No one seemed too alarmed at Day 1 of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft about the departure of Dean Blais from North Dakota — not current Sioux first rounder Drew Stafford, incoming Sioux first-rounder Travis Zajac, or the general manager of the New Jersey Devils, Lou Lamoriello, who once again took a Sioux player in the first round.
Lamoriello said that North Dakota was a great program, a great place for players to develop, and he wasn’t worried that would change just because Blais is leaving.
“Dean has done a great job there and is a great coach, but we have no questions,” said Lamoriello, who for the second straight year traded up in the first round to take a North Dakota player, following up Zach Parise from last year. “That never entered in. … It’s a great program and that’s not going to change.”
Parise just left North Dakota to sign with the Devils, leaving even more room for Zajac to develop in Grand Forks.
“The idea of the development process and what he needs and where he’d be going and the next level he’d take — we knew there might be a center ice position, because we just took a center ice man away from them.”
Zajac said he’ll miss Blais, but the coach’s departure wasn’t enough to make Zajac concerned about his future.
“It’s sad to see him leave,” Zajac said. “I sort of went there because he’s a great coach — but there’s two capable coaches there [interim coach Dave Hakstol and Brad Berry], assistants that can take over at any time, and whatever happens I plan on going there. They spoke to me and said they know what I can do, and it doesn’t matter who is the coach, I’m going to come.”
Even if it’s not one of the assistants?
“I don’t think that matters, you just have to work harder to make an impression on that coach, because he hasn’t seen you play, he hasn’t seen anyone play. So we’d all be on the same level there. It’s going to be tough and guys will be competiing.”
Zajac comes to North Dakota this year out of Salmon Arm of the BCHL, a place growing in stature enough to have three players from that league selected in the first 50 picks of this year’s draft. All three, including Zajac, Kris Chucko (Minnesota) and Ray Sawada (Cornell) are college bound.
But Zajac, who describes himself as big and physical who can “beat guys one-on-one out of the corner,” knows he has more to do.
“I’m going to college to develop as a player,” he said. “Whether that takes me one, two or three years, so be it. But I guess as soon as I’m ready to make the jump, to play in New Jersey and compete on a regular basis, I’ll switch over.
“College is going to be a big step up, but I think I’m ready for it. And hopefully I’ll start off the season good there and show that I can play there.”
Stafford, the Sioux sophomore-to-be who was taken No. 13 overall by Buffalo, also said he was returning to North Dakota, despite Blais’ departure.
Stafford thought he might go No. 14 to Edmonton, the team for which his uncle, Barry, has been the equipment manager since 1979. But Buffalo snagged yet another WCHA player, one selection earlier.
“I just feel honored to be here, and I’m part of a great organization now, and I’m really looking forward to the future,” Stafford said.
“[My uncle was] giving me the looks,” Stafford said. “He said, ‘Be ready to go here [Edmonton]. A lot of things he said to me was just enjoy the moment, it’s once in a lifetime.”