Q&A with Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean

By Aaron Vickers

The brainchild behind Rick Nash’s selection first overall in the 2002 and Rostislav Klesla’s fourth overall in 2000 will most certainly be at it again, selecting early in the 2004 edition of the National Hockey League’s Entry Draft.

With the trade deadline long passed, Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean has shifted his focus from dealing with other executives and placed his mind solely on the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The busy MacLean also serves as President and Alternate Governor. The Summerside, Prince Edward Island native has also served as the club’s head coach, before relieving himself of the duties in favor of current Head Coach Gerald Gallant, as a means to focus on the front office aspect of the clubs day-to-day operations.

One title that Doug MacLean doesn’t lay a claim to is Director of Amateur Scouting, a title belonging to Don Boyd, who has overseen all scouting efforts domestic and beyond for five years with the Columbus organization.

This, however, doesn’t stop MacLean from getting a first hand glimpse at those players eligible for the June draft. In fact, just two nights ago MacLean took in a Western Hockey League playoff game; the Calgary Hitmen hosting the Red Deer Rebels along with Boyd.

Before the puck dropped to start the game, Doug MacLean spoke to Hockey’s Future.

HF: Doug, you’re here in Calgary tonight watching the Hitmen take on the Red Deer Rebels. Without tipping your hand too much, is there anyone in particular you’re watching with a close eye tonight?

DM: Well not really. We’re not looking at any names in particular. We’re obviously going to be picking high. It’s a real dogfight now to see where we’re going to pick, obviously with the way Pittsburgh has really come on and the way we’ve struggled, you know. Right now, it looks like we’re going to be picking in the one to four somewhere for sure. I was in to see (Cam) Barker the other night. He was a guy I’ve wanted to see. I’ve seen Ladd and Schultz but I wanted to see them again. Then with Calgary you’ve got (Andy Rogers) and the other defenseman, (Brett) Carson. So, you know, I really want to get another look in at Ladd and Schultz to be quite honest tonight, and just see them in a tough playoff game, just like I wanted to see Barker in a playoff game. It changes, the intensity level is a little different and they’re real important guys so they’ll be counted on in every situation.

HF: With the entire Nikolai Zherdev fiasco, will there be any hesitation at all to go across the ocean and select another European, with the NHL-IIHF agreement expiring?

DM: No, I don’t have any hesitation, or we don’t. I mean, we felt we were right all along with Zherdev. All we did was follow the rules to be quite honest. We signed him before the deadline. We paid our IIHF fees. We went by the guidelines. We felt comfortable the whole way and it’s interesting now, you know. We’ve become a very, very well known team with Russian kids, which is exciting. All of a sudden, with Nash, who most of the young players have played against, with Zherdev, now (Alexander) Svitov, and obviously with (Rusty) Klesla, a young Czech-born player, and with (Pascal) Leclaire playing in the World Juniors recently, two years ago. We’re a well-known team because of the number of young kids we have playing. So all of a sudden there’s intrigue when you talk Columbus over there, and not negatively like you would think with what went on, but maybe more positively because their fellow countrymen are playing pretty well.

HF: Both Dmitri Kosmachev and Sergei Mozyakin were both conscripted into the Red Army soon after the Zherdev situation arose, is there any concern within the organization when it comes time to bring your young Russian prospects over?

DM: Right now, Kosmachev is apparently in the Army, so we’ll go by the guidelines, much the same as if Zherdev was in the Army, we would’ve went by those guidelines. You know, Kosmachev is in the Army, we’ll follow those guidelines, same as we will for any other young Russian, that if they are in fact in the Army, then we would follow the guidelines, but we don’t expect any issues when it comes to getting the players out. We’ll follow the NHL guidelines and follow the lead by the NHL, which is what we did with Zherdev.

HF: Columbus does have a plethora of young talent overseas playing in Europe right now. Has that been a conscious effort on the part of the Columbus Blue Jackets scouting staff, or does that just happen to be the way the chips have fallen for the organization?

DM: It would definitely be the way the chips have fallen. I mean, Klesla was the fourth pick in his year. There was no magic to that. He was the guy that was there at that particular time. Zherdev again, we were picking fourth, so we felt he was the best guy available at that particular spot. You know, we’ve got a lot of good young Canadian boys, and American boys as well. Timmy Jackman is going to make our team next year, a second round pick. We’ve got Danny Fritsche, another second round pick who should make our team on a full-time basis next year. He’s had a great year in the OHL. (Joakim) Lindstrom in Sweden has a chance to make our team, a real good young prospect. (Raffaele) Sannitz in Switzerland has a chance to be an NHLer, so, you know, Mozyakin and Kosmachev as well. Mozyakin is a little older, so he’ll have a chance. Kosmachev we’re going to leave over there for a year or two and see what happens.

HF: With Danny Fritsche, what was the main motivating factor behind sending him back to the Sarnia Sting of the OHL?

DM: Well, the first was to send him to the World Junior Championships. He was only playing six or eight minutes a game, and he was fine, but it wasn’t the ideal situation. It was a great situation to send him to the World Juniors where he was a real important player on their team, and became a very important player as the tournament went on, and then it was a natural to send him, you know, it was decided it was best to send him back to Sarnia and let him really play a lot. He’s gone there, he’s become their captain, unbelievably important player on their team. He’s been one of the best players in the OHL the second half of the year. It was a good move for him and for us in terms of development. It was a no-brainer to be quite honest.

