RALEIGH, N.C. — If the NHL Entry Draft were the Olympics, you might once again hear Al Michaels asking, “Do you believe in miracles?”
In a shocker of a first round, a total of seven college or college-bound players were selected, punctuated by Phoenix’s fifth overall selection of Blake Wheeler, who still has another year of high school at Breck (Minn.) before heading to play for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the fall of 2005.
Though not quite last year’s nine first-round college players, the seven this year came despite expectations that only three or four would be taken, and amid the dominance of Europeans in the first round. Despite the fact that the top two picks came from Russia for the first time in draft history, college hockey was able to follow up last year’s record picks with a super seven — five of whom were American-born players.
The college hockey story entering the draft — Michigan goaltender Al Montoya — was somewhat overshadowed by the Wheeler upset. Wheeler was picked fifth by Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes, one pick before Montoya went to the New York Rangers.
“It’s been a real whirlwind,” said Wheeler, admittedly shocked by his fifth overall selection. Wheeler was ranked 46th among North American skaters in the Central Scouting midterm rankings, but then had his stock value rise when his high school club won the Minnesota high school hockey championships, leveling off in the 17th position in the final rankings.
If the shock being the first American-born selected wasn’t enough for Wheeler, being greeted by Gretzky upon arriving at the stage was enough to overwhelm this young high schooler.
“He’s the guy I’ve looked up to my whole life,” said Wheeler. “When I got to shake his hand today, it was one of the better feelings I’ve ever gotten to have in my whole life.”
For Montoya, there was no disappointment in being the second college player taken. Hearing his name in the sixth position was just as he would’ve drawn it up. Ranked No. 1 among North American goaltenders, Montoya went true to form as the first goaltender picked, beating out Czech goaltender Marek Schwarz, who eventually went 17th to St. Louis.
“If I could’ve picked one team to go to this would’ve been the team,” said Montoya, a long-time Rangers fan despite having grown up in Chicago.
Montoya actually was one half of history with his first round selection. When Cory Schneider, headed next year to Boston College, went 26th, college hockey had its first two-netminder first round.
Mid-first round, college hockey had its top two rated skaters — North Dakota’s Drew Stafford and Michigan State’s A.J. Thelen — picked back-to-back. Thelen went 12th to Minnesota, while Stafford was taken 13th by Buffalo.
For Thelen, playing for the Wild will be a much-appreciated trip home. A native of Shakopee, Minn., Thelen hasn’t played at home since age 13.
“My dad has [Wild] season tickets right where the players come out onto the ice,” said Thelen.
Thelen was one of the few collegians drafted Saturday who seem to be leaning towards making and immediate departure from college hockey to the NHL.
“My goal in life is to play in the NHL and if [Minnesota] wants me to go play, that’s what I’ll do,” said Thelen. “[Coach Rick Comley] knows the situation that I’m in and pretty much understands that.”
Travis Zajac, an incoming freshman to North Dakota, and Kris Chucko, who is headed to Minnesota, were picked at 20 by New Jersey and 24 by Calgary, respectively, both teams making trades to land picks in those spots. It was the second straight year that New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello traded up in the first round to take a North Dakota player; last year he selected Zach Parise, who recently left North Dakota to sign with the Devils. Zajac and Chucko were junior teammates at Salmon Arm (BCHL) last season.
Schneider rounded out the collegiate first round picks when Vancouver grabbed him 26th, a major success for the high school goaltender based on the fact he was rated seventh among North American goaltenders.
“A lot of people were questioning about high school competition,” said Schneider. “When I went to the under-18 championship obviously I had a lot to prove over there and a lot of people were watching me really closely. Fortunately I performed really well there and I think it proved that I really belong at this level.”
Schneider still does have one concern to deal with before heading to Boston College — the wooing from Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, who selected him in the junior draft. Schneider wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he might forego BC for major junior.
“If Vancouver and I talk and they think it’s a good thing for me [to play in Rimouski] then I’d seriously have to consider it, but right now I’m planning on going to Boston College,” he said.
One person who wouldn’t want to see Schneider swayed by major junior hockey is BC head coach Jerry York, who made the trek to Raleigh to watch his anticipated goaltender of the future on his big day.
“We think he’s an outstanding prospect,” said York. “His skill level is obvious and he’s a big heart kid. He’s driven down from Phillips Andover a lot to watch us play over the last couple of years.
“He’s going to push [senior goaltender] Matti [Kaltiainen] so we’re going to have a real competitive situation next year.”
On a day of surprises, there were more after the first round, on the plus and minus side.
Early-second round picks included Chris Bourque, son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and an incoming freshman at Boston University. Citing his size, the CSS rated the 5-foot-7 Bourque just 198th in the mid-term rankings and 74th in the final rating — the improvement sparked mostly by a 90-point season in 31 games last year for Cushing Academy (Mass.). Washington, though, led by former Hobey Baker Award winner general manager George McPhee, brushed off those concerns to take Bourque with the third pick of the second round, No. 33 overall.
Bourque was followed by Darin Olver, a sophomore-to-be at Northern Michigan. Olver was 120th in the final ranking but was selected 36th by the New York Rangers.
On the other side of the upset coin was Notre Dame’s Wes O’Neill. After having coach Dave Poulin push the NCAA to eliminate the well-known opt-in rule — making O’Neill eligible for the draft without having to relinquish his NCAA eligibility — the first three rounds passed by without O’Neill, the 23rd-ranked North American skater, being drafted.
On the other hand, the non-collegian part of the day featured little surprise. Washington had the first overall pick, and to nobody’s astonishment selected Russian forward Alexander Ovechkin, who has been targeted as a potential No. 1 pick since he was 16.
The NHL Entry Draft will continue on Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. with rounds four through nine.