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Canadian players dominate NHL draft, but U.S. making inroads

Where there were once Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and Swedes crowding Canadians in the prospect pool, there are now kids from New Jersey, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and even California.

Canadian-born players dominated the 2007 NHL entry draft at Nationwide Arena with 102 selected among the 211 total picks.

The U.S. contributed 63, a record 30 per cent, followed by 45 Europeans and one born in Nigeria (Akim Aliu, selected 56th, by Chicago).

The NHL's foray into sunbelt markets like Anaheim and Dallas appears to be showing some results. Three players from California were drafted while one Texan was taken.

"Across the board, I think there's more players playing in the United States from different areas," U.S. development team coach Ron Rolston said on Saturday. "That's from the growth of the game and the NHL getting into those markets. Having more players gives us an advantage to build them up at the top and get the depth that we want."

Canadians made up half of the first 60 players taken in the first two rounds, but the U.S. also had a respectable number at 21.

The 10 Americans selected in the first round matched the record set last year in Vancouver. Americans also went 1-2 in the draft for the first time.

The U.S. is the country of origin for the No. 1 pick for the second straight year as forward Pat Kane of Buffalo, N.Y., went to the Chicago Blackhawks. Defenceman Erik Johnson was selected first overall by St. Louis in 2006.

Only nine Russians were taken, the lowest number since 1988.

The lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian federation and the International Ice Hockey Federation, in combination with Russian clubs paying their top players huge salaries makes it difficult for the NHL to pry players out of that country.

"You could see that there were a number of kids who were rated very, very high and didn't get taken nearly as early as in a normal year, so people were concerned," Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray said.

Russia's loss was Canada's gain at this draft as the latter rebounded from a low of 83 players taken last year.

This was a relatively conservative draft as no big-name, active players were dealt on the draft floor. Trades announced from the podium - which usually gets spectators buzzing - involved only the swapping of draft picks.

The biggest deals were announced prior to Friday's first round: Goaltender Tomas Vokoun was shipped to Florida from Nashville; Toronto got goalie Vesa Toskala from San Jose; and Calgary acquired defenceman Adrian Aucoin from Chicago.

The second to seventh rounds were held on Saturday and took less than five hours to complete.

Other than the Stars and Stripes trend, there was little to distinguish this draft class.

While the NHL puts on a splashy show for its annual coming-out party for teenage hockey players, the reality is the 30 clubs will be happy if just two of their prospects this year become bona fide NHL players.

"Maybe it didn't have the star power that some drafts have had," said Vancouver Canucks GM Dave Nonis. "But I believe there was some very good players picked not just yesterday, but also today."

Chicago, which hasn't made the playoffs since 2002, will be a young team next season.

The Blackhawks will give Kane a long look at training camp in September, but it will be another year or two before most first-rounders their first NHL game. It'll be longer - if ever - for players drafted in later rounds.

Players drafted this year are eligible to earn a yearly salary of up to US$875,000, plus a maximum of $2 million in performances bonuses, when they sign their three-year, entry-level contracts. It's usually first-rounders who rate that kind of money.

The Blackhawks have two years to sign Kane, who played last season for the OHL's London Knights, or he goes back into the draft.

College players are subject to a different time limit than major junior players under the NHL's collective bargaining agreement and the clubs that draft them can keep their rights for up to four years.

Winger James vanRiemsdyk, who went No. 2 to Philadelphia, is headed for the University of New Hampshire and Canadian Kyle Turris, chosen third overall by Phoenix, is also going stateside to the University of Wisconsin in the fall.

USA Hockey's National Team Development Program centralizes the country's top 16-and 17-year-olds year-round in Ann Arbour, Mich., where they play a regular schedule against schools and colleges.

The program had a hand in producing that country's recent top prospects as Kane, Johnson, vanRiemsdyk and Phil Kessel, who went No. 5 to Boston last year, spent time in the NTDP at some point in their careers.

"It's a place they can come to and play a demanding schedule," coach Ron Rolston said.

Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon thinks one reason for the increase of talent from the U.S. is economics.

"The affordability has changed. It's become a more expensive sport to partake in," he said. "The affluent suburbs in the northern cities have a lot of hockey facilities. People are spending the money and the time to develop these kids."

Vancouver Giants defenceman Jonathan Blum, from Long Beach, became the first Californian taken in the first round and went to Nashville with the 23rd pick.

The 2008 draft will be held in Ottawa.

Notes - Trevor Cann of the Peterborough Petes was the first goaltender taken. He went in the second round Saturday at No. 49 to Colorado, marking the first time a goaltender wasn't drafted in the first round since 1992. . . . The Western Hockey League led all leagues in players drafted with 37, followed by the OHL at 35.


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