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Saturday, June 24, 2006
Blues take defenseman Johnson with No. 1 pick

Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The NHL draft turned into a showcase for hockey in Minnesota.

Bloomington native Erik Johnson became just the fifth American chosen first overall when the St. Louis Blues selected him.

Americans taken No. 1 overall
NHL Draft, all-time
2006 Erik Johnson, Blues
2000 Rick DiPietro, Islanders
1995 Bryan Berard, Senators*
1988 Mike Modano, North Stars
1983 Brian Lawton, North Stars
* -- Later traded to Islanders

Fellow Minnesota natives Kyle Okposo and Peter Mueller followed Johnson in the top 10 with Okposo going to the Islanders and Mueller to the Coyotes.

And the Minnesota Wild also made big new with a draft day trade, acquiring star forward Pavol Demitra from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the 17th pick and top prospect Patrick O Sullivan.

"It's a great day for USA hockey, as well as Minnesota," said Johnson, who played with both Okposo and Mueller in summer leagues growing up. "A lot of my buddies have just been selected and I just can't wait to congratulate them, it's just awesome."

Johnson joins Brian Lawton (1983), Mike Modano (1988), Bryan Berard (1995) and Rick Dipietro (2000) as the only Americans taken No. 1. Blessed with great skating ability, a big body, and soft hands, Johnson is known for making big hits and big plays offensively.

Ten Americans were selected in the first round, topping the previous high by two set in the last draft.

The 6-foot-4, 222-pound Johnson spent last season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, recording 11 goals and 22 points in just 38 games with the under-18 team. He became the top-ranked prospect with a strong World Junior Championships in Vancouver in January.

Johnson patterns his play after Colorado star Rob Blake but is compared more often to Edmonton's Chris Pronger, who won a Hart and Norris Trophy in St. Louis.

The only question now is whether he'll follow through on plans to attend the University of Minnesota next season, or go straight to St. Louis, where the Blues are still looking to replace Pronger after trading the All-Star to Edmonton following the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

"It just depends on what St. Louis wants me to do," Johnson said. "If they think it's in my best interests to try and turn pro, I'm definitely open to doing that."

The Pittsburgh Penguins used the second pick to select Jordan Staal, the 17-year-old brother of Carolina Hurricanes star forward Eric Staal.

Jordan is the third of what could be four Staals drafted into the NHL -- older brother Marc, 19, was the 12th pick in 2005 and is already signed with the New York Rangers and younger brother Jared, 15, is being touted as the best of the bunch.

Jordan, a 6-foot-4, 209-pound center who is widely compared to big brother Eric, had 28 goals and 68 points in the Ontario Hockey League last season.

"The bloodlines are there, but Jordan is Jordan. He's not Eric, he's not Jared, he's not Marc," new Penguins GM Ray Shero said.

Chicago selected center Jonathan Toews third. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Canadian center scored 21 goals and added 17 assists in 41 games at the University of North Dakota last season.

The Washington Capitals had their rookie of the year Alexander Ovechkin take the stage to announce the fourth pick, and used it to select Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom.

Backstrom spent last season playing professionally in the Swedish Elite League, where he was rookie of the year after scoring 10 goals and 16 assists as an 18-year-old.

Boston selected Phil Kessel with the fifth pick. The Madison, Wis., native was considered the consensus No. 1 pick heading into last season and earning comparisons to Pittsburgh super rookie Sidney Crosby.

Kessel slipped despite scoring 18 goals and 51 points as a freshman at the University of Minnesota last season. A dynamic scorer, he had only one goal -- to go with 11 assists -- in seven games at the World Junior Championships, a big drop off from the nine goals and 16 points he managed at the event the year before.

"I don't know what happened but I'm happy to be a Bruin," Kessel said. "Hopefully I'll go out and show that maybe I should have gotten draft picked higher."

Columbus selected Quebec-born center Derick Brassard sixth. Brassard scored 44 goals and 116 points in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season.

New head coach Ted Nolan announced the New York Islanders' selection of Okposo -- the first pick that registered off the ranking charts. Okposo had 58 points in just 50 games and was named rookie of the year in the United States Hockey League.

"It's kind of like a reunion," said Okposo, noting he played with Johnson and Mueller, who was chosen next. "We were always on the same summer team growing up."

Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky received a raucous welcome as he stepped up to announce the Coyotes had selected Mueller.

"We all grew up playing hockey on the pond," Mueller said. "I'm very proud to be a Minnesotan and an American today."

All three were gone just before Minnesota picked so the Wild picked big two-way Canadian forward James Sheppard ninth.

But Minnesota still managed to make a splash a short while later by acquiring Demitra, the Kings third-leading scorer with 25 goals and 62 points in just 58 games last year. Demitra has 241 goals and 581 points in 611 NHL games with St. Louis and Los Angeles.

O'Sullivan was the AHL rookie of the year in Houston with 47 goals and 93 points in 78 games last season.

Los Angeles then used the 17th pick to take Trevor Lewis, a Utah-born center out of the USHL.

Florida rounded out the top-10 by picking talented right wing Michael Frolik, who has already played two professional seasons in his native Czech Republic.

Los Angeles used the 11th pick to make Jonathan Bernier the first goaltender selected.

Atlanta picked undersized Canadian center Bryan Little 12th, and Toronto used the 13th pick to grab Czech forward Jiri Tlusty before host Vancouver selected scoring forward Michael Grabner 14th.

Tampa Bay picked Finnish goaltender Riku Helenius with the 15th pick, and San Jose selected defenseman Ty Wishart No. 16.

Colorado selected big forward Chris Stewart 18th, before Anaheim started a run of three straight American picks by choosing Michigan-born defenseman Mark Mitera.

Montreal used the 20th pick -- acquired earlier from San Jose in exchange for the 20th and 53rd picks -- to choose big Minnesota defenseman David Fischer, and the New York Rangers selected New Jersey defenseman Bob Sanguinetti 21st.

Phoenix acquired the 29th and 152nd pick from Detroit in exchange for the 41st and 47th selections, then used the 29th pick to select American defenseman Chris Summers.

Summers, a product of the U.S. National Team Development Program, became the 10th American selected in the first round.

"USA Hockey has done a tremendous job with development programs and developing players in this country," said Larry Pleau, general manager for both the St. Louis Blues and the US Team at the 2006 Winter Olympics. "It seems like they're starting to put more and more out here and it's a lot of credit to that program."

The only other big trade involving draft picks came before the second selection was announced, as Calgary acquired forward Alex Tanguay from Colorado in exchange for defenseman Jordan Leopold, a second-round pick -- 59th overall -- and a conditional second-round pick in next year's draft.