Gophers’ O’Brien, incoming freshman White taken in first round of NHL draft

Mark Remme

The prestige of past NHL Entry Drafts wasn’t quite there for the Minnesota men’s hockey team last weekend, but that doesn’t mean the results weren’t equally frightening for its Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes.

In fact, the group of current and future Gophers players snatched up in the 2007 draft in Columbus, Ohio, was just as gaudy as usual.

Despite lacking the headliner draft picks of years past – especially last season’s crop, which included three top 10s: first overall pick Erik Johnson, fifth pick Phil Kessel and seventh pick Kyle Okposo – Minnesota coaches watched one current team member and seven future players get their names called by NHL franchises.

Last season, the Gophers preseason roster included 15 drafted players out of 25. The results of last weekend’s draft helped keep that number high in 2007-08.

“We felt that we have some good kids coming in, and it shows that they have potential at the higher levels,” coach Don Lucia said.

The highest Minnesota player snatched up was incoming freshman center Patrick White. White’s first round selection, 25th overall by the Vancouver Canucks, landed him a spot with a promising franchise – the Canucks won their division last season – before stepping on the ice for the Gophers.

But despite talking with 28 of the 30 NHL franchises, White said he was a little surprised by the team that took him.

“Vancouver wasn’t one of the teams that we really thought would take me,” he said. “But they have a strong organization, and they’re going to the playoffs all the time.”

A Grand Rapids native, White helped lead the Thunderhawks to the Class AA state championship game in March and also tallied nine points in 12 games with the United States Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm.

Though Vancouver general manager Dave Nonis was unavailable for comment, he told the Canucks official Web site that White has great offensive instincts and ability.

“Obviously there are a lot of things Patrick has to continue to work on to become an NHL player, but in terms of having the skill and the vision on the ice, we feel like he’s got a lot of upside,” Nonis said on the Web site.

Just four spots later, Gophers sophomore center Jimmy O’Brien went 29th overall to the Ottawa Senators to round out the Gophers’ first round selections.

And not to be outdone by White’s Canucks, the Senators went to the Stanley Cup Finals last season before losing to the Anaheim Ducks in five games.

That type of instant success has O’Brien excited about the future.

“It’s a great honor going to a team that played for the cup this year,” O’Brien said. “They told me that they liked my game and that they hoped down the road I could come in and help the team with my style of play.”

O’Brien played 43 games last season while tallying seven goals and eight assists. He also helped earn a silver medal for Team USA in the IIHF Junior Championships in April.

Incoming forward Mike Hoeffel went to the New Jersey Devils in the second round, while the St. Louis Blues snatched Cade Fairchild in the fourth round. Both will join the team next season as freshmen.

Vancouver nabbed center Taylor Matson in the sixth, and the Washington Capitals took center Nick Larson in the seventh. Both Matson and Larson will continue competing in the USHL for one season before joining Minnesota.

Two players committed to the Gophers after joining USHL teams for a season or two also found NHL homes in the draft. Nico Sacchetti, of Virginia, Minn., was taken 50th overall by the Dallas Stars. Columbus took Jake Hansen, a White Bear Lake native, in the third round.

With a healthy crew of NHL-caliber players playing for Minnesota both currently and in the future, O’Brien shed light on why the Gophers are perennially so successful in NCAA play.

“We have tremendous depth on our team,” O’Brien said. “We’re able to roll four lines and wear a lot of teams down.”