Gophers likely to leave mark on NHL Draft

Chris Lempesis

In the 41-year history of the National Hockey League Entry Draft, no player with connections to the University of Minnesota has been selected higher than fifth overall.

In the 2006 Entry Draft – to be at 5 p.m. CST Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia – however, there’s a very good chance the Gophers will have not one but two members of their 2006-2007 roster go higher than that.

Incoming freshman defenseman Erik Johnson and sophomore forward Phil Kessel are thought to be top-five picks in the draft. Johnson is considered by many to be the odds-on-favorite to go No. 1 overall to the St. Louis Blues, currently hold the selection.

The 18-year-old Bloomington native – listed at 6-foot, 4-inches and 222 pounds – played for the U.S. National Under-18 team last season.

“He’s a large defenseman who, at this point, he’s become a very complete product at a much earlier age than most defenseman of that size,” Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tommy Thompson said. “And that’s why, to me, he’s pretty sure to be the No. 1 pick in the draft because it’s so hard to find people like that.”

E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s Central Scouting director – the organization that listed Johnson as the No. 1 North American skater in its final rankings in April – agreed with Thompson.

McGuire said Johnson has qualities that compare favorably with those of former New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens and current Colorado Avalanche blueliner Rob Blake.

He’s also been compared to former Blues’ defenseman Chris Pronger.

And Pronger’s old team has showed interest in him, bringing him into town for a visit on June 15, during which Johnson said he met team doctors, strength coaches and general manager Larry Pleau.

Still, Johnson said he hadn’t heard anything specific from St. Louis as far as their plans.

St. Louis assistant general manager Jarmo Kekalainen called him a “very impressive young man at this age, mature both physically and mentally” and said the Blues are “for sure” considering him at No. 1.

But when asked to put odds on that, Kekalainen laughed.

“I don’t want to put any odds on it at this time,” he said. “He’s one of the very strong candidates, that’s for sure. And whoever gets Erik Johnson’s going to be a very fortunate team.”

Of course, all this raises the question as to whether Johnson will ever don a maroon and gold jersey.

Johnson said the decision was something he had thought about a little bit and was still undecided as to his future.

One thing Johnson was sure of, however, was that money would not play a factor in his decision.

“(It’s) just if I’m ready to take my game to the next level and just see if I’m ready physically and mentally for the NHL,” Johnson said.

McGuire said that as much as he likes Johnson as a player, he doesn’t think he is ready to make the jump, saying Johnson needs to further mature physically.

Perhaps at least a year at Minnesota could help Johnson do that, where he might be able to play with players like Kessel and incoming freshman forward Kyle Okposo, another player thought to be a top 10 selection Saturday.

“It’d definitely be a fun year (playing with those guys) next year,” Johnson said. “But you know, I gotta do what’s best for me, and we’ll see what happens.”

Kessel slipping?

As high as Johnson’s stock currently sits, Kessel’s stock seems to have slipped a bit since the start of his freshman season at Minnesota – a season that began with many saying Kessel would be the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft.

On paper, that doesn’t seem to make much sense, considering Kessel was second on the Gophers in scoring with 18 goals and 33 assists (51 points) in 39 games to lead all freshmen in Division I.

But Kessel, dropped from second among North American skaters in Central Scouting’s midterm rankings in January to fifth in the final rankings in April.

McGuire said it was more a matter of other players passing Kessel than Kessel’s performance dropping.

McGuire used an interesting analogy in regard to Kessel and Johnson.

“If you had Microsoft and it kept going up a little bit and Google passed it by, what’s wrong with Microsoft?” McGuire said. “Well, nothing, it kept going up. The fact that Google passed it has nothing to do with Microsoft.”

One possible reason for the drop is that Kessel has been plagued by claims that he struggled on physical tests at the recent NHL Draft Combine and that his parents are perhaps a little too involved in his career.

Neither Kessel nor his father returned repeated phone calls asking for comment.

But Thompson and Kekalainen have met with Kessel and both said they had no concerns about on- or off-ice issues with him.

In fact, Kekalainen said the Blues had Kessel in for a visit in early June and that he is still one of the players they are considering for the top pick.

“I don’t know what kind of expectations (people) had (for Kessel),” Kekalainen said. “I think 51 points as a college freshman is pretty damn good.”

McGuire said that Kessel’s performance at the Combine didn’t match the “elite level fitness guys” but had a different take on his parents’ involvement.

“The fact that Phil Kessel – to the extent it’s true – has parents who are involved in his career, yes, but that’s by virtue of his age,” McGuire said. “Now, if they’re meddlesome at 26, you’ve got a problem.”

Three in the top 10?

Kessel and Johnson might be joined in the top 10 Saturday by another member of the 2006-2007 roster, incoming freshman forward Kyle Okposo.

Okposo was ranked 11th in the Central Scouting final rankings but McGuire said his stock has risen because of his performance in the USHL playoffs.

Okposo’s team – the Des Moines Buccaneers – won the USHL Championship with Okposo earning Rookie of the Year honors.

“He’s a really good prospect too,” Thompson said. “He’s an average-sized guy but very well built. Obviously really a dedicated, intelligent individual.”

Thompson also said that the Wild have a list of 14 players whom they would unanimously be excited to get with their two first-round picks and that Okposo definitely is one of those players.

Other hopefuls

There are another three incoming freshmen who are strong candidates to be selected Saturday as well.

They are defenseman David Fischer (No. 29 among North American skaters in final central scouting rankings); forward Michael Carman (No. 63); and forward Ryan Flynn (No. 77).