Consensus top pick drops to third

By Laurence Heinen

Just a day before the 2002 National Hockey League Entry Draft in Toronto, Rick Nash told reporters that it was his goal to be picked first overall.

He never actually believed his dream would become reality until the Columbus Blue Jackets traded up to get the top pick before announcing his name at the Air Canada Centre.

“It was amazing. I was sitting there just thinking about [Jay] Bouwmeester going to Florida and the next thing you hear there’s been a trade,” said the 6-foot-3, 188-pound forward, who hails from Brampton, Ont. “It’s like going down a big roller coaster right now.”

The Florida Panthers traded their first overall pick in this year’s draft to Columbus for the Blue Jackets’ third overall pick and the right to exchange first round picks in next year’s draft at Florida’s option.

Then, Columbus general manager Doug MacLean proceeded to the podium and called Nash up to the stage, where the talented London Knights forward pulled a Blue Jackets jersey over his shoulder.

“I was really looking forward to being picked by Columbus and now that I have the chance to, I’m really happy here and very excited,” said Nash, who counted 32 goals and 40 assists in 54 games played during his second OHL season.

Whether it has been with the Canadian National Junior Team or the Knights, Nash has definitely shown he has an abundance of talent. Now he has to prove he has what it takes to make the jump to the next level.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it,” said Nash about attending the Columbus training camp next season in an effort to crack the lineup of the Blue Jackets. “That’s my goal, to play next year, and I’m really looking forward to coming to Columbus. I think I’m ready to make the jump. I’m going to do everything I can to be playing next year and hopefully be a big part of the team.”

With the second overall pick, the Atlanta Thrashers also decided to pass on Bouwmeester – the top rated North American skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service – and instead take Finnish goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

While Lehtonen thought there was a chance Atlanta would pick him in second spot, he was surprised to go behind Nash rather than Bouwmeester.

“Of course, I think that there’s a good chance to be drafted to Atlanta,” the 6-foot-3, 190-pound netminder said, “but this was a surprise for me.”

When asked if he expects to crack the lineup of the Thrashers this coming season, Lehtonen said he definitely has a chance.

“That’s my big goal, to play next year in the NHL,” said Lehtonen, who earned most valuable player honors on his way to backstopping his club team Jokerit to a Finnish Elite League championship this past season. “It’s too early to say right now. I hope that I can play next year in the NHL.”

By being picked second overall, Lehtonen also became the highest-ever European goalie to be selected in the history of the NHL Entry Draft.

“I think this shows that there’s good goalies in Europe, too,” Lehtonen said. “I’m very proud of this, very happy.”

While Bouwmeester has been touted for a few years to be the consensus No. 1 overall pick at the 2002 draft, he wasn’t too displeased to see his stock drop to third. After all, the team he thought would select him in top spot instead chose him two picks later.

“I went to the same place,” said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound smooth-skating defenseman. “I said all along, it’s just exciting to get drafted and have the opportunity to hopefully one day play.”

According to Bob Loucks, his coach with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers, that day will come soon.
“When Florida gets him out on the ice and see what he’s like, I don’t think they’ll send him back [to the WHL],” Loucks said. “I’m sure he’ll show them that he deserves to be there and he will be there.”

Touted by many to be the strongest skating blueliner in years, Bouwmeester said he will work on getting stronger physically over the summer before heading to training camp.

“I’ll be playing against a lot of older guys,” he said, adding that he’ll also work on getting “defensively stronger in the corners [and] in front of the net.”

As for being picked by the Panthers, the Edmonton native is happy to be heading south to Florida.

“It’s a dream to play in the NHL no matter where you go,” he said. “It’s exciting and you have to be thankful for the opportunity.”