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Deep Draft Promises Lots of Impact Players

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

The first few picks of most drafts don’t offer many surprises.

This year should be no different. John Tavares, Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene are expected to come off the board quickly.

    Then, the fun begins.

    The scouting combine and intensive study of mostly 17- and 18-year olds around the world for a long period of time tend to form diverse opinions among the teams and scouting services. When Lightning Executive Vice President and GM Brian Lawton was picked No. 1 by the Minnesota North Stars in 1983, the process was nowhere near the same.

   “It’s a different set of standards now,” Lawton said. “Everybody’s trying to get that edge. Any information we can find about these guys just adds to the file.”

    Everyone is hoping this year can produce what the 2003 draft did after the top three of Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton.

    Teams will looking to get another Thomas Vanek at No. 6, Dion Phaneuf at 9, Jeff Carter at 11, Dustin Brown at 13, and Brent Seabrook at 14. How about Zach Parise at No. 17, Ryan Getzlaf at 19, Brent Burns at 20, Ryan Kesler at 23, Mike Richards at 24 and Corey Perry at 28?

     It didn’t stop there. Loui Eriksson was picked 33rd, the Lightning’s Matt Smaby 41st, Patrice Bergeron 45th, Shea Weber 49th, Patrick O’Sullivan 56th and David Backes 62nd. In all, 13 players from the first two rounds of the 2003 draft have scored 192 points or more, equaling the total of the 2001 and 02 drafts combined.

   It will be hard to top that talent pool, but this year’s crop has most GMs excited. Making the right choices can change the course of their team. Which of the large group of offensive defensemen available in the middle to late first round could turn into the next Mike Green (29th in 2004) or Andrej Meszaros (23rd in 2004)? Which of the high school players are legit? Are we taking a chance on an injured player? Will there be a record number of Swedes picked in the first round? Which of the power forwards can make an impact, like a Milan Lucic (50th in 2006)?

    After Tavares and Duchene at forward, Evander Kane and Brayden Sche nn, the younger brother of Leafs’ defenseman Luke Schenn, are rated as the top two scoring forwards by most. Both played well for the Team Canada, winning the World Juniors gold in January.

     “Kane has got a lot of grit and skill,” said E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting. “He can be both a scorer and playmaker.

     “[Schenn] is a bull in a china shop, but he can also be creative.”

      Scott Glennie, Schenn’s teammate with Brandon of the Western Hockey League, could go in the top 12 as well. Glennie and Schenn combined for 158 points last season and Glennie missed about 15 games with an injury.

     Winger Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson could be the second pick from Sweden after Hedman.

 “[Svensson] has great outside speed and he is 6-1, 200,” McGuire said.

     Forwards Jacob Josefson, Marcus Johansson and defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Rundblad and Tim Erixon are also rated as possible first-rounders from Sweden.

      Speedy forwards Nazem Kadri, a teammate of Tavares with London of the Ontario League, and University of Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 180-pound Jordan Schroeder are expected to go in the middle of the first round.

   “You can make the Marty St. Louis comparisons for [Schoeder],” McGuire said. “He played against older players as a freshman this season and he measured up.”

    Ray Ferraro’s son Landon Ferraro, a goal-scoring forward like dad, could also go in the first 30 picks, and Louis Leblanc, a point-a-game center in the USHL last season, is rated 10th overall by Red Line.

    McGuire said Zack Kassian, at 6-foot-3, 205 with a mean edge, fits the mold of a power forward well and should go in the middle of the first. Carter Ashton, son of former NHLer Brent Ashton also falls into that category and 6-2, 190-pound, center Peter Holland could be another mid-first round selection.

     An interesting player to watch is Chris Kreider, a forward from Andover Academy prep school in Massachusetts. Many have called him the best skater in the draft at 6-2, 200. Another is Zach Budish, a massive 6-3, 215-pound center from Edina (Minn.) High who suffered a major knee injury. He is headed to the University of Minnesota. Then there is Minnesota High School player of the year Ben Hanowski, a forward who became the state’s all-time scoring leader this season.

    There won’t be four defensemen picked in the top five like last year, but it is possible this year could match the 2008 total of 12 in the first round.

    Jared Cowen, at 6-5, 218, wowed everyone during the 2007-08 junior season with his performance for Spokane on the way to a Memorial Cup. But a serious knee injury in February ended his season. McGuire said the injury hurt his rating, but his potential is very high.

    “He is more agile than Zdeno Chara was at this age,” McGuire said.

    Simon Despres, at 6-4, 214, fits the defensive defenseman role along with Cowen and could go in the top 20, but many of the rest of the rearguards expected to go in t he first round have strong offensive ability.

   Many experts rate Swedes Ekman-Larsson and Rundblad, along with John Moore, Russian Dmitri Kulikov and Ryan Ellis as the top five offensive-minded defensemen.

    There are differing opinions on Rundblad. He is rated 10th overall by The Hockey News, 22nd overall by the International Scouting Service and sixth among just European skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Ekman-Larsson did not make Sweden’s team for the World Juniors last winter, but his stock continues to rise.

    Kulikov helped lead Drummondville to the Quebec Junior League title with more than a point a game, Moore (from Illinois) has been called the best skater among defensemen in the draft and Ellis led Windsor to the Memorial Cup after playing well at the World Juniors for Canada. He is smallish (5-10, 173), but is a power-play whiz with a rocket shot.

    “[Ellis] was a late addition to the Canadian Junior team,” McGuire said. “He ended up taking a regular shift.”

    Later in the first round and early second, more solid defensemen may be picked such as Minnesota high school product Nick Leddy, improving Stefan Elliott and Charles-Olivier Roussel, nifty skater Calvin da Haan and the steady Erixon.

    The U.S. Under-18 national team program will also produce plenty of draft picks, most likely led by forwards Kyle Palmieri, Jeremy Morin and Drew Shore.

    Goalies? Most think it would a surprise if one is picked in the first round.

    Any of a half dozen could be the first to go, including small, quick Olivier Roy, 6-2, 216-pound Edward Pasquale and 21-year old Mikko Koskinen (6 foot 7) from Finland.

    The Lightning are one of seven teams who own two second-round picks. The Islanders have three. Lawton said there will be plenty of solid players to choose from.

    “I’m excited about our 32nd and 52nd picks,” Lawton said about finding impact players in the second round. “We need to raise the draft expectation level for the Lightning and we’ve been doing that as a staff. We should be able to do well with our second round picks in this draft. Our long-term success is going to be predicated on how we do in [the second and third rounds].”

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