(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Oh, Canada! For the first time, Americans were taken with the top two picks in the NHL draft.
First, the Chicago Blackhawks, trying to rebuild a once-proud franchise after four consecutive losing seasons, selected Buffalo, N.Y., native Patrick Kane with the No. 1 pick Friday night. Then the Philadelphia Flyers picked left wing James vanRiemsdyk, a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program from Middletown, N.J.
“It’s good to have the No. 1 and No. 2 picks,” said Kane, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound right wing who had 62 goals and 83 assists in 58 games last year for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. “It’s unbelievable. It’s good to see the Americans start coming into the league.”
With the third pick, Phoenix took Kyle Turris, the highly touted center who’s already committed to play at the University of Wisconsin. The Los Angeles Kings selected defenseman Thomas Hickey with pick No. 4 — surprising many of the experts — and the Washington Capitals grabbed the top-rated defenseman, Karl Alzner, at No. 5.
The packed Nationwide Arena was swathed in red, white and blue because they’re the colors of the host Columbus Blue Jackets. After the first two picks, the color scheme took on new significance.
“It’s amazing. It’s something I’ll never forget,” vanRiemsdyk said. “It just shows how American hockey has taken huge strides. Two Americans going with the first two picks — it’s an honor. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Twice before Americans had taken two of the top three spots, in 1983 and 2005.
Rated the No. 2 skater in North America by the NHL Central Scouting Service, Kane is expected to give the Blackhawks a creative scorer and deft puck-handler.
The 6-3, 200-pound vanRiemsdyk had 33 goals and 30 assists in 42 games for the U.S. Under-18 team a year ago.
There was pre-draft speculation that teams were shying away from Turris, the top-ranked North American skater from Burnaby, British Columbia, because of his commitment to college.
But after Coyotes president and coach Wayne Gretzky received a minute-long standing ovation, he stepped up to the podium and picked Turris.
Turris, who said he was “in shock and awe for an hour and a half” when he and his parents had breakfast with Gretzky on Thursday, nearly swooned when he received a hat and jersey from The Great One.
“I’m speechless,” said Turris, a skinny 6-1, 170-pound center who piled up 121 points in 53 games for the Burnaby Express of the British Columbia Hockey League last season.
Hickey was ranked as the 26th best North American skater by the NHL’s scouting service, but the Kings still took him at No. 4.
The Capitals returned to form with the fifth pick, grabbing Alzner, who scouts compare to Anaheim All-Star Chris Pronger.
After Edmonton selected center Sam Gagner, a teammate of Kane’s in London, the biggest roar of the night came when the host Columbus Blue Jackets grabbed right wing Jakub Voracek. He comes from the same hometown (Kladno, Czech Republic) as New York Rangers star Jaromir Jagr, who has 621 goals and 907 assists in his 16-year career in the NHL.
Boston then took center Zach Hamill, San Jose traded up with St. Louis to get center Logan Couture and Florida picked defenseman Keaton Ellerby 10th overall.
The loudest boos of the night came when the Detroit Red Wings took Brendan Smith with the 27th pick. Folks from Columbus, home of Ohio State University, can’t pass up an opportunity to boo any team from Michigan.
The biggest surprise was how far forwards Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito dropped.
Esposito, ranked No. 1 in NHL central scouting’s midseason report, hoped to go to the hometown Montreal Canadiens with the 12th pick but instead had to wait eight more selections until Pittsburgh added him to its stable of young, talented forwards at No. 20.
Cherepanov’s unexpected wait ended earlier, but it was every bit as long for the Russian right winger. The New York Rangers took him with the 17th pick, after he slid through the round for a variety of reasons. Cherepanov, who said he will play another season with his hometown Omsk team, broke Pavel Bure’s rookie record by scoring 18 goals in Russia’s elite league.
The lack of a transfer agreement between the IIHF and Russia could also have turned teams off, fearing he would be tough to get to the NHL.
Even before the first pick was made, it was a busy day for many teams.
— The Toronto Maple Leafs dealt three draft picks — possibly one from Friday’s first round — for goalie Vesa Toskala and forward Mark Bell.
“We’re very happy with the way things worked out,” Leafs vice president and general manager John Ferguson said.
— The Nashville Predators dealt goaltender Tomas Vokoun to the Florida Panthers for three picks.
— The Blackhawks sent defenseman Adrian Aucoin and a seventh-round selection to Calgary for defensemen Andrei Zyuzin and Steve Marr.
In addition, the Pittsburgh Penguins reached agreements with veteran forwards Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi on one-year deals before they could become unrestricted free agents; the Colorado Avalanche signed forward Tyler Arnason to a two-year deal; Ottawa re-signed forward Dean McAmmond to a multi-year contract; and the San Jose Sharks locked up defenseman Craig Rivet with a four-year deal.