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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Kyle Woodlief and his Red Line Report scouting staff scour the globe to follow hockey’s top amateur talent.

That’s how Woodlief knows the Pittsburgh Penguins will wind up with at least one terrific talent at Saturday’s NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver. The Penguins own the second-overall pick in the draft, which will be televised at 6 p.m. on OLN in the United States.

While Woodlief, the Chief Scout and Publisher of Red Line Report, believes the overall draft field is thin for 2006, he knows the top group of prospects is solid and expects the Penguins to come away happy with their selections.

“The top half of the first round is as deep and good talent as most any draft year. After that, it gets thin and sketchy,” said Woodlief, a former Nashville Predators scout. “If you’re drafting in the first half of the first round, you should get a real good player unless you make some sort of mistake. If you’re drafting in the back end of the first round, it’s a hit or miss proposition. I don’t think, in general, this year’s draft has as much depth going down into the second and third rounds.”

Woodlief is high on the top prospects like Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Jonathan Toews and Jordan Staal. Yet, he cautions that there are no players who will take the NHL by storm like 2004 first-overall pick Alexander Ovechkin or 2005 first-overall selection Sidney Crosby.

“That top-end group may not be as sexy because the top-end pick this year is a kid like Johnson. People look at the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the world from 2004 and 2005 and say, ‘Wow those were such fabulous picks. It’s too bad we didn’t have the first-overall pick that year,’” said Woodlief, who also writes columns for USA Today on NHL prospects. “Well, Erik Johnson is just as good a player as them, it’s just not as sexy a pick since he’s a defenseman instead of a guy who is going to score 50 goals and get 100 points.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 222-pound defenseman, is regarded as the top prospect according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and Red Line Report. St. Louis is expected to take him with the first-overall pick and replace a one-time defensive stalwart in the Blues’ defensive corps – Chris Pronger, who is now with Edmonton.

“For me, Erik Johnson is the best defense prospect I have seen in the last 15 years,” Woodlief said. “He’s better than Chris Pronger was when he was this age, I will tell you that much. Chris Pronger is one hell of a defenseman. This kid is a lot smoother in his puck handling and skating than Chris Pronger was when he came out in 1993, I will tell you that for sure. And, he’s every bit as big – maybe not quite as tall as 6-6, but he’s 6-4 and 220 – I will take that.”

While it’s possible the Penguins could wind up with Johnson, Woodlief does not believe Penguins fans should be disappointed if Johnson is not available at No. 2.

“You’re going to have your choice of pretty good players. For me, there’s a top tier of three and a second tier of three,” Woodlief said. “My top tier would have Johnson, Kessel and Toews and then a slight dip to the second tier of, in any order you want to take them: [Nicklas] Backstrom, Staal and [Peter] Mueller. I think any of those three are interchangeable from 4-6. It’s basically what you’re just looking for as opposed to any difference in talent level.”

One intriguing option is Staal, a younger brother of Carolina Hurricanes star Eric Staal. Eric Staal went second-overall to Carolina in 2003 – after the Penguins chose Marc-Andre Fleury with the No. 1 pick. It’s possible Jordan could go No. 2 this year. Only 17, he is listed as Central Scouting’s No. 2 prospect and Red Line Report’s No. 6 prospect.

“He’s a young, young kid. If he’s not the youngest player in this draft, I think he might be the second-youngest,” Woodlief said. “He has a Sept. 10 birthday and that’s something you look at when you’re drafting. Essentially, this kid is a season behind a lot of the kids who are going to be drafted.”

Other than Johnson, prospects Staal, Kessel, Toews, Mueller and Derick Brassard are all listed as centers, while Backstrom, a Swede, is a right wing,

“Backstrom is a terrific player, but he’s a late 1987 birthday – he’s a full 10 months older than Staal,” Woodlief said. “Backstrom played in the Swedish Elite League against 30-year-old men all year. So, you definitely factor that in when you’re looking at guys. If Staal was born six days later on the 16th and not eligible until next year, how high would you have him next year? Probably first.”

Certainly, age is a factor to consider when drafting. However, skill is the basis of any evaluation. When it comes down to the best prospect for the Penguins, Woodlief believes the organization must figure out which player fits best in the system.

“There are a couple schools of thought. Kessel is a very, very dynamic and explosive goal-scorer – a real game-breaker type. He can just break a game open at any moment,” he said. “As opposed to a kid like a Backstrom, who is a terrific all-around player and a team leader. A kid, who at the age of 18 was the leader in the dressing room and on the ice and the focal point of his entire team and took on that mantle and burden of leadership. They bring different things to the table. If you have a Sidney Crosby and you have a Malkin – Malkin is a similar style of player to a Jordan Staal in that he’s just a huge tank out there at center. Do you want two of same type of player? Or, do you want a dynamic game-breaking scorer like Kessel? You just really have to decide who is the better fit. For me, we’re a scouting service, so we’re up here ranking in the order I like them without regard to whether one player fits a system better than the other.

“So, I would rank Kessel slightly better because, for me, if two guys are close, I would prefer to take the guy who, with the game on the line in a tied game with five minutes to go, would be more likely to score that huge goal. But, that’s not to say he’s the best fit. Maybe Staal is a better fit. Maybe Backstrom is a better fit. Maybe Toews is a better fit because, for my money, Toews is the most complete two-way forward in the draft.”

While Toews seems to be the least-hyped of the top prospects, Woodlief is a huge fan.

