Eyeing the future
Thrashers take Kovalchuk No. 1 to kick off NHL Draft
Updated: Sunday June 24, 2001 9:25 AM
SUNRISE, Fla. (Ticker) -- One Russian made history and another became history Saturday at the NHL Draft.
To no one's surprise, the Atlanta Thrashers made Ilja Kovalchuk the first Russian player selected first overall in the history of the NHL Draft. Moments later, the Ottawa Senators unloaded center Alexei Yashin, sending the former Hart Trophy finalist to the New York Islanders for two young players and the second overall pick.
Ottawa used the pick on center Jason Spezza, the top-ranked North American prospect who, like Kovalchuk, is expected to be a franchise player.
Yashin was one of several big names traded on draft day. Having lost faith in Roman Turek, the St. Louis Blues traded their former No. 1 goaltender and a fourth-round selection to the Calgary Flames for goalie Fred Brathwaite, left wing Sergei Varlamov, center Daniel Tkaczuk -- a former first-round pick -- and a ninth-round pick.
The Bure brothers will be teammates for the first time in a decade after the Florida Panthers acquired right wing Valeri Bure and center Jason Wiemer from the Calgary Flames for center Rob Niedermayer and a second-round pick.
Also, the Dallas Stars acquired veteran defenseman Jyrki Lumme from the Phoenix Coyotes for right wing Tyler Bouck and the Philadelphia Flyers obtained the rights to veteran Czech center Jiri Dopita from the Panthers for a second-round pick.
Ironically, Yashin is one of three Russian players chosen with the second overall draft pick. But Kovalchuk outdid him Saturday, going to the Thrashers, who had the No. 1 pick for the second time in their three-year history.
Thrashers general manager Don Waddell spoke glowingly of Kovalchuk and rejected trade proposals from as many as a dozen teams to hold onto what he described as a "franchise-type player."
"In our three years, it's the first player we've taken that 100 percent of our staff all agreed on," Waddell said. "We all feel this player is a 100-point-type player. Development of this player is what's critical in the next year or two. We all feel that he's going to be a superstar in this league and he will get 100 points for a lot of years."
An outstanding playmaker and puckhandler, the 6-2, 200-pound Kovalchuk scored 28 goals in 40 games last season in Russia and dazzled scouts at the Under-18 World Championships, where he had 11 goals in six games.
"I understand this is a young team, but I will do the best I can to make this team a lot better, a lot stronger," Kovalchuk said through an interpreter.
The Senators made the biggest noise in landing Spezza with the second overall pick. They finally rid themselves of Yashin, a two-time 40-goal scorer whose contentious contract holdout in 1999-00 spurred lawsuits by the team and its angry fans.
"We're looking forward to turning the page, we're looking to move in," Ottawa general manager Marshall Johnston said. "To be that critical would be unfair because Alexei brought a lot of success and contributed to a lot of the Ottawa Senators' previous success. But the Ottawa Senators are going to be in Ottawa a long time and we felt that this was an opportunity for us to move on."
In return for Yashin, the Senators got 6-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara, feisty right wing Bill Muckalt and the right to select Spezza, who -- like Kovalchuk -- is projected as a franchise player.
"His potential is very good," Johnston said. "We are giving up a 40-goal scorer for someone that hasn't played a game in the league. ... But in our view, this was a fair deal."
One of only four players to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships at the age of 16, Spezza was second in the Ontario Hockey League in scoring last season with 43 goals and 73 assists in 56 games.
Yashin finally gives the struggling Islanders and embattled general manager Mike Milbury a star presence as they try to return to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
"We've had the unfortunate pleasure of drafting very low for the last few years and I think as an organization we needed somebody with the star power that we can rally around," Milbury said. "And this guy certainly has that great offensive ability."
Russian center Alexander Svitov went to the Tampa Bay Lightning with the third pick and was followed by Stephen Weiss, a center likened by some to Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic who was taken by the host Panthers.
Svitov's former teammate, right wing Stanislav Chistov, was selected by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim at No. 5, while the Minnesota Wild used the sixth pick on Finnish center Mikko Koivu, the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu.
The Canadiens chose hulking defenseman Mike Komisarek, who plans to return to the University of Michigan, with the seventh pick. Despite boasting two solid netminders, the Columbus Blue Jackets took goaltender Pascal Leclaire at No. 8. Finnish center-right wing Tuomo Ruutu went next to the Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers rounded out the top 10 by taking goalie Dan Blackburn.
Ten centers were taken in the first round along with eight defensemen, eight wingers and four goaltenders. Twelve first-round picks were from Canada, five each from Russia and the United States, three from the Czech Republic, two apiece from Sweden and Finland and one from Germany.