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'Absolutely thrilled'

Blue Jackets' take Rostislav Klesla fourth overall pick

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNNSI.com) -- Picking the players was the easy part. Getting them to believe they can compete next year in the NHL will be the hard part for the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets.

"We've got a busy week ahead of us," assistant general manager Jim Clark said after drafting 37 players through the NHL expansion and entry drafts over the weekend. "The work doesn't stop for any NHL team now in the summer as it used to years ago."

The Blue Jackets picked up 26 players in the expansion draft on Friday. On Saturday, they landed the defenseman they coveted, 18-year-old Rostislav Klesla, with the fourth pick overall in the first round. Having dealt their second-round pick in the deal for Colorado Avalanche goaltender Marc Denis, they then grabbed right wing Ben Knopp in the third round.

Despite picking fourth in Saturday's entry draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets believe they got one of the few available players who will see NHL action almost immediately.

Czech defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who played last year for the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, was the expansion team's first selection in the draft.

"This guy, in my opinion, is the only one of the four that has a chance to play in the NHL this year," Columbus president and general manager Doug MacLean said. "That is really exciting for us."

A large crowd at the Blue Jackets' draft party at a Columbus ice rink cheered the selection that came at 12:36 p.m. The fans were watching a big-screen video feed from the draft site in Calgary.

Balloons were released from the ceiling and the team's lime-green-and-blue insect mascot hugged fans shortly after MacLean announced the selection.

Klesla, 18, is 6-foot-2, 198 pounds and can both deck an opposing player or beat him for a goal.

"I'm a two-way defenseman who can play on power plays and penalty killers," a smiling Klesla said. "I read the play well. I can say I'm a pretty physical player, too. If somebody wants to fight, I can drop the gloves anytime."

That drew cheers and thunderous applause from the fans, many of whom sported Blue Jackets jerseys or T-shirts.

The crowd in Calgary watching the draft let out a big cheer when the Blue Jackets made their only other pick of the day, Calgary native Ben Knopp, who was selected in the third round and was the 69th selection overall.

Knopp is a 6-0, 185-pound right wing who made the all-Canadian Hockey League rookie team at that position last season. He scored 30 goals and had 30 assists in 72 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League.

The New York Islanders took Boston University goaltender Rick DiPietro with the No. 1 pick, with the Atlanta Thrashers selecting University of Wisconsin left wing Danny Heatley at No. 2.

The Blue Jackets lost a coin flip last month with the other expansion team, the Minnesota Wild, for the No. 3 pick. Minnesota took Slovakian winger Marian Gaborik.

"We heard at 3:30 this morning that DiPietro was going No. 1, so we knew we were getting Heatley, Gaborik or Klesla," MacLean said. "We were absolutely thrilled."

The Blue Jackets hope their No. 4 pick comes out as well as some other recent picks at that spot. In 1993, Anaheim selected Paul Kariya, Philadelphia took Mike Ricci in 1990, and Detroit got Steve Yzerman with the No. 4 pick in 1983.

Through Friday's expansion draft and free agent signings prior to it, the Blue Jackets had already assembled some size and toughness on defense. The capper was MacLean's deal with Colorado to acquire backup goalie Marc Denis.

The addition of Klesla, rated the draft's No. 2 overall prospect by NHL Central Scouting, gives the Blue Jackets a solid foundation on the back line.

"We feel we have Marc Denis as our goalie of the future," MacLean said. "We look at Rostislav Klesla as one of our great cornerstones."

Klesla came overseas as a 16-year-old to play for Sioux City in the United States Hockey League. In 54 games, he had four goals and 12 assists to go with 100 penalty minutes. Last year at Brampton, he had 16 goals and 29 assists in 67 games -- while piling up 174 minutes in the penalty box.

"He told me when he played in the Czech Republic he used to get into trouble because they thought he was too rough," Brampton coach Stan Butler said.

Gary Agnew, Klesla's OHL all-stars coach, said, "He's just one of those prototypical defensemen you're always looking for. He's a beautiful skater, he's got height and he sees the ice well. He's got a lot of raw ability."

MacLean said he would wait until training camp in September to decide if Klesla will stick with the NHL team or be sent back to Brampton for seasoning.

"The easiest decision is to send him back to the juniors, but we're going to take some time to think that through and see how he handles it," MacLean said.

Klesla was asked if he expected to be wearing a Blue Jacket jersey in the team's inaugural season.

"That's a tough question," he said. "I will work hard to make the team next year. I will do my best. The coaches and the people in Columbus will decide if I'm ready to play next season. But I will do my best."

Their nine picks Sunday included a mix of high school kids, 18-year-old prospects and 27-year-old Finnish defenseman Petteri Nummelin. Some will add depth in the minors, some could make the big club and some may never see the glare of the NHL.

Clark called Nummelin "a smaller, skilled defenseman that we think has an opportunity to be a power-play unit guy on our team this season." "Realistically, I don't think there was a round we were disappointed in," Clark said.

At least now the Columbus franchise has some players -- not many, but some -- who it can market to the public and prepare for the team's first tour through the league this fall.

"I feel really good, extremely happy," GM Doug MacLean said. "This is the start of the organization. We've got lots of work to do, but we feel we came out of the expansion draft with what we wanted: speed, character and some experience. And we believe we got some people in the entry draft who will help us, sooner or later."

Short on depth, the Blue Jackets added two bodies when they traded ninth-round picks each of the next two years to Florida and Detroit for their ninth-round picks this season. They chose center Andrej Nedorost, a 20-year-old center from the Slovak league, with the Florida pick, then added Quebec junior-league defenseman Louis Mandeville with the pick from the Red Wings.

The Blue Jackets' other picks Sunday included defenseman Scott Heffernan, centers Tyler Kolarik and Peter Zingoni, European forwards Janne Jokila of Finland and Martin Paroulek from the Czech Republic and goalie Shane Bendera. Bendera played last year for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League.


 
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