The Hurricanes scored big earlier in the day when they nabbed highly-rated Russian defenseman Igor Knyazev with the 15th overall pick. General Manager Jim Rutherford looks for the 18-year old blue-liner to possibly see National Hockey League action in 2001-02.
“He was one of a couple of guys we wanted at that pick,” said Rutherford. “It was a matter of whether it was a forward or a defenseman. We decided to take the defenseman. If we sign this player in the immediate future he has an outside chance to step in and play for our team immediately.”
The forward Carolina eyed as their first pick went to Calgary whose draft position was one higher than the Hurricanes’.
“The forward that we had interest in but we didn’t have to make a decision on was (Chuck) Kobasew,” said Rutherford. “He went one pick ahead of us. It was a matter of whether we were going to take a defenseman or a forward. We were still talking about it - which way we were going to go. The fact that we got one of the two, we were real pleased with that, but we did like both players.”
Knyazev registered 11 points (6g, 5a) in 53 games last season with Spartak at the Russian junior level. Scouts liked his hard-nosed style calling him an “old-time Russian defenseman.”
“He’s a real reliable guy with really good character,” said Rutherford. “He’s very mature.”
Knyazev is the first Russian player that the Hurricanes have taken in the first round. Recent first round picks include American-born defenseman David Tanabe (1999) and Canadian right-wing Jeff Heerema (1998). In 1995 the then-Hartford Whalers traded their 1995, 1996 and 1997 first round picks to Boston for defenseman Glen Wesley. The Hurricanes drafted American defenseman Nikos Tselios with a 1997 first round pick acquired in the Brendan Shanahan trade with Detroit.
Despite the “first” for the Hurricanes organization, Rutherford noted that the team does not look so much at a player’s nationality but rather his ability.
“We don’t have a set criteria of where players are from whether their college, junior or Europeans,” said Rutherford. “We take who we think is the best player available at the time. It doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
Knyazev does not speak English, a small stumbling block that Rutherford believes the team can work around if Knyazev makes the Hurricanes squad for 2001-02.
“It’s a little bit of a stumbling block if he were to play in Carolina this year,” said Rutherford. “I don’t think (Carolina coach) Paul (Maurice) knows Russian. So, we’re either going to have to send Paul to school this summer to learn Russian or Knyazev’s going to have to get to school to learn English.
Carolina centerman Josef Vasicek learned English during his two developmental seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. Rutherford thinks Knyazev may follow a similar path if he does not join the Hurricanes for 2001-02.
“If he takes a natural road where he plays in Lowell or plays junior hockey in Canada then that will give him the opportunity not just to develop his skills, but to learn English,” said Rutherford.
The Hurricanes need not worry about their second round selection learning the language. Carolina selected Michael Zigomanis of the Kingston Frontenacs with the 45th overall pick. Zigomanis was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres at the 1999 draft but re-entered the draft this year after not signing a contract with the Sabres.
“It’s a little disappointing being there two years with the (Buffalo) organization and sort of making it a dream to play there,” said Zigomanis. “But, that’s in the past and I’m looking forward to becoming a Hurricane.”
Zigomanis led the Frontenacs with 77 points (40g, 37a) in 52 games in 2000-01. Scouts and Zigomanis himself think his game has improved since the Sabres took him 64th in 1999.
“I’m extremely happy to have been picked higher,” said Zigomanis. “A lot of players that go back don’t get picked as high. I’m extremely happy and excited to be with Carolina.
“I’ve improved a lot in the last couple of years. I’ve worked on a lot of things that I’ve needed improvement on. I’ve played in Kingston for the last four years, I’ve played under-17 and under 18 world juniors and won two gold medals and a bronze medal with the junior team this year. I feel I’m ready to step in and make an impact.”
Rutherford shared Zigomanis’ feelings regarding his future in the NHL.
“Certainly Mike has the potential and skill level to be one of those top three center-ice men in the next couple of years,” said Rutherford.
With their third round selection of Estrada the Hurricanes added depth in their system at both the forward and defensive positions on the first day of the 2001 draft.
“I’m extremely happy,” said Rutherford. “Going into the draft, we wanted to get another defenseman. To get Knyazev - he’s good, solid player and, with an outside chance, could play this year. And to then take Zigomanis in the second round he’s developed, he’s coming out of junior, he’s going to play pro this year. We have to get him signed, obviously. To have that extra depth at center ice with Ronnie (Francis) where he is in his career and things I think he was a real good pick for us.”
Rutherford looks to pick a strong goaltender in tomorrow’s rounds to add depth behind Arturs Irbe between the pipes.
“We have a pretty good list of goalies - about ten in a row - my guess is that one of them will still be there in the fifth round but will it be the guy that we really wanted?” said Rutherford. “That’s a chance you have to take.”
Carolina Hurricanes Website Reporter Kyle S. Hanlin can be reached at email@example.com.