A few hoursbefore the Blues selected him with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft atVancouver's General Motors Place last Saturday, Erik Johnson was in the pool atthe nearby Four Seasons Hotel with two other prospects, tossing quarters in theair and scrambling to see who could get them before they hit bottom. It was akid's pastime--and an apt metaphor for the question many teams now face: Whenis the right time to see if the 18-year-old Johnson, the first defenseman to goNo. 1 since 1996, and other teenagers can sink or swim in the NHL?
As the leagueadjusts to life under a salary cap, it's tempting for teams to stock rosterswith recent draftees, the hockey equivalent of cheap labor. But the CBA signedlast year also shortened the time that teams control the rights to players theydraft. Under the new rules, a player can become a free agent as soon as sevenyears after he turns pro. (Previously, free agency didn't kick in until age31.) Thus, the dilemma: Should general managers sign talented teens who mighthelp on the ice and with the bottom line, or let them develop in college anddelay the start of their free-agent clock? "We will spend a lot of timetalking about that," St. Louis G.M. Larry Pleau says. "I've never seena guy play down too long but have seen many players play up too quick."
Johnson, a6'4" defenseman from Bloomington, Minn., who has been compared to OilersAll-Star Chris Pronger, appears to have the physical attributes to handle theleap, and scouts rave about his composure, one of the reasons his draft stockskyrocketed in the last six months. Johnson starred at the 2005 Under-18 WorldChampionships and had 49 points in 47 games while playing full time for theU.S. National Developmental Team last season, a performance that boosted himpast Minnesota center Phil Kessel, once the consensus top pick. (After a subparfreshman season with the Gophers, Kessel was picked No. 5 by the Bruins.)Johnson's U.S. coaches believe he needs a year of seasoning at Minnesota, wherehe could enroll this fall. But the Blues, who allowed the third-most goals inthe league last season, are desperate for help on the blue line.
While St. Louisponders what to do with the No. 1 pick, the rest of the league is still sortingthrough the chaos of the massive player movement after the lockout last summer.For the first time in years the trade market was active at the draft, assalary-cap-strapped G.M.'s looked to fill roster holes. The steal of theoff-season was pulled by the Canucks, who unloaded troubled winger ToddBertuzzi on the Panthers for Roberto Luongo, a perennial Vezina Trophycandidate. "He's the type of player you can build around," saidVancouver assistant G.M. Steve Tambellini.