Cats add potent Popugaev to lineup

The Prince George Cougars have pulled off another blockbuster trade.
On Thursday they acquired 18-year-old Russian import forward Nikita Popugaev, a potential first-round NHL draft pick, from the Moose Jaw Warriors for 18-year-old Russian forward Yan Khomenko, 17-year-old forward Justin Almeida, a second-round pick in the 2018 WHL bantam draft and a fifth-rounder in 2017.
“We’ve added a player to our lineup that can be an offensive game-changer for us,” said Cougars general manager Todd Harkins. “Nikita is one of the most skilled and dominant offensive players in the Western Hockey League and he’s got a tremendously bright future in the game. He makes us better in all areas and he will play a big part in our success not only this year, but next season as well.
"We like big bodies that can skate and play a hard game and he has a nose for the net."
The six-foot-six, 203-pound Popugaev had 22 goals and 29 assists with 14 penalty minutes and a plus-three ranking in 40 games this season for Moose Jaw. With 51 points, he's tied for ninth in the WHL scoring race. Now in his second WHL season, the native of Moscow has 38 goals, 60 assists and 98 points in 110 regular-season games with the Warriors. He had 47 points in his rookie season and also scored two goals and two assists in six playoff games.
Popugaev is considered an A-prospect by NHL Central Scouting. He played for Russia in November in the CHL Canada Russia Series and has been picked for Team Orr in the CHL Top Prospects Game in Quebec City, Jan. 30. The Warriors picked him 22nd overall in the 2015 CHL import draft. Popugaev's father Andrei played professionally in Russia with Moscow Dynamo and Moscow Spartak.
Harkins cooked up the trade last week in Calgary while watching the Mac's Midget Tournament, where he met Warriors GM Alan Millar for the first time. Popugaev shoots right and that fills a need a for the Cougars, who have just two other right-handed shooting forwards.
"We coveted a right-hand shot because (Kody) McDonald and (Josh) Curtis are the only two in our forward group," said Harkins. "Not having that right-hand shot hurt our power play at times so he bring instant credibility to our power play."
Popugaev received consideration for Russia's world junior team this year and will almost certainly be a candidate for next year's tournament in Buffalo. If he is selected as a first-round NHL pick this summer and does not return to the Cougars, the team will be allowed to pick another player in the import draft while keeping Popugaev on the protected list as a third import until it becomes known whether he would stay in the NHL.
With the trade deadline approaching on Tuesday, the Cougars have made it obvious they are loading up for an extended playoff run this year and are willing to mortgage their future to get that far by parting with Almeida, their first-round bantam pick in 2014.
“Both Yan Khomenko and Justin Almeida have been great soldiers for us this season and I know that both are going to step in and be impact players for the Moose Jaw Warriors," said Harkins. "But when the opportunity came up to add a player like Nikita Popugaev to the Prince George Cougars organization we couldn’t afford not to make this deal."
Khomenko, a six-foot-one, 175-pound native of St. Petersburg, was added to the Cougars' roster in September after being released from the Everett Silvertips. In 36 games for the Cougars he collected 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points and had a plus-11 ranking, with 12 penalty minutes. The Cougars picked Khomenko up once it became apparent Axel Jonsson-Fjallby , their top puck in the 2016 CHL import draft, wanted to play professionally in his native Sweden. Because of the rule which limits each WHL team to just two designated imports, Harkins was forced to give up Khomenko to make room for Popugaev. Bartek Bison, the Cougars' other import, is on the injured reserve list.
Almeida, a former Cariboo Cougar midget who played for Team B.C. in the Canada Winter Games in 2015 in Prince George, totaled four goals and nine assists with a minus-nine rating in 36 games this season for the Cougars. The five-foot-10, 162-pound native of Kitimat was the fifth overall pick in the 2014 bantam draft.
"I was very lucky to pull a rabbit out of the hat with Yan Khomenko, to me he's found money, he's been great, and he's part of where we're at, no question," said Harkins. "Justin was a top pick for us in my year as a head scout and he's coming along nicely and his transition to becoming a great hockey player is coming, we all know it, but our time is now and we had to make a deal. Justin was the cornerstone of the deal, they wanted him because if the future he holds in our league.'
Popugaev is the second high-profile player the Cougars have acquired in a trade this season. On Nov. 17, they picked up 19-year-old defenceman Brendan Guhle in a trade from the Prince Albert Raiders for 17-year-old defenceman Max Martin, 18-year-old winger Kolby Johnson, a first-round bantam pick in 2018 and a third-rounder in 2019.
Popugaev is expected to be in the lineup Friday at CN Centre when the Cougars play the Victoria Royals in the first of a two-game set.
In other WHL trades, the Kamloops Blazers upgraded their offence Thursday when they picked up 20-year-old forward Lane Bauer (25-15-40) and a seventh-round bantam pick in 2017 from the Edmonton Oil Kings for 17-year-old defenceman Conner McDonald, a second-round pick in 2017 and a first-rounder in 2018. On Wednesday the Oil Kings sent their top-scoring defenceman, 20-year-old Aaron Irving (14-29-43) to Everett for 20-year-old winger Graham Millar, 16-year-old centre Brett Kemp and the Silvertips' first-round pick in 2018.
The trade deadline arrives at noon next Tuesday.

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