Plot lines abound at 2004 NHL Draft

By Ken McKenna

The opening minutes of the NHL’s 2004 Entry Draft should be fairly predictable- the diminutive commissioner will take the stage to a smattering of boos from the assembled faithful, followed by the selection of two Russian wunderkinds by two of the league’s lesser lights. From this point forward, however, the process could have more twists and turns than a fairground attraction.

Or, it could all be a crashing bore.

The smart money is on the former scenario rather than the latter, since each NHL Draft produces a few dominant themes plus a few surprises courtesy of general managers with a flair for the dramatic (isn’t that right, Islanders’ fans?).

The 2004 edition of the NHL’s roster restocking derby has its share of plot lines mixed with a bit of uncertainty due to the pending labor strife that could scuttle the 2004-05 NHL schedule. Rather than focus on the negative aura surrounding the event, here are a few themes to focus on related to the players, the future of the game, that are being called to the podium:

Russians Rule: two Russian forwards, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, have proven to be a level or two above the rest of the pack, which means the duo will go 1-2 in the draft order. Ovechkin should be a lead-pipe cinch to go first overall to the Washington Capitals, while Malkin’s destination is not as sure as the position at which he’ll be selected. The Pittsburgh Penguins could call the big center’s name, or they could deal the pick to one of several suitors, thereby bringing some drama to the proceedings early on.

Masked Marvels: first, there were three goaltenders with the potential to be first round selections, then four, then five, and now there is talk that as many as six goaltenders could have their names called before Gary Bettman departs the stage to even more boos. The sure bets? Al Montoya, Marek Schwarz, Devan Dubnyk and Cory Schneider would seem to be a lock to have their names called in the opening round, with David Shantz being a fifth candidate for that honor. The identity of the sixth netminder is not clear, but an early run on goalies could be a sure sign of a special day for the men behind the mask.

Hitmen for Hire: for one day, at least, the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen could be the hockey equivalent of the University of Miami’s football program, a program known for churning out several high NFL draft picks. The Hitmen have a very good chance of having four of their players selected in the first two rounds of the Draft, with three of those prospects having an excellent chance to have their name called in the first round. Included in the quartet are three defensemen- Jeff Schultz, Andy Rogers and Brett Carson – which could be the first time three rearguards from the same club will have been chosen that closely together in the early going.

Western Swing: while the 2004 crop from the CHL may not be a banner one, the WHL figures to have a good first day on the draft floor. As many as seven players from that league could be chosen in the first round, while twice that number could have their name called in the first couple of rounds. Defenseman Cam Barker of the Medicine Hat Tigers figures to be the first player selected from that league, with Andrew Ladd of the Calgary Hitmen likely to be the first forward from that league to don an NHL jersey and matching ball cap. Several of the top WHL prospects are defenseman, a position that appears to be well stocked in this Draft.

Junior A+: some of the more obscure developmental leagues, such as the BCHL and AJHL in Canada, and the USHL and EJHL in the United States, should be well represented on the first day of the Draft. BCHL players like Travis Zajac and Kris Chucko have a good chance of being selected in the first round, with several more Junior A players expected to be chosen in the Draft’s second and third rounds.

Nordic Pride: 2004 could be the best year in recent years for the selection of Nordic players in the Draft’s first round. Forward Carl Soderberg and defenseman Oscar Hedman could represent Sweden, while Finland could chalk up three selections in the forward ranks (Lauri Tukonen, Petteri Nokelainen and Lauri Korpikoski). One of the Draft’s major sleepers could come from Sweden, as well, depending on whether a team is willing to use a high pick on forward Johannes Salmonsson. Salmonsson was a highly regarded prospect going into the 2003-04 season, but shoulder problems limited his effectiveness. If a team decides that Salmonsson’s injuries will not affect him long-term, the talented winger could go much higher than anticipated.

So, as you can see above, there are plenty of subplots taking place at this year’s Draft. The scouts and personnel people have spent the past several months preparing for this weekend, so we’ll see which teams did their homework properly on the Class of 2004.