The target number going into the NHL Entry Draft for the BCHL brass was nine. They hoped nine of their players would be selected in the 2004 Entry Draft, and it would have represented another solid year for the British Columbia Hockey league. It’s not hard to imagine therefore how excited BCHL Commissioner John Grisdale must have been then, when the total number of players ended up being 12, three more than they were hoping for.
In a statement made after the draft, Grisdale noted the accomplishment saying, “It goes without saying that it was very exciting for us. The draft was very rewarding and is a strong indication that more and more players are using the BCHL as a viable option to advance their hockey and educational careers.”
But it was perhaps the first round that had Grisdale more excited than anything else. It had been 15 years since a BCHLer had been selected directly out of the BCHL and into the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. Jason Marshall was the last, selected ninth overall in the 1989 draft by the St. Louis Blues. This changed when the New Jersey Devils announced a trade to move up to the 20th overall pick, and selected Travis Zajac out of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Only four picks later, teammate and linemate Kris Chucko was selected by the Calgary Flames. Two players taken in the first round may restore a great deal of credibility to the BCHL on NHL draft days, and in the future we may look back on Zajac and Chucko as trailblazers for a new wave of young talent that could emerge through BC’s top Junior ‘A’ League.
Travis Zajac (Salmon Arm) selected by New Jersey, 20th overall
The talented MVP of the BCHL Interior Division climbed the charts all year. Perhaps the greatest compliment a player can have is to be drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the first round. The Devils organization makes very few mistakes in drafting, and it’s clear they wanted Zajac all along.
When asked to describe his game at the draft, Zajac gave a pretty fair assessment. “I’m a big, physical forward who can beat guys one-on-one. Drive the puck to the net. I win the battles in the corners. Pretty offensively skilled, more of my game is offensive, but defensively I’m pretty sound. A pretty versatile player. Play in all situations.”
But up until last season, Zajac’s physical play had come into question. While he’s not a punishing player, Zajac does go into high-traffic areas and has learned to use his new-found size to his advantage.
“I think I didn’t start gaining weight and some height until the last couple years and that’s helped me out a lot. It’s helped me out in the crease and being able to control guys and be stronger on guys and get more scoring opportunities.”
Even before the draft, Zajac had an inkling that the Devils were interested in him more than any other team with a first round pick. The selection came as no surprise to him.
“I met with them probably the most out of each team. And they’ve been known to take guys from North Dakota like Zach Parise and Heyla. So it didn’t surprise me that much.”
Kris Chucko (Salmon Arm) selected by Calgary, 24th overall
What came next was in fact a surprise to nearly all who followed the draft. The Calgary Flames went off the board a little bit to select Salmon Arm forward Kris Chucko with the 24th overall pick. Becoming a Flame ought to fit like a glove for Chucko, as his size, leadership, and style of play should to fit right in with Daryll Sutter’s grind-it-out style of play.
“Watching them in the playoffs was very special,” Chucko said after being drafted. “You don’t get a lot of teams where everyone is out there blocking shots, everyone is out there paying the price. That’s a very special thing. I think for him to get that going and me to come in I think I’d do well.”
One upside for Chucko is that if he cannot make the NHL as a scorer, he could very easily make it as a checker. This perhaps makes him one of the ‘safest’ picks in the draft. Still, drafted by Calgary and power forward potential will get you the obvious Jerome Iginla comparison, of which Chucko is humbled by.
“Obviously Jerome Iginla is a pretty big comparison, but I like to compete every night, I can only hope.”
The single largest concern with Chucko, like Zajac, was the level of play. There are still those scouts and general managers that look at the BCHL as a second-rate league. Chucko had the size and skill to play in the WHL, but instead opted for the BCHL to keep his college eligibility intact. “I think I need to develop a little more physically and I’m still growing a bit. I think college will help me develop and a lot of practices, will prepare me a lot better.”
As the first round closed up, it’s clear that the day had been a big step forward for the BCHL. Both Zajac and Chucko taken in the first round months before the draft was considered a bit of a longshot, but it all came into fruition in the end, and Chucko, like 29 other young men taken in the first round, was elated.
“Well, to tell you the truth, it’s always been the BCHL tease, to get drafted after the first round, so I’m very glad that we could both do it. I mean, it’s exciting obviously, we’re going to be split up next year (or the next year), but it’s exciting that we could do it on the same day, playing with each other all year. It’s a day of celebration.”
Raymond Sawada (Nanaimo) selected by Dallas, 52nd overall
It came to no surprise to those that saw him play for the BCHL Championship winning Nanaimo Clippers, to see Raymond Sawada go in the first day of the draft.
“My agent told me, well hopefully the first day, but anywhere from the second to the fourth round.”, said Sawada at the draft. “I think it’s great, exactly where I want to be.”
A rambunctious, energetic player, Sawada describes himself well. “I’m pretty much a power forward,” said Sawada. “I like to crash and bang, get people off the puck, get the puck to goal scorers. Basically crash and get rebounds. Backcheck and play on the penalty kill.”
