Draft Preview: The American Way
Erik Johnson (left) and Phil Kessel are just two of a projected 12 American prospects expected to be selected in the first round of Saturday's draft.
MONTREAL - On the heels of once again managing to keep the Stanley Cup south of the border, the U.S. has also grabbed a stranglehold of the 2006 NHL Entry draft, with American-born Erik Johnson and Phil Kessel poised to be the toast of the Class of 2006.
Barring a major change of heart by the St. Louis Blues - who currently hold the top pick for 2006 - in the coming days, Johnson will become only the second American defenseman and only the sixth U.S. born player to ever be chosen first overall in the 38-year history of the NHL Draft. The Ottawa Senators made Bryan Berard the first blueliner to go No. 1 with the top pick in 1995, while the last American to lead his draft class was Rick Di Pietro of the Islanders in 2000.
Despite the buzz surrounding him, history suggests that Johnson ending up atop his draft class may not necessarily be such a good omen. More often than not, a defenseman who is picked first hardly sets the NHL on fire down the road, which may explain why only eight blue-liners have ever gone No. 1. While the Islanders never regretted nabbing future Hall-of-Famer Denis Potvin back in 1973, the rest of the list is an underwhelming one to say the least, with three-time All-Star Ed Jovanovski being the lone notable name on the list.
"In a year that's as wide open as I've ever seen, one thing is certain, Johnson deserves that top spot," confirmed Canadiens Director of Player Personnel Trevor Timmins. "He's got the skill and he certainly has the size all teams are looking for."
Not that he needs any backup, but the 6-foot-4, 222-pound Johnson will have some company at the top of the draft board this year. Longtime projected No. 1 pick Kessel, who like Johnson is a product of the U.S national program, may tumble somewhat, but should still hear his named called soon after Johnson among the top five picks. The tidal wave of American talent doesn't end there with no less than 12 U.S. players projected to hear their name called in the first round on Saturday.
"It tells you a lot about the great work being done by their national development program," said Timmins. "They've really come on strong in recent years and we're seeing the results now."
The news isn't quite as good for the normally dominant Russians, who after producing the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin in recent years have now hit a dry spell. After not seeing a single player drafted in the first round last year, the prognosis is not all that promising this time around either. The Russian talent that may claw its way into the opening round will have to do so at the tail end of the pack, if at all.
"These things work in cycles," explained Timmins. "The Russians had a great run and they'll be back. It's just the rest of the world's turn right now."
Besides the U.S. and Canada, who will make up the bulk of the top players chosen, Sweden is also among those helping pick up the slack for the sagging Russians. The reigning Olympic and World Hockey Champions are also on the verge of celebrating a rarity-a blue-chip draft prospect. Outside of the Sedin twins who were drafted by the Canucks second and third overall in 1999, the pickings have been slim for the Swedes at the draft table.
Nicklas Backstrom is likely to change all that, with the super-talented centerman drawing lofty comparisons to Peter Forsberg. Slated to be snatched up in the top five on Saturday night in Vancouver, Backstrom's arrival marks only the fourth time the Swedes have boasted a seemingly can't-miss prospect, including the Sedins, Forsberg (sixth overall in 1991) and of course Mats Sundin, who in 1989 became the first European player to ever be selected first overall.
With what Timmins refers to as his Super Bowl now almost here, all that remains is to sit down one last time with his scouting staff before the big day.
"We've got a few more things to look over, like the results of recent prospect combine," said Timmins of the opportunity to kick the tires on the draft's top prospects while getting the chance to get acquainted with them on a personal level. "Meeting the players can be a little tricky though.
"Regardless of how well a player does in an interview, it's important to remember that it's what we've seen on the ice from these kids that really matters. We're in the business of finding hockey players not politicians."
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com