Johnson Heads Up College Crop At NHL Draft

Michigan recruit Jack Johnson led the way at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, which saw eight college or college-bound players taken in the first round Saturday in Ottawa.

Johnson, a native of Indianapolis and a veteran of Shattuck-St. Mary’s High School in Minnesota as well as the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, went third overall to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The defenseman’s pro-friendly game and high draft position prompted speculation that he could jump to the bigs immediately, forgoing his college commitment to the Wolverines. That would undoubtedly sit poorly with Michigan head coach Red Berenson, a longtime critic of players leaving school early — especially after Berenson’s loss of starting netminder Al Montoya to the New York Rangers three days earlier.

Two other recruits made the top ten, including Wisconsin’s Jack Skille, who went seventh to Chicago, and North Dakota recruit Brian Lee, the ninth overall pick by the draft’s host city, Ottawa.

Amid talk of a down year for college players, two “off the board” picks by Washington helped bring the total of first-round selections to eight, just one off the record of nine set in 2004. The Capitals turned heads with their selection of Cornell sophomore defenseman Sasha Pokulok at the 14th overall pick, then followed that up by taking North Dakota recruit Joe Finley 27th.

Finley’s pick was part of a late-round run on collegians, with St. Louis taking Warroad, Minn., high schooler and UND recruit T.J. Oshie 24th overall, and Edmonton getting incoming Michigan freshman Andrew Cogliano 25th. Matt Niskanen, bound for Minnesota-Duluth, became the eighth and final collegian taken in the first round, by Dallas at pick number 28.

The pick of Pokulok was the first major surprise of the draft, but Capitals general manager George McPhee — the Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner in 1982 with Bowling Green — was confident that he got the player he wanted.

“We see someone that has the opportunity to be a top-four defenseman,” said McPhee to Canadian television network TSN. “He’s a big kid, he thinks the game real well and he reminds me of [longtime Rangers blueliner] Ron Greshner.

“We know there’s some risk in it, and we considered moving back, but we said, ‘Let’s get what we want and be aggressive on our other picks.'” Aggressive the Capitals were, going against conventional wisdom with Finley later on.

The selection of Skille by Chicago may have reflected the NHL’s rules changes to free up speedy players, as noted by scout Ron Anderson on the Blackhawks’ Web site.

“With the way the game is going now — opening up the neutral zone a little and cutting down the obstruction — we’re looking to add some speed, and he’s certainly got plenty of that,” said Anderson. “Plus, he’s a hard-nosed player and he uses his speed to drive hard to the net, take defensemen wide. He’s a prototypical power forward and we can certainly use that.

Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe echoed those comments in discussing the pick of Cogliano on TSN, noting that “when a kid has exceptional speed and ability he finds a way to play. We’re banking on the rule changes benefiting us.”

The first round was a good one for North Dakota, which saw three recruits taken, as well as for Michigan with two. Minnesota high schools fared well, too, with Johnson, Lee, Oshie, Finley and Niskanen all having played high school hockey in the state.