Columbus Opts to go with Russian flavor on ‘Day One’

By Aaron Vickers

The Columbus Blue Jackets, who had never taken a Russian player higher than 98th overall in club history, broke that trend Saturday, selecting two Russians in the first three rounds of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Columbus General Manager Doug MacLean ended the trend of selecting a Canadian-born player in the first round, which he had done with his first round selection the previous two years, to select right winger Nikolai Zherdev.

Zherdev, who is originally from Kiev, Ukraine, has spent the majority of his hockey career in the Russian program, going so far as to compete under the Russian banner in international competition, which included a gold medal over Canada in the 2003 World Junior Championships.

Ranked as the no. 1 European player by Central Scouting, Zherdev managed to slip to Columbus after the Pittsburgh Penguins selected French-Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL. Shortly thereafter, the Carolina Hurricanes followed up selecting forward Eric Staal of the Peterborough Petes. Florida continued the trend of selecting Canadian players when it was announced that they had selected Oshawa General center Nathan Horton.

Zherdev, who has drawn comparisons to that of Ilya Kovalchuk, was then selected fourth overall, giving him the distinction of being the highest Russian selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets, a title formerly held by Ivan Tkachenko of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, selected 98th overall in 2002. Said to have explosive skating and awe-inspiring puck handling ability, Nikolai is the complete offensive package. Zherdev, an early favourite for the no. 1 selection in 2003, has all the makings to be an explosive, high-scoring speedster, something Columbus sorely lacked before the draft.

Zherdev, who was a member of HC CSKA for the 2002-2003 season, also saw a teammate selected by the Blue Jackets in the third. Defenseman Dimitri Kosmachev was selected 71st overall, was ranked 11th among Europeans by Central Scouting, adds an intimidating presence to the Jackets back end. Standing at 6’3”, 205 lbs, Kosmachev also has international experience, participating for the Russian Under-18 squad in the World Championships. A solid skater, Dimitri could improve his stride and acceleration. He has a very good puck sense, and is said to have good vision from the blueline, and sees the ice well. He certainly has his size and defensive game working beautifully.

Kosmachev is an excellent addition to a young blueline which will revolve around talented Rostislav Klesla, the Jackets first ever selection, taken fourth overall in the 2000 Entry Draft. Along with Klesla, Kosmachev will also join prospects Aaron Johnson (selected 85th overall in 2001), Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (selected 65th overall in 2001) and Scott Heffernan (selected 138th overall in 2000) on a blueline that looks more and more promising each season.

Not overlooking Columbus’ second selection in the 2003 Entry Draft, Columbus took another step forward in solidifying an intimidating future first line. With the 46th overall selection in the 2003 Entry Draft, Sarnia Sting centreman Dan Fritsche was called to the stage by the Director of Amateur Scouting, Don Boyd. Fritsche, who was ranked 10th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, fell to the 46th position before Columbus snatched him up.

Columbus, who was lacking a playmaking centre with an aggressive attitude after the departure of Kiel McLeod managed to solve their problem with the selection of Fritsche. Good speed, strong balance, a hard shot, good passing ability and an effective checker are all characteristics that have been used to describe the talents of Fritsche, who dubbed himself as a player from the powerforward mold. His offensive talents are matched only by his defensive awareness, making him one of the most talented two-way players available in the draft.

There may be one area of concern in the game of Dan Fritsche, however. Fritsche has had a history of shoulder problems, which limited him to just 17 games in his rookie campaign with Sarnia. Fritsche has gone on record as saying he does not see his shoulders as a potential problem in the future, and, being a native of Cleveland, Ohio, is glad that he won’t be too far from home when he is ready to start his National Hockey League career.

In their fourth draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets may have already had their most successful entry draft to date.
Their first three selections rival that of any of the three selections they have made in any of their previous three entry drafts.