The Year of the Euro

If anyone thinks that Al Montoya won’t be the top collegian picked in the first round of Saturday’s NHL Entry Draft, they’re probably wrong. At least that’s the sense that the NHL was trying to give at its annual Media Prospects Lunch Friday afternoon in Raleigh.

Montoya was the only collegiate player even included at the luncheon that gives the media the opportunity to talk to the Draft’s top 15 prospects. Somewhat surprising was the absence of North Dakota’s Drew Stafford and Michigan State’s A.J. Thelen. Stafford was ranked seventh among North American skaters and Thelen fell into the 11th position.

The fact that they weren’t invited Friday shows how weak a year this is for North American prospects.

Of the top 15 prospects identified by the League, eight come from Europe. Many experts have predicted that this might be one of Europe’s best years for the NHL Draft — four of the top five picks could be European.

The United States’ and college hockey’s saving grace might just be Montoya. Ranked first among North American goaltenders, rumors floating Friday have Montoya going as high as third after Russian-born Alexander Overchin and Evgeni Malkin.

One general manager in a position to take Montoya is Columbus’ Doug MacLean. MacLean’s Blue Jackets hold the number-four pick in the draft, and MacLean has confirmed that at least one team ahead of him does not want Montoya.

“I know that one team that I’m talking with is not taking a goalie,” said MacLean, “but there’s a very strong chance that I won’t be picking fourth.”

MacLean indicted that he’s been in talks in an attempt to move up to the first or second spots as part of a draft-day trade. But he’s also entertained “seven or eight serious inquiries,” with two offers to trade down in the draft order.

Still, Montoya might be a good fit for Columbus. Last season, goaltender Marc Denis ranked 34th in the league in goals against average, leaving plenty of room for improvement at the position.

Montoya also would be a decent fit for the Florida Panthers at the seventh position. Besides lending support to Roberto Luongo in the Florida nets, Montoya, whose mother and father both came to the county from Cuba, might be a fan favorite in heavily-Hispanic South Florida.

Schneider’s Stock Continues to Rise

Any goaltender ranked seventh by Central Scouting generally would expect to be a third-round pick, if not later, according to history. This year, though, that trend is different.

This Draft is thought to be a rare goaltender’s Draft, with the possibility of as many as five or six of the first 30 picks being netminders. Beneficiary of that is incoming Boston College freshman Cory Schneider, who was tabbed as the final first round pick — No. 30 — by The Hockey News.

Schneider, who is out of Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Mass., saw his stock rise after backstopping the U.S. Under-18 team to the silver medal at the World Championships. During the tournament, Schneider posted a 5-1-0 record with a 1.71 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

Should Schneider sneak into the first round and join Michigan’s Montoya, it would be the first time ever that two collegiate goaltenders are selected in the first round.

Back Across the Border

The NHL announced on Friday that the Ottawa Senators will play host to the 2005 Draft, slated for June 25-26, 2005. It will mark the first time in three years that the Draft has been that close to hockey’s Canadian roots. The 2002 Draft was held in Toronto.

“This is a significant event in the NHL calendar and a tremendous opportunity to showcase the city of Ottawa and the deep passion our community has for the game of hockey,” said Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.

The draft is estimated to have an economic impact of up to $15 million Canadian to Canada’s capital city.

Switching Sports

The top prospects for this year’s Draft had a chance to trade in their hockey sticks for baseball bats on Thursday night. Before an exhibition baseball game between the U.S. and Canadian national teams at the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park in Durham, N.C., each prospect was given the chance to take batting practice. Each, then, threw out a ceremonial opening pitch to start the game.

The Basics

For those following along at home, here is the schedule of Draft Day events. Things kick off on Saturday at noon Eastern time. The first round is broadcast nationally on ESPN2 and throughout Canada on TSN. The opening round generally lasts about three hours, with each team having up to 15 minutes on the clock.

From there, rounds two and three each take about one hour to complete. The fifteen minutes is shortened to five and teams make their selections rather quickly.

For the third straight year, the Draft is divided into two days, with rounds four through nine beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday. In general, these late rounds move even quicker and the day generally wraps up before 3 p.m. is on the scene and will bring you a complete pick-by-pick update of collegiate players as they happen.