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British Invasion: Kirk lands invitation to NHL scouting combine

Liam Kirk, who’s up for the 2018 NHL draft and is hoping to become the league’s first born-and-trained player from the United Kingdom, has been asked to attend the annual scouting combine.

It’s doubtful that NHL teams will be breaking out tea and crumpets for their interviews with Liam Kirk in June, but when they do meet with him it will be an experience that is a little out of the ordinary. That’s because Kirk, the 18-year-old draft hopeful who was first introduced to you by THN.com in January, has received an invitation to the annual NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo.

Kirk will be one of about 100 teenagers who will be poked, prodded, tested and interviewed at the combine, which is scheduled for May 27 through June 2. It will be a first, since there has never been a player born and trained in the United Kingdom that has been at the combine. But Kirk, who plays for the Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, earned the invite with his impressive play this season. More than a dozen teams have already sent their European scouts to watch him play this season and plenty more will be on hand at the Division IIA World Under-18 Championship that begins in Estonia on Sunday. He’s already had meetings with representatives from the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and Detroit Red Wings. But having him at the combine will give North American scouts and GMs the opportunity to see and speak with him in person.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Kirk told THN.com in a telephone interview. “I’ve been speaking to a few people, but the chance to speak to more people at once I think will be good for me.”

That represents huge strides for a player most scouts had never heard of until a couple of months ago. In fact, the league’s Central Scouting Bureau put him on what’s known as a limited viewing list because nobody with the service had actually ever seen him play. Now there’s talk he could go somewhere in the fifth or sixth round of the draft. His performance at the World Under-18s will be a determining factor. Kirk is also hoping to be named to Great Britain’s team that will play in the Division I – Group A World Championship from April 22-28 in Budapest. A roster of 28 players has been named with five cuts left to be made.

Playing largely a fourth-line role in a men’s league that is sprinkled with former ECHL and American League players, as well as a number with experience in other European pro leagues, Kirk has been improving all season, getting more ice time and being put in more situations. He finished the regular season with nine goals and 16 points in 52 games and racked up seven goals and 14 points in just five games in the Division IID Under-20 World Championship earlier this season.

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The next step for Kirk is the Canadian Hockey League import draft and there is a lot of interest there as well. A number of teams in the Quebec and Western Leagues have inquired about getting him next season, with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, the top team in the QMJHL, showing particular interest. Kirk is eager to measure himself against the top teenage players in the world next year. At 6-foot- 2 and 160 pounds, he still has a lot of filling out to do, but his coach in Sheffield, Paul Thompson, said the strides he has made in the past three or four months have been encouraging.

BJORGSTROM TO DEBUT TONIGHT
Henrik Bjorgstrom was fully expecting to be still playing hockey in late March, just not in the NHL. But that will become a reality tonight when he makes his big-league debut when the Florida Panthers visit the Ottawa Senators.

Bjorgstrom, the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 draft, figured he would be preparing for his Denver Pioneers to defend their NCAA title at the Frozen Four next weekend, but that came to an abrupt end when they were beaten 5-1 by Ohio State in one of the four regionals last weekend.

Bjorgstrom will instead suit up tonight for the Panthers, a team that is playing for its playoff life and is coming off a demoralizing 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.

“He’s going to get his feet wet a little bit,” said Panthers coach Bob Boughner. “Hopefully we get him into spots where he can succeed, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. I want him to settle in and play his game. From what I hear and what I’ve seen, I think he’s a guy who can help us, maybe inject a little bit of energy and skill into our lineup.”

With 23 goals and 52 points in 40 games this season, Bjorgstrom has no shortage of that. His outstanding season made him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, along with Ryan Donato of Harvard and Adam Gaudette of Northeastern, all of whom are playing in the NHL.