The arms race is officially on in the WHL’s BC Division.
The Prince George Cougars have acquired 18-year-old Russian forward Nikita Popugaev from the Moose Jaw Warriors in exchange 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 round pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
The Cougars and Warriors announced the deal Thursday afternoon, mere hours after the Kamloops Blazers had announced the acquisition of 20-year-old forward Lane Bauer from the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“We’ve added a player to our lineup that can be an offensive game-changer for us,” said Todd Harkins, general manager of the Cougars, in a team release. “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.”
Popugaev, a 6-foot-6, 203-pound product of Moscow, is enjoying a career season, having stacked up 51 points (22G-29A) in 40 games. Originally a first round pick (23rd) of the Warriors at the 2015 CHL Import Draft, the big Russian has collected 98 points (38G-60A) in 110 career WHL regular season games. In six post-season contests with the Warriors during the spring of 2016, he managed four points (2G-2A) in six games.
Popugaev also represented Team Russia at the 2016 CIBC Canada Russia Series, gathering one assist in two games. Next, he will take to the ice for the 2017 Sherwin-Williams CHL NHL Top Prospects Game, slated for Jan. 30 in Quebec City.
With his massive frame and nose for the net, Popugaev was listed as an ‘A’ prospect by NHL Central Scouting in its Preliminary Players to Watch list and could very well hear his named called in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft this summer in Chicago.
In Prince George, Popugaev joins the likes of Jansen Harkins, Jesse Gabrielle, Brad Morrison, and Brendan Guhle, who was acquired by the Cougars in a November blockbuster with the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Cougars have controlled the BC Division since the early onset of the season, and remain atop it with a record of 27-10-2-0 (56 points). That being said, the Blazers are hot on the heels of their northern rival, sitting in second place with a record of 24-15-1-1 (50 points) and having just added Bauer, pose a very real threat heading down the stretch.
As for the Warriors, they bring in another import enjoying a career year.
Khomenko, a 6-foot-1, 176-pound product of St. Petersburg, has notched 20 points (10G-10A) in 36 games with the Cougars. Over two WHL seasons, the Russian right winger has 28 points (15G-13A) to his credit through 82 games. He was originally a second round pick (115th) of the Everett Silvertips at the 2015 CHL Import Draft.
In addition to Khomenko, the Warriors receive the 5-foot-10, 162-pound Almeida.
A product of Kitimat, B.C., and former first round pick (fifth) of the Cougars at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, the shifty forward is in his second full WHL season, having secured 13 points (4G-9A) in 37 games. Over 87 career WHL regular season games, Almeida has managed 19 points (6G-13A).
Prior to graduating to the WHL ranks, the Northern BC native found offensive success with the Cariboo Cougars of the BC Major Midget League, tallying 47 points (22G-25A) in 35 games during the 2014-15 season.
“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,” Harkins said. “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. We’re thrilled to have Nikita join the Prince George Cougars.”
Popugaev is expected to join the Cougars in time to make his debut Friday when the Victoria Royals visit Prince George.
The Warriors return to action Friday when they welcome the Saskatoon Blades to Moose Jaw.