That versatility played a large part in Nanaimo’s playoff run, as Sawada became a key member, even as only a rookie, for the Clippers down the stretch and into the playoffs, particularly with his physical play, timely goal scoring, and penalty killing prowess.
Being taken by Dallas came as a surprise to Sawada, having only spoken to the organization once.
“The only time I talked to them was yesterday actually,” Sawada explained, ”All I did was a psychological test, which I guess went really well because here I am!”
Andrew Sarauer (Langley) selected by Vancouver, 125th overall
The large, lanky winger from the Langley Hornets will be a project for the Vancouver Canucks. Opting out of the 2003 draft in hopes of earning a better ranking in 2004 seems to have paid off for Sarauer, as he had a strong 2003-04 season for Langley, posting 44 goals and 75 points in 57 games. Still, for such a large man, Sarauer can sure seem smaller than he is out there, and he will have to gain some major muscle if he wishes to join the professional leagues of the AHL or the NHL down the road.
Jordan Foote (Nanaimo) selected by New York Rangers, 169th overall
A teammate of Raymond Sawada, Jordan Foote is also an energy player with some scoring pop. Foote is an exceptionally good skater, and he utilizes that speed on the forecheck well, often creating turnovers and in general making life a living hell for the opposition.
Mike Santorelli (Vernon) selected by Nashville, 178th overall
The talented Mike Santorelli was the first of two BCHL players selected by Nashville. Not a very big player, Santorelli relies on his positioning and skill with the puck in the offensive zone rather than his body. And while not very small either, Santorelli does tend to get pushed around by physical players. Still, Nashville is taking a chance on some skill here, and with the recent great play of Martin St.Louis and Steve Sullivan in the NHL, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea.
Tyler Eckford (Surrey) selected by New Jersey, 217th overall
Heading to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks for the 2004-05 season, Tyler Eckford is a big, skilled, and nasty defenseman out of South Surrey that could potentially be a big find for the New Jersey Devils’ vaunted scouting staff. Eckford still has a long ways to go, but he has changed for the better in the last season in a unique way. Eckford in the past was sometimes considered a player who did not use his size enough, but now he’s known as a guy who is downright nasty, a player who is all but willing to use his size at every opportunity. Those scouts that did not see Eckford play late in the 2003-04 season might have missed this, but clearly the Devils scouts didn’t.
Brandon Yip (Coquitlam) selected by Colorado, 239th overall
On a line with another Avalanche prospect, David Jones, and 2005-eligible Brock Bradford, Brandon Yip is in the right situation to succeed for the Coquitlam express. While Jones is the physical presence and Bradford is an all around skilled player, Yip is a finisher. A quick release and a sharp snap or wrist shot, Yip can pick corners surprisingly well for a player his age. Again, with many other talented players who aren’t 6’2, 205 lbs or more, Yip dropped in the draft due to his slight build.
Travis Gawryletz (Trail) selected by Philadelphia, 253rd overall
A potentially huge steal for Philadelphia, Travis Gawryletz may have been the most underrated BCHL 2004-eligible prospect heading into the draft. A solid defensive player who is only just now finding his offensive game, Gawryletz has everything you’d want in a defenseman: size, mobility, skill, and a good work ethic. His development for the storied Trail Smoke Eaters will be key, as if Travis is brought along properly, there’s no telling how far he could go.
Spencer Dillon (Salmon Arm) selected by Florida, 267th overall
The native of Santa Cruz, California, Spencer Dillon was not ranked by the Central Scouting Bureau heading into the 2004 draft. Very good size at 6’4, 195 pounds, Dillon know how big he is, and makes sure the opposition knows about it too, often leaning on forecheckers using his body to protect the puck. Almost impossible to knock over, Dillon has excellent balance on his skates. There is not much offensive upside here, however, and if Dillon is to make the NHL, it will be as a stay-at-home defenseman.
Matt Siddall (Powell River) selected by Atlanta, 279th overall
A very inconsistent player, Siddall some nights can look like a Todd-Bertuzzi-like presence on the ice, a physical force who can downright intimidate the opposition with his physical play. Other nights he skates around ineffectively, taking undisciplined penalties and committing poorly-timed giveaways. There is a great deal of physical talent here to groom for the Atlanta Thrashers.
Craig Switzer (Salmon Arm) selected by Nashville, 275th overall
The final BCHL player selected in the draft, Craig Switzer’s fall was disappointing to the Salmon Arm Silverbacks’ fans. The talented blueliner was a force for the Silverbacks, and was arguably the best defenseman in the BCHL for the 2003-04 season, scoring 54 points in only 57 games. The second player selected out of the BCHL by the Nashville Predators, Switzer has all the tools to quarterback a successful power play wherever he plays, but he will have to get stronger and quicker if he wishes to make the NHL.
The total of 12 selections out of the BCHL for the 2004 NHL Entry Draft was up one from the 11 selected in 2003. However the big news for the league will be the two selections in the first round, Zajac and Chucko. Without a doubt, this will raise the profile of the BCHL as a developmental league.
Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff. Holly Gunning contributed to this article.