Top things to watch at NHL Draft

Updated: June 24, 2006, 5:46 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Like time, the NHL stops for no one.

They're still sweeping up the confetti and hosing down the barbecue sauce at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., and the league already has turned its attention to the annual entry draft, this year held in Vancouver.

Normally, there's about a two-week gap between the end of the playoffs and the draft, but the Olympics, and the fact the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers took the maximum seven games to decide this year's Cup winner, has meant one event runs into another.

While many were consumed with the compelling finals series, GMs, scouts and agents have been preparing for this weekend, which marks the first draft after the launching of the "new NHL" and its new collective-bargaining agreement. Last summer, many GMs entered the post-lockout draft flying blind, hoping to guess right at what the game would look like both in terms of the on-ice product and the economics that drive it.

Now, the guesswork is gone. Or it should be for those who have done their homework. As a result, this weekend should be chockablock with intrigue and rumor as teams try and pull in the prospects they covet while preparing for the free-agent market that begins July 1.

Herein a look at some of the stories that might evolve this weekend.

1. All about the Blues

Jack Johnson
Will Jack Johnson, friend of Sid the Kid, land in Pittsburgh?
Just three days before Saturday afternoon's draft (it's a prime-time event in the east), the sale of the St. Louis Blues to a group headed by former MSG head man Dave Checketts was approved by the NHL's board of governors. As a result, ubiquitous broadcast analyst John Davidson is expected to be on the move to the front office as Blues president. It will be up to Davidson to ensure these first few days run smoothly as the Blues own the first overall pick in the draft (plus the 27th pick via the Doug Weight deal) and have a ton of money to spend to bring their payroll up to the salary cap floor. He will also have to decide whether to keep GM Larry Pleau and coach Mike Kitchen and his staff. Given the compressed offseason, look for Davidson to keep Pleau and Kitchen around for the coming season, but with an eye on a full complement of replacements.

1 (a). Ah yes, the first pick. With no Sidney Crosby clone in the mix this year, the Blues have much to consider. Do they take 6-foot-4, 222-pound defenseman Erik Johnson, generally anointed the top prospect of a group of four or five potential No. 1 picks? Given the strong roster of defensemen with the Blues -- Barret Jackman, Christian Backman, Eric Brewer, Dennis Wideman and Kevin Dallman -- the thinking is they could possibly trade off the No. 1 pick for a proven goaltender or scoring forward and still end up with a top offensive prospect, perhaps a Jonathan Toews or Nicklas Backstrom, the top-rated European prospect. Let's hope Davidson's been studying the scouting reports between periods of the playoff games he's been calling.

2. March of the Penguins

No team managed to do less with more than the Penguins, who won the Crosby lottery last summer and then managed to make a full Porky out of that silk purse. GM Craig Patrick is gone, replaced by Ray Shero. Strangely, Shero was forced to inherit brooding coach Michel Therrien, but still has at his disposal a remarkable young arsenal, which will be bolstered by the second-overall pick Saturday. Whether it's Jordan Staal (one of the ubiquitous Staal offspring now threatening to take over the NHL a la the Sutters of the 1980s) or U.S.-born sniper Phil Kessel, the Penguins will have assembled three second-overall picks, two first-overall picks and a fifth in the past five years.

The rumor du jour has the Penguins trying to make a swap with the Hurricanes, providing the Canes with Jordan Staal in an effort to stabilize the future of rising star Eric Staal in Raleigh. In exchange, the Penguins would acquire Jack Johnson, a blue-chip defensive prospect drafted third overall by the Hurricanes last summer. Johnson, as luck would have it, is fast friends with Crosby, having played with him at prestigious prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota. It makes sense on a number of levels, not the least of which the Penguins could use a defensive stud to complement Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, who will join the team this year, and netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. But Carolina GM Jim Rutherford will have to think long and hard about giving up Johnson, who has Scott Stevens written all over him.

3. Steve Yzerman's decision

The venerable Detroit captain has delayed his decision on whether to return for a 23rd NHL season long past what had been expected. Given the long lag time and the fact the Wings re-upped octogenarian defenseman Chris Chelios for one more year, look for Yzerman to return, as well. He was, when healthy, the team's best player in the team's first-round loss to eight-seeded Edmonton, something of a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. If Yzerman does return and the Wings return free-agent defenseman and Norris Trophy-winner Nicklas Lidstrom, it's hard to imagine GM Ken Holland would have room for veteran forward Brendan Shanahan, who will be an unrestricted free agent. And oh yeah, Holland needs to find a goalie having voted Manny Legace off the Red Wing island. Suffice it to say this will be a busy weekend for the Detroit GM.

