is drafted. “A number of players from the World Junior A Challenge end up being drafted based in part on how they perform at the tournament. It is such a good opportunity for the NHL to see those players play and get to see them in a highly-competitive environment.”
Kellen Jones is just such a player. Drafted 202nd overall by the Oilers after winning a pair of RBC Cup championships with the BCHL's Vernon Vipers and earning an NCAA scholarship to Quinnipiac University, Kellen joined with his twin brother Connor and Cody Kunyk (the 2009-10 Canadian Junior Hockey League player of the year) to form one of the most lethal trios in World Junior A Challenge history last year in Summerside; the line combined for 26 points in five games to help Canada West to a silver medal, turning the heads of the 150+ scouts in attendance.
“(Kellen) and his brother Connor, in my mind, took over that tournament and were dominant factors and certainly drew our attention and interest,” said MacGregor. “I can guarantee it will be well covered by the scouts this year in Penticton.”
Even though the Jones’ couldn’t lead Canada West to gold, an impression was left with the Oilers. Kellen said the NHL club was planning to come watch him play for the Vipers, but bad luck hit and the left winger ended up with a broken jaw, keeping him on the sidelines.
Jones returned in time to help the Vipers become the first team in 20 years to defend its National Junior A Championship in early May, before getting his summer started off on the right foot.
Believing the NHL Entry Draft was a one-day affair, Jones took to the pitching mound on June 26 with the goings-on in Los Angeles far from his mind. Glancing at his phone while in the dugout, he noticed a plethora of missed calls, texts and messages noting he had been the 202nd overall pick.
“I looked at one and saw I had been drafted to Edmonton ... I went to their development camp in July and got to stay in the Oilers’ dressing room. I had never even been to an NHL rink before. As my dad said, that might as well be my first time,” laughed Kellen.
One year before Jones’ breakout in Summerside, Mike Cichy had been struggling to find wins and points with his club team, the USHL’s Tri-CIty Storm, but still earned the call to represent his country for the second year in a row, this time in Camrose, Alta.
“My team had been losing a lot, it was a rough situation for all us,” Cichy admitted.
The World Junior A Challenge was an opportunity for the centre to turn his luck around. A morale-boosting victory over Canada East carried over into a four-point night and player of the game honours in a 8-2 victory over Russia. Cichy went on to help the U.S. defeat Canada West 7-1 for the gold medal and capped off his coming-out party with MVP honours and a spot on the tournament all-star team.
“It was huge for me,” Cichy said. “I wasn't on the radar of any NHL team and I think playing the way I did put me on the map. Scouts started calling, my agent was talking to me more about getting drafted. I think it boosted my stock.”
Still, the humble hockey player didn't think he was in any NHL team’s plans. While at a religious outing and about to offer support to a friend who was nervous about giving a speech, a call came.
“I told my friend I would be there for him because he was so nervous and as he walked away the phone rang and my advisor told me I had been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. It is a memory I will cherish forever,” said Cichy, who was picked 199th overall by the Habs.