Saturday, July 21, 2007

Joni signs a deal...thoughts on the 2002 draft class five years later

Joni Pitkanen signed a one-year deal with Edmonton for $2.4 million yesterday. It gets The Peerless to thinking, that the top of the 2002 draft is turning out to have been a real disappointment. After five years, here are the top-15:

1. Rick Nash (Columbus). Had a big year in 2003-2004 (41 goals), but otherwise has been a merely a decent scorer (he’s had 57 points twice) and is -65 in 283 games over his career. Does he play on a bad team, or does he not have the stuff to lift the Blue Jackets higher?

2. Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta). Arguably the class of this class and is perhaps the best young (under-25) goaltender in the game. His development has been what you’d ask for (went from 20 to 38 wins in his two AHL years, and then has gone from 20 to 34 wins in his two full NHL seasons).

3. Jay Bouwmeester (Florida). He’s a fabulous skater. Sometimes, that term is used much like “she has a nice personality” is used to describe women. Not here. But Bouwmeester also seems to lack the physical dimension to his game that his size suggests and tends to play “meekly” from time to time.

4. Joni Pitkanen (Philadelphia). The Flyers traded Ruslan Fedotenko, and two second round picks for the chance to draft Pitkanen, and five years later he is shipped off (ironically, Joffrey Lupul, who appears below, is part of the return). As bad a year as the Flyers had last year, and Pitkanen’s role in it (-25) makes Philadelphia a hard town to play in.

5. Ryan Whitney (Pittsburgh). Has had a rather gentle glide path into the NHL for such a high pick (he didn’t finish his first full season until he was 23). He had a good year last year, but the question with him – as with the entire Pittsburgh squad, given that everyone seemed to have a career year -- is “can they do it again?”

6. Scottie Upshall (Nashville). He will be 24 in the first week of the upcoming season and has not yet played more than 48 games in an NHL season. He was sent to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg, but only as part of a larger package than included a first and a 3rd round pick. He has the look of being a decent third-liner some day, but….when?

7. Joffrey Lupul (Anaheim). When Lupul takes the ice on opening night, he will be doing so with his third team, and he will have just turned 24. He has decent offensive instincts, but defensively leaves much to be desired. He’s had 61 games (of 162) on the minus side of the ledger the last two years, one of which was with a 43-win team in Anaheim.

8. Pierre-Marc Bouchard (Minnesota). He’s the kind of guy who can get lost, given where he plays, but he’s had pretty good progress. He is not yet an elite scorer, but in the new league a guy of his comparatively small stature could flourish. 20 goals last year might just be a start.

9. Petr Taticek (Florida). Arguably the biggest bust of the first round. He has as many games played in the NHL as he has teams for which he has been under contract (three). It would be something of a surprise to see him in the NHL (he played in Europe in 2006-2007 after a very brief stint in Hershey of the AHL).

10. Eric Nystrom (Calgary). Well?...he’s 24 years old and has two NHL games of experience. He has the pedigree (son of Bob Nystrom), which might work against him – the burden of expectations. He was re-signed by Calgary, so they must see a future for him, but he hasn’t yet taken that next step.

11. Keith Ballard (Buffalo). Another guy with his third team (drafted by Buffalo, traded to Colorado, traded to Phoenix). But unlike the path most three-team guys at the age of 24 might be expected to take, he looks like he could have a productive NHL career. 5-22-27, -7, on what was a bad team in Phoenix last year is not a bad point to be at this juncture.

12. Steve Eminger (Washington). Drafted with the expectation of being a top-pair defenseman, he is now in jeopardy of being passed by as a deep cohort of Capitals prospects moves up the development chain. Part of his problem might have been in his being asked to assume a more “defensive” role last year than the two-way role he might be better suited to, and his defense suffered. But something that Caps fans might consider – he was -11 by New Years and only -3 the rest of the way on what was a poor defensive team.

13. Alexander Semin (Washington). Might be the biggest achiever among the skaters in this class so far (although goaltender Lehtonen projects as the better player). He was 13th in the league in goal-scoring last year (tied for fourth in power play goals) and, with Alexander Ovechkin, was part of the third best one-two goal-scoring punch (84, tied with Heatley/Spezza of Ottawa) in the league last year to Tampa Bay (Lecavalier/St. Louis – 95). But, he seems to lack maturity.

14. Chris Higgins (Montreal). Suffered a variety of injuries and illness last year to limit him to 61 games, but still managed 22 goals. Looks to be a solid two-way, second-line wing who can net 25-30 goals a year.

15. Jesse Niinimaki (Edmonton). Has played 24 games in North America – all with Edmonton (the Roadrunners of the AHL, not Oilers of the NHL), and that was in 2004-2005. You have to wonder if that is about it for his pro career on this side of the lake.

Do any of these guys have “star” written on them? Will any of them have that 15-year career that makes them a no-brainer for the Hockey Hall of Fame? The Peerless thinks that of all these players, only Kari Lehtonen has that potential. Others might reach that level, but it is not obvious at the moment – five years after this draft – that any of them will.