The last time the NHL had a “J-Bo” picked early in the first round, he turned out to be a disappointing bust. But let’s face it, Jason Bouwmeester is certainly a better prospect than Jason Bonsignore was eight years ago. He comprises part of this year’s Fantastic Four – along with Rick Nash, Joni Pitkanen, and Kari Lehtonen – each of whom is a virtual lock to be among the first four players chosen in the 2002 Entry Draft. All that remains to be seen is the actual order in which they are chosen.
But after these gems get snatched up, the fun really begins. Opinions vary widely on whom among the remainder of first round prospects will step up and become an NHL star a few years from now. While Ryan Whitney, Alexander Semin, Scottie Upshall, Joffrey Lupul, and Jiri Hudler have commanded a great deal of attention, there are others who can’t be overlooked. Here are five less-heralded players who, by all accounts, have the skills, work ethic, and talent necessary to find stardom on hockey’s biggest stage.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Center (5-9, 155): Bouchard is the front-and-center darkhorse of the 2002 draft. Small and weak, yet feisty and determined, he bears resemblance to many scoring stars over the years from the Q who could never find the strength and stamina to make it in the NHL. Which is why, despite posting 140 points in 69 games, he is not mentioned is the same breath as J-Bo and company. But after the emergence of Daniel Briere as a scoring ace in Phoenix, and the masterful play of young Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, scouts are looking more kindly on small, skilled forwards, and it’s a sure bet he won’t last beyond the 19th pick (Phoenix).
Draft prediction: Edmonton, 14th pick
Upside: Daniel Briere
Kiril Koltsov, Defense (5-11, 185): This kid just can’t win. He has superb skills and hockey sense, plays it tough when needed, and sees the ice as well as any 19-year old in the world. Yet his combative (some say selfish) personality and roving tendencies on-ice dominate any conversation about him as a player. Picking Koltsov is as easy as saying the word “if.” As in, “if” he can leave his attitude and discipline issues at the door when he leaves Russia, he’ll be a very good, if not great, NHLer. In this weak draft, it’s a sure bet he won’t last past the #18 pick (Los Angeles).
Draft prediction: Anaheim, 7th pick
Upside: Dmitri Yushkevich/Sergei Zubov
Alexander Steen, Center (5-11, 180): Father-son conversations this year seem to favor Eric Nystrom and his legendary dad Bobby. Yet Steen, the son of former Winnipeg great Tomas Steen, has as good a chance, maybe better, as Nystrom to flourish in the NHL. His demeanor, fluid style, and puck handling excellence are reminiscent of dad, which can mean only good things. And he’s a rugged kid, unafraid of traffic and going after pucks in less-than-friendly conditions. He’s a great bet to be at least a decent player, and could be very good once he adjusts to the rigors of the NHL game. Scouting reports and predictions seem to consistently place him toward the end of the first round. But in this draft, it’s a crime if he’s still sitting beyond the 21st pick.
Draft prediction: Columbus, 20th pick
Upside: Markus Naslund
Jakub Koreis, Center (6-3, 210): Injuries and paltry productivity in international play are what keep this powerhouse from being mentioned as a serious candidate at the 7th, 8th, and 9th draft positions. Great size and strength, combined with strong hockey sense and work ethic, make him highly attractive as a power center. But so many draft busts have been taken in the first round on the basis of size, that caution regarding Koreis is well warranted. (Anyone remember Ty Jones, Matt Zultek, Libor Polasek, Alek Stojanov, Jason Botterill, or Charlie Stephens?) It’s the hockey sense and hard working drive that keep scouts keen on Koreis, and insure that he will be taken long before the first round closes for the day.
Draft prediction: Montreal, 15th pick
Upside: Bobby Holik
Marty Magers, Goalie (6-1, 180): If Dan Ellis and Jason Bacashihua have proven anything, it’s that you cannot discount star goaltenders from the USHL. Magers, the premier sleeper pick of the 2002 draft, continues the tradition, and with his sensational work ethic, could well be the best of the three. His numbers are excellent – 1.80 GAA and .920 SP – and his 6-foot-1 frame is ideal. Past wisdom held that USHL goalies faced fewer quality shots, and hence had better statistics. But the play of Ellis and Bacashihua (both property of Dallas) proves they can continue to dominate at the collegiate and major junior level. If you’re looking for a competitive, heads-up goalie with good size and mobility, Magers is your man. Ranked ninth among North American goaltenders by Central Scouting, it’s a safe bet that Magers is a top five netminder on many draft day lists.
Draft prediction: Buffalo, 30th pick
Upside: Patrick Lalime