“He doesn’t get much ink at all. Nobody mentions Jonathan Toews – for what reason, I don’t know,” he said. “Trust me; NHL teams are aware of Jonathan Toews. He’s not getting out of the top five, I will guarantee you that. I’d be shocked if he got past Chicago at No. 3.”

While the first-round picks receive a lot of attention, an organization can acquire quality talent in the later rounds. The Penguins have had the good fortune to do just that recently. Kristopher Letang, Alex Goligoski and Michael Gergen are three such examples. Gergen, a forward, was a second-round pick in 2005, while Letang, a defenseman, was a third-rounder last year. Goligoski was a 2004 second-round pick. All three continue to progress at an elite level.

The Penguins were ahead of the rest of the NHL’s teams since these three players were smaller, but quick and very talented. Woodlief believes all three would have been drafted much higher if the rules changes had been in place earlier.

“Those three guys were drafted later than they should have been because they are smaller guys. We loved all three of guys,” Woodlief said. “Goligoski was probably the best skating defenseman in his draft class. Letang was maybe not the best skating defenseman in his draft class, but pretty close to it and just a tremendously smart, intelligent and intuitive player. He has great hockey instincts and hockey sense. For me, he is going to play in the new NHL. There’s not a question in my mind that the new NHL is built for players like Kristopher Letang. He’s a player I just loved watching.

“I actually kicked myself for not ranking Gergen higher last year. I put him on our list around 100. I liked him better than that and, in hindsight, I asked myself why I didn’t have him higher because I liked him more than that,” he continued. “He’s a 5-11, 185-pounder and there were so many huge names on that Shattuck-St. Mary’s team [two years ago]. They won a national midget title and he was really the guy driving the engine there above all the big-name stars. Toews and [Kyle] Okposo [were on the SSM team] and guys like that are pretty dang good. Angelo Esposito wasn’t too shabby, either. You look at what Gergen accomplished with that club and he was one of the real motors of that program.

“I think Pittsburgh is in good standing having drafted players like that recently. Those are the types of players who will excel in the new NHL.”

Last year’s rules changes altered the NHL landscape forever. It also affected the NHL Entry Draft permanently. Large, immobile and overly physical players have gone the way of dinosaurs. Now, speed, skill, agility and intelligence are at a premium.

It was a drastic change in philosophy for many, but not Woodlief. He knew the evolution of the ideal NHL player was coming – big and bulky are out; compact and sleek are in.

“It didn’t change Red Line Report’s philosophy at all because, over the years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, we had many a pitched battle with NHL clubs who were annoyed at us for ranking smaller guys in our top 50 picks,” he said. “At that point, they were drafting nothing but these gigantic 6-foot-5 behemoths who didn’t have any hockey sense and who couldn’t play the game.

“So, I would argue vociferously that we need to get some more speed and skill back in the game and these players deserved to be in the top 50 based on their talents. NHL teams would laugh and say, ‘That’s fine, maybe you could say they should be ranked in the top 50, but they are not going to get taken there, so why rank them there?’ Well that’s not the point of a scouting service. The point of a scouting service is to rank the most-talented players.”

So, Woodlief and his staff maintained the vision and ideals that make Red Line Report the premier publication on hockey prospects.

“I thought, frankly, the NHL was behind the curve for many years. I am glad to see they’ve caught up and they’re now with me on my way of thinking from seven or eight years ago.”

Woodlief is thrilled to see the success of the NHL’s rules changes.

“It’s a much more fun product to watch now than it was when they were drafting 6-5 stiffs who couldn’t play,” he said. “[The new rules] don’t affect our philosophy at all, but they have affected the draft strategies of a lot of teams, who in past years wouldn’t have even taken a look at a player if he wasn’t 6-2 or better. I think it’s a positive change.

“Some of the teams were maybe slow to adapt last year at the draft table. But I think now that the game has been back on for a season and people see the way the game is going, the pendulum has swung back and I think everybody should be adjusted by the time they sit down at the draft table this year.  So, basically, I think it will be a much truer draft than it has been for a long time now because people will get drafted where they deserve to be drafted instead of a 5-10 skilled kid getting drafted 140th because teams didn’t think he could play in the NHL having to bang heads with 6-5 no-talents every night.”

(To subscribe to Red Line Report, log on to or call (518) 523-4289.)

Red Line Report’s Top 10 Prospects

Player            Pos.        Comments

1. Erik Johnson    D     Best prospect on defense in the past 15 years

2. Phil Kessel        C    Most explosive natural goal scorer in the draft

3. Jonathan Toews    C/W    Great sniper and most complete forward in draft

4. Peter Mueller    C    Outstanding playmaker with hockey sense and size

5. Nicklas Backstrom    RW    Combines top skills with great leadership qualities

6. Jordan Staal        C    Has great size, bloodlines and talent

7. Derick Brassard    C    Best pure playmaking skills in the draft

8. Kyle Okposo    RW    Runaway freight train derails everything in his path

9. Jiri Tlusty        LW    Protoypical winger combines speed and power

10. Bryan Little    C    Cerebral assassin kills silently

Central Scouting’s Top 10 North American skaters

Player            Pos.    Ht./Wt.

1. Erik Johnson    D    6-4/ 222

2. Jordan Staal        C    6-4/215

3. Jonathan Toews    C/W    6-1.5/195

4. Derick Brassard    C    6-0.5/172

5. Phil Kessel        C    6-0/189

6. Peter Mueller    C    6-2.5/205

7. Bryan Little        C    5-10/190

8. Chris Stewart    RW    6-1.5/228

9. James Sheppard    C    6-1.5/204

10. Cory Emmerton    C/LW    5-11.5/177

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