The Phoenix Coyotes used the eighth pick on Danish forward Mikkel Boedker, now 19, who is developing into exactly the type of player "The Great One" predicted he would become.
"He'll bring you out of your seat," Gretzky said of Boedker, who was chosen to play in the NHL YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck on Jan. 24 at the Bell Centre in Montreal. "He's fun to watch."
Boedker's world-class speed landed him on the Coyotes' roster after training camp, and his cerebral game has allowed Gretzky to play him in all phases, including close to two minutes per game on the penalty kill.
While Boedker, who had 18 points and a plus-5 rating through 42 games, told NHL.com he's surprised his NHL career has taken flight so quickly, Gretzky never had a doubt.
"He's big, 200 pounds, but the thing about him, playing junior hockey for Pete DeBoer (Kitchener Rangers), you can see that he was taught the game and he doesn't cheat the game defensively," Gretzky said. "Hey, I was 18, and not that I ever developed into Guy Carbonneau in my own zone, but at least I had an awareness to go. At 18 he really understands the game."
Boedker also credits DeBoer, now the Florida Panthers coach, for his rapid development because he played last season with no limitations.
"He gave me the opportunity to do it all, play on the power play and work on my defense on the penalty kill," Boedker said. "I have been lucky that Wayne has been able to teach me well and to adapt me into the NHL style."
It hasn't taken much work on Gretzky's part largely because of Boedker's speed. Phoenix GM Don Maloney told NHL.com he can recall at least six times when Boedker's speed coming back into the zone allowed him to break up an odd man rush.
"He's an elite skater," Maloney added.
While most fans saw Boedker's impressive numbers with Kitchener last season -- 73 points in 62 regular-season games plus another 35 in 20 playoff games -- Gretzky and Maloney saw his play away from the puck and were hooked.
They had to have him because they knew Boedker's awareness, speed, size and considerable skill would allow him to adapt to the NHL game quicker than the other highly touted rookies they had - Kyle Turris, Kevin Porter and Viktor Tikhanov.
The Coyotes are going with a youth movement, and Boedker was their prototype.
"For young players, in order to stay in the League you have to be able to play some defense and then hopefully get enough ice time for your offensive skills to come out," Maloney said. "Mikkel is very good without the puck. And, he's 200 pounds. He's not 170 pounds and we weren't asking, 'Can he physically survive?' "
Boedker tried to deflect any praise, saying "I'm just lucky to have a lot of good teammates and fast teammates that keep a good pace in practice and teach me a lot."
Maybe they should all be thanking him for slowing down.
"His speed is incredible," Coyotes captain Shane Doan told NHL.com. "And he gets to his top speed really fast. I think that is as big a benefit as anything, getting to your top end faster than anyone else."
"Obviously with Teemu, his rookie year (132 points in 84 games) was ridiculous so you don't want to compare him, but no one realizes how thick Teemu is and no one realizes how thick Boeds is," Doan said. "His legs are so thick and heavy."
All the praise aside, Boedker wasn't thinking about playing in the NHL one year ago today, when he was just beginning a hot streak that led the Rangers to Ontario Hockey League championship and the Memorial Cup Final.
He needed convincing.
"His speed is incredible. And he gets to his top speed really fast. I think that is as big a benefit as anything, getting to your top end faster than anyone else." -- Shane Doan on Mikkel Boedker
"I had two real good coaches and they kept telling me that I'm not going to be playing in Kitchener next year," Boedker said. "They believed in me and then I kept believing that I was getting better. After Christmas I really started to get hot sticks out of the bag and my playoffs just exploded. From then I realized that if you have fun and confidence in yourself and do what the coach tells you to do you will end up where you want to be."
"The exciting thing for us is next year and the year after," Maloney said. "I think he has a chance to really be an elite player."
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