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For Cherepanov, Esposito, the waiting is the hardest part

by Shawn P. Roarke | Senior Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
Forward Alexei Cherepanov had to sweat it out for a time until he was selected 17th overall by the New York Rangers.

For Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito, two of the most talked about prospects entering the 2007 Entry Draft, the waiting truly was the hardest part Friday night as the first round of the draft unfolded at Nationwide Arena.

Cherepanov, the top-rated European skater in the final rankings by NHL Central Scouting, lasted until No. 17, selected by the New York Rangers. That was at least 10 spots lower than the Russian expected to go.

Esposito, meanwhile, was ranked No. 8 among North American skaters by Central Scouting in its final rankings. He had been ranked No. 1 overall in the mid-term rankings released by CSS back in January. Yet, the Quebec Rempart center fell to No. 20, gobbled up by a very relieved Pittsburgh Penguins club.

“It was long; it was a long wait,” Esposito admitted.

For Cherepanov, the wait also proved almost interminable. In his heart of hearts, the young Russian expected to be among the first three players selected Friday night. So, to see 16 players -- including five North Americans ranked No. 20 or higher by Central Scouting – selected was a painful experience for this proud Russian.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Cherepanov said through translator Ilya Moliver. “But I am not regretting anything because New York is a great place to go.”

In fact, Cherepanov was hoping he would go to the Rangers, but he believed that could only happen if the club made a trade to move up in the draft. He was shocked, and a little dismayed, that the Rangers were able to get him at their original slot at No. 17.

Cherepanov, known as “The Siberian Express” because of his skating and goal-scoring ability in his native Russia, said he struggled at times Friday night to comprehend his plight, but the fact that he could end up in Manhattan – “the center of the United States” is what he called it -- kept the wait bearable.

“I had people nearby supporting me, so it was OK,” said Cherepanov, who scored 18 goals with Omsk in the Russian Super League this past season, breaking the Russian rookie record previously held by the legendary Pavel Bure.

So, how does a player who compares favorably with present-day Russian NHL stars like Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin -- Cherepanov had more points in his first Russian Super League season than either of those players -- fall so far, so fast?

Nobody has the definitive answer. Clearly, the fact that Cherepanov has two more years remaining on his current deal played into the hesitation expressed by some clubs. Also, the fact that the NHL has yet to formulate a clear-cut transfer agreement with the Russian Hockey Federation did not help matters.

But whatever the reasons, Gordie Clark, the head amateur scout for the Rangers, was thrilled beyond belief to see Cherepanov still available when it came his team’s turn to pick.

“As a group, we had him going way before this,” Clark said. “The guy has got incredible skill.”

So does Esposito, who helped lead the Remparts to a Memorial Cup last season. But it seems some second-half struggles this season for a rebuilding Quebec team dramatically hurt his standing with many NHL scouts. Still, Esposito is among the most skilled players in this year’s draft and he did manage 79 points in 60 games this season. Plus, let’s not forget that he was considered the top North American prospect just six months ago.

Center Angelo Esposito was projected as a top
ten pick, but lasted until he was selected 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Again, how could he slip to No. 20 and be the 10th forward selected Friday night?

“No idea,” Esposito said with a shrug of his shoulders. “It’s over now and I’m looking to the future. We are going to take it day by day and like I said, I couldn’t be any happier to be with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now.”

The lure of soon playing with young superstars like Sidney Crosby, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner and League MVP, and Malkin, the reigning Rookie of the Year, did much to alleviate the suffering Esposito endured during his two long hours in draft purgatory.

“Obviously, once your name gets called and to see who it gets called up by, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a team I would love to play on," he said. "I’m happy I am here. Once they called my name, I forgot about everything else.

“I can’t tell you what was going on in my head the 20 picks before that because I am so happy right now.”

Esposito and Cherepanov were not the only players to fall far deeper in the draft than expected Friday night, just the highest-profile ones. But the dynamic duo did have some company in being disappointed.

Keaton Ellerby was the top-ranked North American defenseman, but he fell to No. 10, selected by Florida after two other lower-ranked defenseman – Karl Alzner and Thomas Hickey – had been chosen. Sweden’s Mikael Backlund, the second-rated European forward, did not go until Calgary selected him at No. 24. Finally, Lewiston’s David Perron -- ranked No. 10 among North American skaters -- was selected by St. Louis at No. 26.

Each of those players were also happy – and a little relieved – Friday night when their names were announced from the podium at Nationwide Arena.

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