4. Keep your friends close …

The hot rumor heading into the draft is that Patrik Elias has hired on Allan Walsh, the same agent as his close friend Martin Havlat. Elias, the long-time New Jersey Devil, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, while Havlat will be unrestricted next summer. Can the Senators work a deal to sign Elias? Not likely with Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara to compensate. But they could work a deal to send Havlat to New Jersey, enhancing GM Lou Lamoriello's chances of keeping Elias in the fold, a top priority for a team that's on the verge of falling of the map. If Ottawa GM John Muckler can pry Brian Gionta or even Scott Gomez out of the Devils, he'll have done a good day's work. Now, about that Dominik Hasek thing.

5. The Bryan McCabe situation

Bryan McCabe
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBryan McCabe has yet to sign on the Maple Leafs' offer.
John Ferguson Jr. never does things the easy way, does he? After offering a lucrative multiyear deal to top defenseman Bryan McCabe, the Toronto GM has been kept in limbo as McCabe has inexplicably failed to sign on the dotted line. There is much speculation that McCabe's wife, a native of Long Island, dislikes Toronto and would like to be closer to home, prompting the delay. There are also rumors that folks close to the Islanders and their new management team have made it known that McCabe would be welcomed back on the Island. Either way, it seems someone is destined to wildly overpay for the big defender whose production disappeared in the second half of the season. If Ferguson believes he's lost his grip on McCabe, look for him to be active this weekend looking to shore up his blue line.

6. Is Jay Feaster mad?

Let's be honest, many in the hockey world believe that Tampa GM Jay Feaster is mad. The common theory is he wildly overpaid for Brad Richards (a shade under $8 million annually) and that the team still has not filled the gaping goaltending hole that cost it dearly this season. Feaster signed two Euro-goalies in recent weeks, Johan Holmqvist and Fredrik Norrena, both of whom have strong international credentials but no NHL experience. Could one of them be the next Henrik Lundqvist or Miikka Kiprusoff, or will Feaster be beating the bushes this weekend looking for some help from his NHL brethren? Could be a bit of both. Although he's got about $21 million annually tied up in Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Feaster insists he won't trade any of the triplets, so look for Fredrik Modin or Ruslan Fedotenko to be dangled.

7. The Penny-Pinching Wild

The Wild are one of two teams with two first-round picks this Saturday (St. Louis is the other). By virtue of their generous dealing of netminder Dwayne Roloson to division rival Edmonton at the trade deadline, the Wild will pick ninth and 17th. The question is whether GM Doug Risebrough will be content to make his selections and stuff the prospects into his prospect stocking and continue on his merry way, or whether he actually will try and turn the Wild back into a playoff contender.

With the lowest payroll in the league and one of the strongest fan bases, the Wild motto has been "let them eat cake" in terms of moving the team forward. Apart from a surprise trip to the Western Conference finals in 2003 (that was the spring of the perpetual full moon in the West), the Wild have been preaching patience while developing only one true home-grown star, Marian Gaborik, who is a restricted free agent and will be very difficult to bring under contract. Assuming they sign Gaborik, this is still a team that has little chance of making the playoffs unless it makes some significant moves. This weekend will be a good indication if that's the plan.

8. Chicago hope?

It's entirely possible the Chicago Blackhawks could become a playoff team in spite of the best intentions of ownership and management, who have had years of bad decisions off the ice and poor play on the ice. But like a ghost ship, the team actually might be turning a corner. The Hawks will draft third overall Saturday to go along with a seventh in 2005 (Jack Skille), a third in 2004 (Cam Barker), a 14th in 2003 (Brent Seabrook) and a ninth in 2001 (Tuomo Ruutu). With the addition of Rick Dudley, possessor of one of the keenest minds in the business, as director of personnel, the Blackhawks might be headed in the right direction. If GM Dale Tallon can divest himself of some of the dead-weight he accumulated before last season, like Martin Lapointe, Matthew Barnaby and Curtis Brown, he'll do himself and a legion of long-suffering Blackhawks fans a huge favor.

9. The copycat syndrome

The accomplishments of the Hurricanes and Oilers are laudable, coming from non-playoff years in 2003-04 to a seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Now, it's time for rival GMs to try and steal the blueprints for their own. That means lots of home-grown, speedy talent, crucial free-agent signings and wise trades. Gee. Imagine that. Still, watch for teams to make a dramatic departure at this draft from the tried-and-true pattern of drafting the biggest 18-year-old available after the end of the second round and load up on skill, regardless of size. That will hold true both for forwards and defensemen alike. Watch for more college prospects in the later rounds as teams are looking for players with maturity that won't take as long to develop into potential NHLers.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.