Penguins Pick Puckstopper

By Laurence Heinen

Marc-Andre Fleury has even more reasons to smile.

Renowned for his infectious ear-to-ear grin, Fleury was picked first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2003 National Hockey League Entry Draft at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

The Penguins traded their first round pick (third overall), a second round selection (55th overall) and Mikael Sameuelsson to the Florida Panthers in exchange for the first overall pick and a third round pick (73rd overall) in this year’s draft.

Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick said the move was made because the Penguins are in a rebuilding mode.

“We have made that pretty clear,” Patrick said. “We decided that the best place to start building is in goal.”

Fleury, who backstopped Canada to a silver medal at the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championships in Halifax, was clearly the top ranked goaltender in this year’s draft and Pittsburgh didn’t think he would be available by the time their third pick came around. So early Saturday morning, Patrick finalized the deal with Florida GM Rick Dudley.

The traded paved the way for the Penguins to select the 18-year-old who hails from Sorel, Que., and plays for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“He has got a great personality,” said Patrick of the affable Fleury, “but we based our decision on skill and we think he’s a tremendous, tremendous goalie with very good style. I think he’s going to be a great NHL goaltender.”

Fleury, who has three seasons under his belt playing for the Screaming Eagles, believes he is ready to make the jump to the next level as soon as next season.

“My goal is to stay in the NHL,” he said. “That’s always in my dreams. I will do my best to do it.”

The highly-talented netminder has set his sights on training hard in the off-season in order to be better prepared for his first NHL training camp.

“For sure I have to work hard this summer to get ready and work more on getting better so I can be ready during training camp,” he said, noting he wants to prove that the Penguins made the right choice to pick him first overall. “I will do my best not to disappoint them.”

With the second overall pick, the Carolina Hurricanes chose Peterborough Petes center Eric Staal, who was rated by many – including Hockey’s Future – as the No. 1 prospect heading into the draft.

“I am just happy to go where I am,” said Staal, adding that he wasn’t disappointed to fall out of the top spot. “I am happy for Marc-Andre to go first. We’re good friends and same with Nate (Nathan Horton, who the Panthers picked third overall). I’m kind of glad it’s over and I’m looking forward to the future.”

The 6-foot-3, 185-pound center, who hails from Thunder Bay, Ont., believes he has what it takes to make an immediate impact with the Hurricanes.

“I’m just excited to be a part of their organization and I’m hoping for the best,” he said.

For the second year in a row, Dudley traded away the first overall pick, but still managed to select the player his organization wanted. Last year in Toronto, the Panthers traded their top pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets who proceeded to pick Rick Nash. Florida then chose highly-regarded defenseman Jay Bouwmeester third overall.

This year, ‘Dealing Dudley’ did it again. But instead of a swift-skating blueliner, the Panthers picked a power forward in Horton.

“To be honest with you, we have liked him for a long time,” said Dudley of Horton. “We have had him at the top for a long time. We really liked Staal too, but we always had Horton a little ahead. That’s the guy we wanted.”

And Dudley thinks Horton has the talent to make an immediate impact with the Panthers.

“We’d like to have 23 players like him,” said the Panthers GM. “He’s a guy who skates very well, that can score and adds some bite to his game, so he’s kind of a perfect compliment for what you are looking for in an NHL player.”

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Horton definitely has the size to make the jump to play professional hockey. The native of Dunville, Ont., also believes he has the necessary talent and desire to play in the NHL.

“I’m going to do my best to get myself in the best spot and stay (in Florida) hopefully next year,” said Horton, who scored 33 goals to go along with 35 assists in 54 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals this past season. “We’ll see what happens. You just want to go to a team that will give you a chance to play and that’s what I want.”

Like Staal, Horton commended Fleury for being picked first overall. Now that the draft is over, all three have to refocus their attentions on making the jump to the NHL.

“I’m just totally excited and looking forward to everything that’s going to come,” concluded Staal.