By Jason Lockhart
The 2006 NHL Entry Draft may have been held in Vancouver, British Columbia, but it was Uncle Sam's future NHL stars that stole the show on Saturday.
A record-setting ten Americans were chosen in the first round, including the Islanders' first-round pick, right winger Kyle Okposo. It topped last year's record of eight.
Neil Smith and Co. used six of their 13 picks to select Americans. This is the first time in 17 years that the Islanders have chosen so many Americans in a draft. In 1989 the Islanders also chose six players from the United States.
"I'm not sure if it's a trend or not," said Islanders scout Doug Gibson. "The key when you're at the draft table is to pick the best players and competitors, regardless of where they are from. That said, yes, we are very happy with the players from the States that we were able to select."
Along with Okposo, the Islanders selected American-born right winger Rhett Rakhshani (Orange, CA), center Doug Rogers (Watertown, MA), defenseman Shane Sims (East Amherst, NY), right winger Brian Day (Boston, MA) and left winger Troy Mattila (Rockford, IL).
American-born prospects are on the rise and collegiate hockey continues to be the staging ground for developing future NHLers. Each year American and Canadian NHL hopefuls flock to US universities.
Six of the Islanders' 2006 draft choices will attend an American university in either the fall of 2006 or 2007, including Okposo (Minnesota), Rakhshani (Denver), Rogers (Harvard), Sims (Ohio State in 2007) and Day (Colgate in 2007). The sixth, goalie Jase Weslosky hails from St. Albert, Alberta, but will attend St. Cloud State in Minnesota in the fall of 2007.
American universities have become popular for Canadian players because it gives them an opportunity to pursue an education while playing highly competitive hockey. But college hockey teams are still dominated by American players, many hoping to pursue a future in the NHL.
At Minnesota, Okposo will get a chance to play alongside 2006 first-round picks Erik Johnson and Phil Kessel if they don't sign with the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, respectively and compete for an NCAA National Championship. The other American Islanders selections will also be playing on competitive teams next season or in 2007. Denver won back-to-back National Championships in 2004 and 2005 while Harvard, Ohio State and Colgate have all reached the 16-team NCAA tournament in recent years.
Some draft picks will stay at college for four years before turning pro, but some may forego their final two or three years if an NHL organization feels they are ready to make the next step to the NHL or its minor league affiliates.
One example is Rick DiPietro, who played one season for Boston University in 1999-2000, earning Hockey East Rookie of the Year honors before signing with the Islanders. Other players like Jason Blake, Shawn Bates, Garth Snow and Mike York each played four years at the collegiate level before turning pro. Both paths to the NHL can be effective.
As Americans continue to play a significant role on NHL teams, the trend towards drafting American-born players and developing future NHLers at US universities should endure.
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