- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

There are no Alex Ovechkins out there but there may be another Raymond Bourque, something to make today’s NHL Entry Draft worth paying attention to.

The league’s 35th annual draft kicks off at 6 p.m. at General Motors Place in Vancouver and continues through seven rounds, ending only when the pool of eligible players dries up (it has happened) or the scouts keel over from exhaustion.

The Washington Capitals have 11 chances to hit the jackpot, including five of the first 52 selections. The Caps have Nos. 4 and 23 (from Nashville) in the first round, then pick fourth, fifth and 22nd in the second round. Washington also owns picks 97, 122, 127, 137, 157 and 177.

Scouts are not high on this year’s crop of amateurs and maintain that beyond the sixth or seventh selection in the opening round, it is a fairly mediocre bunch. But that doesn’t mean some gems won’t be available. The Caps drafted Quebec City native Gaetan Duchesne with the 152nd selection in 1981 and the left wing went on to play more than 1,000 games over 14 seasons.

The talk in Vancouver this week has led many observers to believe a multitude of trades could occur as teams try to move up or deal their picks. Others may juggle spots just to grab a mid-level prospect they think can fill a specific need.

Washington general manager George McPhee didn’t rule out the possibility of a trade. It is conceivable, for instance, that he could package his two first-round picks to move up or acquire an experienced player who could help his struggling team.

The consensus No. 1 pick (and the only defenseman in the top 10 in most rankings) is Erik Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder from Bloomington, Minn. He has played for the USA Hockey development program and is headed for the University of Minnesota in the fall. A fast, powerful skater who thinks offensively when he is not blocking shots, Johnson is everything a team would want in the new NHL. St. Louis, which owns the first pick, will stun the hockey world if it doesn’t take Johnson.

After that, most scouting reports agree on the next six picks but not order of selection. Five of the six are centers while the other is a right wing. Washington has dire needs for a right wing who can complement Ovechkin and a right-handed pivot with strong playmaking skills.

The right wing is Nicklas Backstrom, who played for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. The 6-foot, 183-pounder has a left-handed shot and is said to be an extraordinary playmaker with great leadership ability.

The highest-rated right-handed center is Phil Kessel of the University of Minnesota. Kessel was the top freshman scorer in the country last season (18 goals, 51 points). He is an extraordinary talent but also has the reputation of being hard to coach and harder to motivate.

However, most scouts think Kessel’s talents are too great not to take a chance on — an area where the Caps have been burned before. In 1996 the team drafted a player with a questionable reputation but with enormous talent. Alexandre Volchkov went fourth overall, had sensational ability but only showed up on the odd occasion. He played three NHL games before returning to play in the Russian minor leagues.

The Hockey News projects the first five picks of the draft to be Johnson to the Blues, center Jordan Staal to Pittsburgh, center Jonathan Toews to Chicago, Backstrom to Washington and Kessel to Boston.

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