Eight Collegians, Record Ten Americans Go In NHL First Round

Former U.S. National Team Development Program and current Minnesota freshman-to-be Erik Johnson was the number-one selection in Saturday’s NHL Entry Draft, marking the first time since Rick DiPietro in 2000 that a player with college ties was the top player taken.

Johnson’s march to the draft stage began a parade of players with college connections in the first round. Four of the top ten picks are either in college or due to enter in the fall. Eight of the 30 first-round selections had college ties.

“It’s a really amazing feeling,” said Johnson, just the fifth American all-time to be drafted first overall and the first defenseman to land at the top since Chris Phillips was selected first by the Ottawa Senators in 1996.

Within 30 minutes of Johnson’s selection, three more collegians were called to the stage with North Dakota’s Jonathan Toews was picked third by the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota’s Phil Kessel was tabbed fifth by the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders grabbed Kyle Okposo, a freshman-to-be at Minnesota, with the seventh pick.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Toews of his third-overall selection. “It’s great to be here and at the top of the draft and everything, and to have a chance to be part of the Chicago Blackhawks is unbelievable right now.

Kessel, who a year ago was tabbed as a consensus No. 1, admitted that the longer he sat in the audience waiting for his name, the more anticipation he had.

“It was tough sitting through those picks, but [the players picked ahead of me] are all good guys and great players.

Though Okposo said that he wasn’t very surprised by being selected seventh overall, an International Scouting Service ranking of 13 and an NHL Central Scouting Service ranking of 11 would indicate his stock rose.

“I didn’t know where I’d go,” admitted Okposo. “I knew somewhere in the top 10, but no team was giving me any sort of indication. I wasn’t really expecting much.”

Trevor Lewis, who will attend Michigan in the fall, was probably the biggest first-round riser among collegians. Lewis was ranked 30th by CSS and didn’t even make it into the top 100 according to the Hockey News, but Los Angeles traded up to get him at No. 17.

Rounding out the collegiate first-rounders were Michigan’s Mark Mitera, selected by Anaheim at No. 19, David Fischer, a member of Minnesota’s 2007 freshman class, tabbed by Montreal at 20 and Chris Summers, a freshman-to-be at Michigan, picked 29th by Phoenix.

Though the mark of eight collegians was one off the 2003 record of nine, a first-round mark of ten Americas is the all-time best. Three Americans selected — Peter Mueller (8th, Phoenix), Bobby Saguinetti (21st, New York Rangers) and Nick Foligno (28th, Ottawa) chose major junior hockey in Canada over college.

Now with their draft fate decided, the next question for these first-round picks is what happens next.

“It just depends on what St. Louis wants me to do,” said Johnson. “If they think it’s in my best interest to try and turn pro, I’m definitely open to that. Right now, I’m committed to Minnesota and I still have pretty firm intentions on doing that.”

“It’s tough to tell [if I can step right in],” said Toews. Obviously you always believe in yourself and what you’re capable of doing. Obviously, I think positively that way, so I think at the end of the summer, I’ll be getting stronger.

“But until I’m ready to play, I’ve got a great place to play and a great coach and teammates at North Dakota.”

Of the trio, Kessel seems to be the most likely to head to the pro next year. Though both he and Boston played things close to the vest on Saturday, it’s no secret that Kessel is a player around whom Boston would like to build its franchise.