Columbus picks Rick Nash first overall in NHL draft

The draft day trading action began minutes before the 2002 NHL Entry Draft with a whopper, as the Columbus Blue Jackets dealt for the first overall pick from the Florida Panthers.

It was widely expected that Medicine Hat Tigers defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, long tipped as the top prospect of the class of 2002, would be selected with the pick.

But Columbus dropped another bombshell when general manager Doug MacLean announced that he was taking Brampton, Ont. native Rick Nash, a left winger with the London Knights who has been hyped as a dominant power forward in the mould of Brendan Shanahan.

"It was amazing," said Nash. "I was sitting there thinking about Bouwmeester going first to Florida, and next thing you hear there's been a trade."

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Nash is the first Canadian taken with the first overall pick since Vincent Lecavalier was taken by Tampa Bay in 1998.

Columbus had been in the third draft position, but traded draft spots with Florida and also has the option to swap first-round selections with Florida next season, apparently not wanting to take any chances on the availability of Nash, who only turned 18 six days ago.

1. Columbus - Rick Nash (F) 2. Atlanta - Kari Lehtonen (G) 3. Florida - Jay Bouwmeester (D) 4. Philadelphia - Joni Pitkanen (D) 5. Pittsburgh - Ryan Whitney (D) 10. Calgary - Eric Nystrom (F) 14. Montreal - Chris Higgins (D) 15. Edmonton - Jesse Niinimaki (D) 16. Ottawa - Jakub Klepis (F) 24. Toronto - Alexander Steen (F)

Blessed with speed, strength and great sniping skills, as well as grit, Nash, who scored 32 goals and added 40 assists in 54 games last season, is the sort of offensive tonic the low-scoring Blue Jackets direly need.

"Seems like a great situation to step into, so I'm very happy," Nash said.

"I've never seen a player step in at such a young age and be able to dominate a game the way he has," said Stan Butler, coach of the OHL's Brampton Battalion and the national junior team Nash played on last winter.

With the second pick, the Atlanta Thrashers selected Finnish goaltender Kari Lehtonen, rated by scouts as Europe's top prospect.

No European goalie had ever been drafter higher than 21st overall previously.

The 18-year-old had a stellar season in the Finnish elite league last season and was named the best goalie at the world junior tournament with a .943 save percentage.

"I think this shows there are good goalies in Europe, too," Lehtonen said. "I'm very proud of this, very happy."

Bouwmeester was finally taken third overall by Florida, the team most expected to select him first overall before the morning's trade. The trade with Columbus was contingent on the Panthers receiving a guarantee from the Thrashers that they would not take the highly-touted defenceman with their second pick.

The Edmonton native denied that he was disappointed at not being picked first.

"There was nothing I could do about it but watch how it unfolded," said Bouwmeester.

"I went to the same place (Florida). I said all along it's just exciting to get drafted and have the opportunity to hopefully one day play."

Bouwmeester has already made three trips to the junior world championships and scored 62 points in 61 WHL games for the Medicine Hat Tigers last season. Not only does he have good size, but Bouwmeester is a remarkably mobile and fleet defenceman who can key a deadly transition game.

Using the fourth pick overall, which they picked up from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Ruslan Fedotenko and two draft picks, the Philadelphia Flyers took Finnish defenceman Joni Pitkanen.

Pitkanen, the top-ranked European skater, could be the cornerstone of a Flyers strategy to add an element of youth, mobility and finesse to the aging and often plodding Philadelphia blue-line, but he can be a bruiser, as well.

The Pittsbugh Penguins took Ryan Whitney, a defenceman at Boston University, with the fifth pick, continuing the trend toward big defencemen who can crank it up offensively. Whitney's calling cards are clever playmaking and a great point shot.

The Nashville Predators, another team on the lookout for more punch, selected Kamloops Blazers winger Scottie Upshall sixth overall. Upshall, who has drawn comparisons to Toronto forward Darcy Tucker for his blend of offensive skill with intensity of play that belie a lack of great size, earning himself the nickname "Devil Boy."

"I have family here, in all the way from Newfoundland and Alberta, and it's an exciting time for myself and for them," he said. "I'm going to stay here for a couple of days to relax and treasure this moment because it's special for all of us here."

"Scottie is an exceptional talent both in skill and scoring, but also in grit and determination," said Blazers GM Mike Moore.

Nash, Bouwmeester and Upshall were teammates on the Canadian squad at the world junior championships last season.

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks, meanwhile, took Bouwmeester's Medicine Hat teammate Joffrey Lupul, a slick, high-scoring forward, with the seventh pick.

Offensive skill, as opposed to hulking size, was also uppermost on the minds of the Minnesota Wild in taking Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL eighth overall. Perhaps the best playmaker available, Bouchard has made scouts nervous because of his lack of size at five-foot-nine and 155 pounds, but few available players match his skill level.

The challenge for Bouchard will be making his way under defence-minded coach Jacques Lemaire.

"I'm not afraid about that," said Bouchard. "Even if the game plan is more defensive, I think you can go there and have success on offence."

Florida again did a pick swap, this time with Calgary. The Panthers gave Calgary the 10th pick overall, along with their fourth-round pick, to move up into Calgary's spot ninth overall.

Florida selected big playmaking Czech centre Petr Taticek of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, while Calgary took 19-year-old Eric Nystrom, the son of former New York Islanders winger Bob Nystrom. The younger Nystrom scored 15 goals with in 32 games with the University of Michigan Wolverines last season.

"He started out in Calgary, so it'll be nice to go back and see where he started playing his junior hockey," said Nystrom, alluding to his father. "The journey begins now.

"The door is open. I have to step through it. It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Buffalo took physical American defenceman Keith Ballard with the 11th pick - several spots higher than expected, and the Washington Capitals took Kitchener Rangers defenceman Steve Eminger and swift-skating Russian left winger Alexander Semin - rated second among European prospects - with the 12 and 13th picks, respectively.

Edmonton and Montreal swapped the 14th and 15th picks, with Montreal taking Chris Higgins, a Yale University defenceman who led all ECAC rookies in scoring last season and was described by Central Scouting as a "confident and cool player who works well in pressure situations."

"I actually grew up as a Canadiens fan," said Higgins, who is from Smithtown, N.Y. "My father got me into them and I've watched him ever since.

"I grew up following them pretty much religiously."

Edmonton then caused a minor stir by opting for Finnish defenceman Jesse Niinimaki, who had been rated only 50th among Europeans by Central Scouting.

The Ottawa Senators follow Edmonton by taking another European, towering Czech centre Jakub Klepis, who is best known as a strong skater and brilliant playmaker.

The Toronto Maple Leafs held the 24th pick overall and used it to select centre Alexander Steen, the son of former Winnipeg Jets star Thomas Steen. The younger Steen spent last season with Frolunda of the Swedish elite league.

"To be drafted by Toronto in Toronto is really huge for me," said Steen, who knows Leafs captain and fellow-Swede Mats Sundin. "I've always admired Canadian teams."

The Vancouver Canucks did not have a selection in the first round, having traded it to the Capitals, who used it to pick Boyd Gordon, a right winger with the Red Deer Rebels, 17th overall.

With files from Associated Press