When the St. Louis Blues drafted Keean Washkurak in the fifth round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, anyone outside of his circle of family and friends likely met the news with a shoulder shrug. By the time you get that deep into a draft, it is likely years before you’d see them in the NHL, if ever.
Washkurak didn’t have the size to wow anyone. He was not known as a blazer or an ice melter when it came to speed.
He was mainly just a solid player who had a reasonably good junior career. History is filled with names of guys who end up on the side of the highway like debris in a ditch because they had a good junior career and not much after that.
However, the interesting thing about Washkurak was his decision to play in Europe. It may prove to be one of the best decisions he’s made.
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Not wanting to sacrifice a year of development, both physically and mentally, Washkurak signed with HK Levice of the Slovakian league once it became clear there as almost no shot of any full season in any Canadian leagues. Even the AHL season was going to be very short and he had not yet received any indication he might play there.
Washkurak essentially bet on himself, going to a completely foreign country to showcase his own talents for those back home. We always talk about the culture shock of Russians, etc., coming to America or Canada, but it has to be equal going the other way, being as Slovakia is an Eastern European nation and shares cultural similarities to Russia.
Washkurak did not get a full season in Europe, but he played in 21 games and provided 19 points, almost hitting that point per game status. He did not register a point in four playoff games, but the experience was invaluable.
As pointed out by Pro Hockey Rumors, Washkurak lived up to his scouting report by playing bigger than his size (5’10). He led the league with 110 regular season penalty minutes and also chipped in another 26 in the playoffs, proving he would not back down to the older players.
That kind of physicality in a smaller player shouldn’t come as a surprise to Blues fans. Sammy Blais came into the franchise as an offensive talent, but turned himself into a human missile to retain a spot in the NHL. If Washkurak already has that mentality as a 19-year old, he’s ahead of the game.
That may have been the benefit of playing in Europe. While nothing compares to the talent level in the NHL, playing high-level professional hockey anywhere is almost never a negative.
Having played a year professionally already, Washkurak can now only worry about learning the Blues system, or whatever differences there are between the Blues and the Springfield Falcons of the AHL. He won’t have that typical learning curve of playing with fully developed adults.
Nothing is a given and Washkurak will still need to earn his roster spot in the AHL. But, given his experience in Slovakia and three tryout games with the Blues temporary affiliate, the Utica Comets, Washkurak is off to a good start.
Perhaps the pandemic forced his hand and he had nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, playing in Europe might have fast-tracked his development and put him ahead of players in his age bracket that might have been drafted higher.