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Columbus Blue Jackets fielding calls about 1st-round draft picks @NHLdotcom

COLUMBUS, Ohio - For the first time in their nine NHL drafts, the Columbus Blue Jackets have two first-round picks.

The thing is, they might not keep either one. General manager Scott Howson is hoping to transform one or both of them, along with a player or two, into a first-line centre by way of a trade. The Blue Jackets have nine picks in this weekend's draft, including the sixth and 19th picks in Friday night's opening round.

"It's been pretty busy," Howson said upon his arrival in Ottawa. "There's starting to be more frequency of calls and probably more serious discussions. That will continue on until we get to the draft and maybe even right up until we make our selection at six or 19."

After a hesitation, he corrected himself.

"And-or 19," he said.

Ken Hitchcock, like most of his NHL coaching counterparts, is not attending the draft. He deals with the players he's given; it's the job of the scouting department and front office to get those players through the draft, trades and free-agent signings.

It's no secret the Blue Jackets are desperate for a quality centre or two, not to mention adding a couple of defencemen.

"What we need is sitting right there and the whole world knows it," Hitchcock said. "We have players coming, but they're young. You can't just keep relying on young, young, young. Those are promises down the road. It's now for us, to help those young players who are here right now."

Howson is looking for talent, regardless of where they play on the ice. After this weekend, he'll immerse himself in the list of unrestricted free agents who become available July 1. The Blue Jackets are expected to have as much as US$20 million to spend on free agents.

One player he may pursue is Ryan Malone, a six-foot-four 220-pound winger coming off a career-high 27-goal season who was at his best in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup final.

Despite speculation that the Blue Jackets might toss a draft pick - probably not a first-rounder - at the Penguins for the negotiating rights to Malone up until July 1, Malone said he'll wait to see how things turn out on the open market.

"I don't want any team I go to to give up a possible teammate," Malone told The Columbus Dispatch. "So we will wait."

Howson said he was willing to trade picks or players - about the only ones off limits would be captain Rick Nash and goaltender Pascal Leclaire - to get what he wants.

"We're trying to improve the team immediately, so if those picks can get us some help right away that we think makes sense then we'll go ahead and do that," he said.

No matter what, he won't hesitate to hold onto his draft picks if he isn't bowled over by an offer.

"To get No. 6 away from us is going to take a significant player," he said. "I'm not expecting us to trade 6, but maybe I'll get surprised."

He must replace David Vyborny, who the team is not re-signing and who will most likely return to his native Czech Republic to finish his career. Howson also may not try to re-sign free agents-to-be Michael Peca and Ron Hainsey.

If the Blue Jackets do use one or both of those first-round picks, all signs point to them dipping their toe into the deep pool of defensive talent. The draft is stocked with defencemen who could be on track to playing in the NHL sooner rather than later. Defencemen, like NFL quarterbacks, usually spend years waiting for their chance at the big time. But the experts say that's not the case with this group.

Zach Bogosian, Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo comprise the five best North American skaters available behind consensus No. 1 Steve Stamkos, a point-scoring machine of a centre from Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League. All five are defencemen. Some are huge - Myers is 6-7 and a bamboo-thin 204 pounds - but all get rave reviews from scouts.

"They're the best group in numbers of any class of defencemen in a long, long while," said Columbus director of player personnel Don Boyd. "You just don't see four, five or six defencemen, depending on who's rating what, in the top 10 like you see this year."

Round one at Scotiabank Place is Friday night, with rounds two through seven on Saturday.

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