NHL draft rich in talent, offers difference-makers to those picking high

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Sunday's NHL draft promises to be a boon for some bad teams. There is plenty of quality, with a few players ready for prime time next season.

Prying away one of those top picks will be costly. There is rich cream at the top of this crop.

"You've suffered so greatly to end up picking first or second, it better be a heck of deal to have to move that pick, to go back or even to move forward," said Florida GM Dale Tallon, who holds the second overall pick after finishing runner-up to Colorado in the draft lottery.

How deep is the Panthers' hole? The worst team in the league last season is offering season tickets for US$7 a game, complete with a free jersey and parking.

Defenceman Seth Jones, winger Jonathan Drouin and centres Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov are seen as the top prospects available Sunday at the Prudential Centre in Newark, N.J.

In an unusual turn of events, the Avalanche have said publicly that they are leaning towards the 17-year-old MacKinnon.

If that's the case, Florida has first crack at Jones, rated the top North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. But Tallon says Colorado's transparency hasn't made their decision any easier.

"We're still talking about it," Tallon said Saturday after attending a USA Hockey news conference. "Before I came here this morning, we were still having heavy discussions on it.

"We're very fortunate, we're going to get a good player. At whatever position and whoever it is, it's going to be someone that's really going to fit in with whatever we have coming as far as our prospects are concerned."

Nashville president and GM David Poile, whose team picks fourth after Tampa Bay, sees difference-makers on the board.

"We're real excited to find out who we get (Sunday)," said Poile. "Because if all goes well, there's about six players that could be what I call franchise players. And they're the guys that are going to take us to the promised land for the next several years."

"This is a great draft," said Tallon. "We're happy that at (No.) 31 (the first pick in the second round), we're going to get a really good player too."

Carolina picks fifth. Calgary, at No. 6, holds the highest pick among Canadian teams. The Flames also pick 22nd (St. Louis) and 28th (Pittsburgh) in the first round.

Edmonton selects seventh followed by Winnipeg at No. 13, Ottawa at No. 17, Toronto at No. 21, Vancouver at No. 24 and Montreal at No. 25.

Some have compared this draft to that of 2003, a talent-laden year that produced the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Getzlaf, Nathan Horton, Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Dion Phaneuf, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.

Ottawa assistant GM Tim Murray sees it as a good year, but not 2003 good.

"I don't buy into the 2003 talk and that type of thing. But certainly the first round we like. ... I think there's a drop-off. Whether that's the second round or the third round, I think there's a drop-off that in the best drafts we haven't seen. What makes a draft great is the depth obviously.

"But there's a lot of talent in this draft," he added. "Teams picking high are going to get if not franchise players, impact players."

Ottawa director of scouting Pierre Dorion is also less bullish than some.

"It is a good draft," he said. "I think a lot of people that don't really scout have built it up to something that it's not. I think we're going to get a good player in the first round."

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says it's a draft that has something for everyone.

"I was talking to one director of amateur scouting yesterday and he's really bullish about deep into the first round and bullish about a lot of different type of players, too," said Cheveldayoff. "I know what our thoughts are, and obviously it's interesting to hear his take on what he thought. We didn't talk specific players but you could just tell that universally the people that are making the decisions or at least are recommending the decisions feel very good about it."

Marcel Comeau, Winnipeg's director of amateur scouting, is also enthusiastic about this draft.

"It's really good. There's going to be some really good players go in the second round and as you get deeper into the draft, players obviously need more time to develop and stuff, they've maybe got a couple more warts than some of the guys that went in front of them. There’s a lot of scouts saying it's the best in quite a while here and a lot of people very excited about (Sunday)."

Jones, who stands close to six foot four and weighs 205 pounds, is seen as NHL-ready, despite only having spent one year in the WHL.

"Seth is one of those guys that just comes along every once in a while, when you look at the big defencemen in the league like the Charas and the Prongers," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting.

"He's made for today's game under today's rules."

Jones, the 18-year-old son of former Toronto Raptor and current Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Popeye Jones, collected 56 points (14 goals and 42 assists) and a plus-46 rating in 61 games, helping Portland to the Memorial Cup final.

"Any time there's been a challenge put in front of him, he's met it and he's succeeded," said Marr.

The six-foot, 182-pound MacKinnon, like Jones, is a player who rises to the occasion. His ability to accelerate is also remarkable.

"He's got a quickness to pull away with his speed that I haven't seen in a number of years," said Marr.

The five-foot-10, 186-pound Drouin, another Moosehead, is compared to a young Joe Sakic.

"His intuition in the game, his quick read and react, it's excellent," said Marr. "There's not too many players available that read the game and see the ice and can make the play. And he can deliver, offensively and defensively."

Other prospects worth watching are defenceman Darnell Nurse, whom Marr compares to Shea Weber, and goalie Zachary Fucale, touted as being cool as ice under pressure.

The Avs' willingness to discuss their preference with the top pick has drawn a variety of responses.

Poile calls it "rather refreshing."

"Good on them that they know what they do," he said.

Tallon said it makes sense given the character of Sakic, Colorado's executive vice-president of hockey operations, and coach Patrick Roy.

"They're classy guys; they're very honest guys. They're new, they want to have fun. They're invigorating, enthusiastic guys and that's the way they are," said Tallon.

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray sounded a little more skeptical.

"I don't know whether they're following through with what they said totally or it's just easier for them to say this is what we're doing and go about doing it."

There is no shortage of family ties to this draft.

Forward Max Domi, son of Tie, has drawn kudos for his offensive skills. But teams can also get nostalgic and pick up a Bertuzzi, Brodeur, Comrie, LaFontaine, Mantha, Quenneville, Rychel, Subban, or Tambellini.

NOTES—Some 211 players from 12 countries were taken during last year's draft. Canada led the way with 99 followed by the U.S. (56 ), Sweden (22), Russia (11), Finland (9), Czech Republic (6), Denmark (2), Latvia (2), Belarus (1), Germany (1), Switzerland (1) and United Kingdom (1) ... Top prospect Seth Jones goes by his second name. He prefers Seth over his first name Jared.


With files from Canadian Press hockey writer Stephen Whyno



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