The 2007 NHL entry draft, to be sure, is a different cat this year. “It’s not a real deep draft as far the high-profile guys, or guys that people think are clear-cut, top-half first-rounders,” said Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant GM and director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues.
“I think it’s anybody’s guess after the first six, seven guys.”
The growing feeling heading into Friday’s first round is that the Chicago Blackhawks will select London Knights scoring sensation Patrick Kane with the first pick. But it is not a dead cert.
The Hawks have been deciding between Kane, Kyle Turris or James vanRiemsdyk – all forwards – and as of Wednesday afternoon were closing in on a final choice.
“We’re very close,” Hawks GM Dale Tallon said from Columbus, Ohio, where the hockey world began to gather Wednesday.
Defenceman Karl Alzner of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, forward Jakub Voracek of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads and forward Sam Gagner of the OHL’s London Knights are other highly rated prospects.
But there are few sure bets this year.
“There’s going to be a lot of players in this year’s draft that end up playing in the NHL,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford. “It’s too early to tell how good they’re going to be. Clearly, there will be a difference of opinion throughout the league as to where the guys are rated probably from eight to 28.”
Tallon’s phone was ringing Wednesday, with rival GMs wondering whether he’d be willing to move the No. 1 pick.
“Nothing major, people just kicking tires,” said Tallon. “I think once everyone gets in here tonight, probably tomorrow it’ll heat up.”
But it appears Tallon is leaning towards keeping the pick.
“I think right now, I would say yes,” said Tallon.
Philadelphia has the second overall pick, followed by Phoenix, Los Angeles, Washington and Edmonton. But that can change. The swapping of draft positions is a yearly tradition but the wheeling and dealing may really get going this week.
“I think there’ll be movement, not because of the quality of the draft, but because of the number of picks that teams have,” said Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough.
Edmonton and St. Louis have three first-round picks apiece while Montreal, Washington and Phoenix have a pair of first-round selections. Seven teams don’t have a first-round pick at all. The imbalance may create needs.
“I know that’s the first time since I started coaching that’s ever been the case,” said Calgary Flames GM Darryl Sutter. “That impacts the first round.”
And of course always in the middle of it will be Brian Burke, the veteran GM of the Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
“I think you’ll see a bunch of movement because it’s a strange draft,” said Burke. “We have the 16th pick, we are perfectly willing to move up and perfectly willing to move down. So we’ve already thrown some scenarios to teams.”
Oilers GM Kevin Lowe is ready for action. He owns the sixth, 15th and 30th overall picks, has plenty of salary cap room for next season and wants to improve a club that missed the post-season a year after falling one win short of a Stanley Cup championship.
“We’re open for business,” Lowe told reporters in Edmonton on Tuesday.
“I’m making a lot of calls, and if there’s a premier player we can get for a draft pick, I’d consider it,” he added. “We’re not trading a first-round draft pick for an older guy with only one year left on his contract, though.”
Some of the moves will depend on who goes in the first few selections and who remains available. Teams may want to move up to get their man.
Either Kane, Turris or vanRiemsdyk will don the famous Blackhawks jersey Friday night. Kane, who had 145 points (62-83) in 58 OHL games this past season, was actually ranked second among North American skaters in the NHL’s Central Scouting final list behind Turris, the first Canadian Junior A player ever to top the list. VanRiemsdyk was ranked third.
But competing scouting lists such as the International Scouting Service, Red Line Report, McKeen’s, The Hockey News and TSN all had the American-born Kane at No. 1.
“It was about an hour-15-minute, pretty heated debate over who’d be No. 1,” said E.J. McGuire, the director of the NHL’s Central Scouting Service. “Whereas in previous years, it would be like, ‘OK, Ovechkin is No. 1. Now where do we go?”‘
In fact, vanRiemsdyk, another U.S.-born skater, is ranked second ahead of Turris by International Scouting Service, The Hockey News and TSN.
Then there’s Russian winger Alexei Cherepanov, the top-rated European skater by NHL Central Scouting, a sniper ranked fourth by International Scouting Service and fifth by TSN and The Hockey News.
“He’ll certainly go in the top 10, possibly in the top five,” said McGuire. “I don’t think the lack of an agreement with the Russian federation will be a factor in Cherepanov’s case.”
Fewer Russians are expected to be drafted once again this year because Russia has opted out of the NHL-IIHF player transfer agreement. NHL clubs may fear Cherepanov, who broke Pavel Bure’s 1988-89 Russian league rookie record with 18 goals this past season, won’t cross the Atlantic to play in the NHL.
“Cherepanov’s a very good hockey player,” said Phoenix Coyotes amateur scout Keith Gretzky. “But it’s a scary thing with the Russians having no agreement. He could be rated No. 3 overall by some teams but who knows where he’ll actually go?”
Cherepanov will be part of the intrigue after the first five or six picks if he’s passed over. That’s when the drafting becomes real unpredictable because scouts and teams have vastly different rankings from anywhere from the eight or nine spot to No. 60.
“After the top six, you’re going to see guys go and you’ll say, ‘Wow,”‘ said Gretzky. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s been like this for a long time.”
Added Risebrough: “Some guy might really like somebody that you have ranked 42nd on your list. And he might go 12th for that team.”
The weakest area of this year’s draft class is goaltending. Jeremy Smith of the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers and Trevor Cann of the OHL’s Peterborough Petes are the top two ranked North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting.
“We’re not as keen on goalies this year, it’s not a great goalie class,” said Kekalainen. “Unless we feel somewhere in the draft there’s a steal of a goaltender there, we’re not going to be focusing too much on that position.”
Added McGuire: “How many goalies will be taken in the first round? If my snooping around is to be believed, don’t look for more than two or three out of 30 picks.”
Next year’s draft goes in Ottawa, where the buzz is already mounting about a much deeper group of prospects available.
“A year from now it’s going to be completely different,” said Kekalainen. “Everybody right now thinks that’s going to be a great draft class.”