The National Hockey League’s entry draft has never meant much to college hockey, at least in recent years. As a fan, you could usually tune in late in the first round and find out about one, maybe two college players that had already been drafted. And the top overall pick, the man who claims national headlines, is also more than likely a six-foot-something, built-like-a-house forward or defenseman from either Canadian Major Junior hockey or somewhere in Europe.
Well all that may be about to change as the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, scheduled for June 24-25, gets set to begin.
This weekend in Calgary, Wisconsin freshman-phenom Dany Heatley could in fact be the number one draft choice in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Heatley, who at 6-foot, 1-inch and 200 pounds is not too shabby in build himself, is ranked number one by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau (CSB) among draft-eligible North American forwards and defensemen.
If chosen No. 1, he will join Michigan State’s Joe Murphy (1986) as the only college players selected at the top of the NHL Draft since its inception in 1969. (see Adam Wodon’s story on the history of the NHL Draft.)
In one season with the Badgers, Heatley recorded 52 points in 35 games, scoring 27 goals while adding 25 assists. His contribution helped the Badgers to their first 30-win season since 1989-90, and returned the traditional powerhouse to the NCAA Tournament.
According to the CSB report on Heatley, his fast and deceptive speed along with his ability to quickly release a hard, accurate shot make him a strong favorite to claim the top spot in the draft.
The team with the top pick, the New York Islanders are said to be more interested in Martin Gaborik, a Slovakian forward. However, they may be most interested in trading down for some instant relief in the form of a proven player, opening the way for someone else to snatch Heatley.
Heatley told the Calgary Sun that he’d like “to go [as the] first [pick], but hopefully I’ll go in the top three.”
He said, “I just want to go to a good situation and the top five [teams to pick] are all pretty good situations. I’d like to play in the NHL next year, but if they sent me back [to Wisconsin], that would be fine, too.”
If Heatley is not grabbed by the Islanders, rest assured that the Atlanta Thrashers will pick the left winger to compliment last year’s first-round choice, center Patrik Stefan.
Now once Heatley is drafted fans, please don’t touch that dial, because there’s plenty more college talent that could quickly follow.
Picking No. 3 will be the expansion Minnesota Wild, who may have former Boston University goaltender Rick DiPietro near the top of their list. DiPietro gave up his college eligibility to enter this year’s NHL draft.
DiPietro, a quick, agile goaltender who is known for his ability to play the puck outside of his crease, opened many eyes this season. Similar to Heatley in Wisconsin, he helped carry the Terriers back to the national scene after a hiatus in 1998-99. He ranked near the top of practically every goaltending statistic throughout the season and his 17-3-5 record propelled BU to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
By the NCAA Regionals, DiPietro’s stock soared when he set the NCAA record for saves in a game (77) in a 3-2, four-overtime loss to St. Lawrence.
Ironically, the opposing goaltender that day, St. Lawrence’s Derek Gustafson, may be the man who keeps DiPietro away from Minnesota. Two weeks ago, Gustafson, who made 72 saves in victory against BU that day, signed a free-agent contract with the Wild, forgoing his final three years of eligibility at St. Lawrence.
If the Wild pass on DiPietro, which is a strong possibility considering they will more than likely acquire a second goaltender in Friday’s expansion draft, another expansion club, the Columbus Blue Jackets, will have next crack. General manager Doug MacLean has already said he will be drafting by skill and not by position, and one may think that a young goaltender such as DiPietro may not be what MacLean wants to build his franchise around.
That mindset would push DiPietro down to the number five spot and make him an obvious selection for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that sold the farm to acquire Dan Cloutier in net last year, only to have him play poorly in front of a shaky defense.
One the other hand, we could see a major surprise. NHL scouts seem to have fallen so in love with DiPietro’s cocksure attitude and aggressive play, teams might be falling over themselves to get a crack at him. Could the 18-year old become the highest-picked goalie ever? Could he go No. 1? Anything seems possible.
Regardless, it seems obvious that collegians will occupy two of the top five spots in the first round of the draft — that’s something that has only happened once before, in 1991 when BU’s Scott Lachance and Michigan’s Aaron Ward went 4-5. In 1984, two American high school players went in the top 10 — Brian Lawton (1) and Tom Barrasso (5) — but both went right to the NHL.
Past that, don’t be surprised to see a few more college players find homes early in the draft.
Last April it was somewhat of a Hockey East vs. WCHA theme in the NCAA tournament, with Boston College meeting North Dakota in the title bout. Little changes as we head to the draft, with nine of the top ten college prospects coming from these two conferences. Harvard’s Bret Nowak (CSB rank: 22), who could go in the second round, is the odd-man out.
Included in those top ten prospects are two defensemen from Hockey East — Boston College’s Brooks Orpik (4) and UMass-Lowell’s Ron Hainsey (9). Both players are expected to hear their name called during the first round.
Orpik, who has tallied only 16 points in his 66 games with the Eagles over two season, is touted by the CSB as a good puck handler. His lateral movement and straight-away speed have opened the eyes of scouts.
Hainsey is well-liked by the CSB because of his hard shot from the point and his desire to play the physical aspect of the game. In one season with the River Hawks, Hainsey notched 11 points (three goals, eight assists), but his team finished in last place keeping him out of the scouts eyes in the post-season.
It is reasonable to think that either of these players could be chosen in the top 20 picks, and Orpik possibly in the top 10. The Chicago Blackhawks possess back-to-back picks in the 10 and 11 slots of the first round. If Chicago doesn’t trade those picks to move higher in the draft, you may see them grab Orpik to aid their ailing defense.
Minnesota will be well represented early in the draft with centers Jeff Taffe (10) and Matt DeMarchi (28), and incoming freshman defenseman Paul Martin (18) all threats to be chosen in the first two rounds.
Taffe is the highest-ranked and best-possible first-round prospect of the three. He led the U.S. Junior National team in scoring (five points in seven games) during the 2000 World Junior Tournament in January. The CSB notes him as a talented puck handler and a smart player. But his lack of physical presence and a somewhat questionable work ethic may hurt his overall value.
Rounding out the top ten prospects are David Hale (25), a defenseman who will join North Dakota as a freshman next season, Harvard’s Nowak, and Boston College’s Krys Kolonos (27).
Hale, who played last season for the Sioux City Musketeers, is touted by NHL scouts for his excellent work ethic. At 6-1, 204 pounds, he is a physical presence who has amassed more than 300 penalty minutes in the last two seasons with Sioux City. His weakness is his ability to stay composed when carrying the puck, a skill that he’ll surely be able to hone with the Sioux next year.
Nowak is another physical player whose desire and drive have gotten him recognized by the CSB. At 6-2, he will need to grow into his frame a bit still, and that, coupled with his offensive numbers last season (15 points in 24 games), dropped his value. He was ranked No. 14 on the CSB mid-season report, but dropped to 22 by season’s end.
Kolonos may be the dark horse of the early rounds. In one season with the Eagles, he proved himself a big-game player late in the season. After posting just six points before Christmas last year, Kolonos turned up the scoring in the second half, earning 27 points including back-to-back four-point games in February. The NHL scouts like Kolonos’ goal-scoring ability as well as his play along the boards. Consistency is what he’ll need to develop in order to move to the pro ranks. Realistically, expect him to be a second-round selection, but don’t be surprised if he becomes a first-rounder.