HF: You mentioned Joakim Lindstrom a little while ago. I had read that you wished you had him under contract for the 2003-04 season after seeing him in training camp. Could you elaborate on that?

DM: He had a real good camp, a real good camp, but he was already committed to his contract in Sweden, and then he got hurt, so he’ll have to come fresh this year. We’ll attempt to sign him here in the next little while and we’ll see where the chips fall. We just signed Greg Mauldin who was a sixth or seventh round pick out of UMass, so he’s moved up our depth chart a long way too, so we just signed him today. Lindstrom will come. Joakim had a real strong camp last year, he’s a skilled guy, so we’re excited about him. He’s a skilled guy, but he’s also a big guy with great hands. You probably saw him at the World Juniors in Halifax where he was outstanding for Team Sweden, so we were excited about our future, there’s no doubt about that.

HF: Has there been any cause for concern with the amount of injuries the young prospects in this organization have had to faced, from Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, Raffale Sannitz, Tim Konsorada, to Danny Fritsche, Joakim Lindstrom, and even Rusty Klesla?

DM: Yeah, Klesla this year was funny. He got hurt on a knee from an icing call and it was a broken hand, you know, but he’s never been hurt before; he’s been fairly durable. Danny Fritsche, our doctors are telling us his shoulders are stronger then they’ve ever been. Lindstrom basically had the same thing done as Fritsche, so we feel good about those situations. Other then that, Nash has been healthy, Zherdev has been healthy and Leclaire has been healthy. We haven’t really had any others to speak of. This year was more of a disaster with our veterans getting hurt. Hopefully our kids will keep developing and stay healthy and, you know, they’re the main reason for excitement right now in Columbus.

HF: You said that Tim Jackman was going to get a strong look for a roster spot in 2004-05, provided there is a season. Are there any other youngsters that might get an extended look?

DM: I look at Fritsche and Jackman as really challenging because they’re the type of players we need. They’re both big, strong guys who bring gritty, gritty game. I look at those two as guys that are really going to challenge. Aaron Johnson should make our team. He’s come up and played well for a 20-year-old. We’re going to send him back to Syracuse next week and finish up the season with a good playoffs. That should give us eight draft picks on our team next year, which, after four years, if you can get eight players on your team from the draft, that’s pretty solid. My goal is to have eight draft picks on the team next year.

HF: The 2004 Draft…

DM (laughing): Nine if I get the right guy!

HF: Do you want to tip your hand on that one, or is that pretty well a given?

DM: We’ll just see where that goes, but there are some kids we really like. You know what? We’ve always been a club that’s put the young kids on the team and we’re going to continue to do that until we become a good team.

HF: Is there any set strategy heading into the draft, in terms of drafting by position to cover a need, or is the club simply going to select the best player available, regardless of position?

DM: Strictly best player. Strictly best player. We’re not at that stage where we can hand pick. Another big power forward obviously would be a plus, but it would be great to get a big defenseman to go with Klesla, Johnson and Tollefsen and Kosmachev, to start building that base back there as well.

HF: Would you say defense is your main position of focus heading into the draft?

DM: I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that, possibly after the first round, perhaps. You know, when you really look at our depth chart with Kosmachev and Tollefsen and Johnson and Klesla and even Duvie Westcott, we’re pretty young back there. We’ve got some pretty good young guys coming. I would say all positions, forward, defense and goaltending, to be quite honest. We’ve got three third round picks, which hopefully we’ll be able to steal somebody out of there, you know.

HF: Have there been any thoughts at acquiring a second round selection?

DM: You know, at the deadline I tried to do that, and it just, the market went so sour there, and so south with the player dumping and I couldn’t get it. I worked really hard at trying to get a second rounder back, but I feel comfortable with it because that second turned out to be Svitov, so I don’t feel that bad about it, especially considering he’s only 21 years old.

HF: What I’ll do now is throw out some names and get you to give a quick comment. Pascal Leclaire.

DM: Unbelievable year. He looks like he’s going to challenge for a job next year, and I think he’s got a very good chance to make our team.

HF: Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.

DM: Gritty kid who’s shown a lot of character coming to the Western League and playing hard. Looks like he’ll have a chance to play.

HF: Steven Goertzen.

DM: He had a good camp. You know, we look at him as a good checking forward who has a chance at that third and fourth line because he can skate.

HF: Arsi Piispanen.

DM: 6’5”, 160 lbs, but terrific, tremendous hands. Our guys liked him at the World Juniors a lot. I didn’t see him because I was coaching at the time but our guys thought he took a big step this year.

HF: Aaron Johnson.

DM: Well Aaron Johnson is a former third round pick who’s come in. He just has tremendous heart and character, loves to play the game. This kid has a good chance to be a very good hockey player.

HF: Nikolai Zherdev.

DM: He’s special, really special. He’s come in under unbelievably trying circumstances. He missed training camp, missed exhibition, missed the first twenty games, and I think he’s the fifth leading rookie scorer in the league.

HF: And finally, Rick Nash.

DM: Yeah, Rick Nash is a really special player. He’s way ahead of where I thought he’d be. What a kid. As good as he is on the ice, he’s a better kid off the ice and in the room. He’s a big time leader for us in the future.