Pair of Winterhawks among top 5 players taken in NHL draft

Columbus takes Johansen fourth; Niederretter is fifth

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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Two years ago, the Portland Winterhawks were a hockey team adrift.

On Friday, two Portland Winterhawks were among the top five players selected in the 2010 National Hockey League Entry Draft.

Ryan Johansen was picked fourth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nino Niederreiter was picked fifth by the New York Islanders.

“It’s just exciting,” Winterhawks head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said, describing his emotion as he heard the names of Johansen and Niederreiter called. “I’m so thrilled for the guys. I felt like I was their parent. Just very proud.”

Both were projected as potential top-10 selections, though neither was among the top five in most draft projections. But Johnston — who was in Los Angeles for the draft — said he had a good idea the draft would go the way it did.

Players become eligible for the NHL Draft in the year they turn 18. Johansen and Niederreiter had big years as Western Hockey League rookies last season.

Though Johansen and Niederreiter both were selected higher than anticipated, both likely will play at least one more season in Portland.

Players under 20 must return to junior hockey if they don’t make the NHL team.

“I think they’ll both be back in Portland,” Johnston said. “We’ll see how it goes. They’re both young players who still need to develop.”

Johansen, from Port Moody, B.C., scored 25 goals and tallied 44 assists for Portland during the regular season. He added six goals and 12 assists in 13 playoff games.

Niederreiter, from Chur, Switzerland, had 36 goals and 24 assists in 65 regular-season games and added eight goals and eight assists in the playoffs.

The Winterhawks’ Johnston said last summer that he saw NHL potential in Niederreiter before Portland selected him in the 2009 CHL junior hockey import draft

Niederreiter’s draft stock rose when he starred for the Swiss team at the World Junior Championships last winter.

“Our goal has constantly been to add the best player into our lineup that will help us build our young core into a team that consistently competes for the Stanley Cup,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow told the team’s website. “Nino was extremely impressive in the World Junior Championships playing for Team Switzerland, using his size to create space. He is a big power-forward who will add size to our lineup for years to come.”

Johansen’s potential as a high draft pick was less obvious, but as he has matured physically (he was under 6 feet tall two years ago and has grown to 6-2 and 190 pounds) his skill grabbed the attention of NHL scouts, Johnston said.

“He’s just a late-developing kid,” Johnston said, adding that he saw first-round potential in Johansen from the start of Winterhawks training camp last August.

“I just thought he was a real special player” in training camp, Johnston said.

Johnston said that Johansen and Niederreiter both were receiving positive feedback in the days leading up to the draft. The Winterhawks’ coach said that Johansen had a half-hour meeting with Columbus personnel on Friday morning, but left that meeting uncertain he would be the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out. His name brought “oohs” from some in the crowd at the Stapes Center.

“A little surprised, yeah,” Johansen told the Columbus Dispatch newspaper. “I did fly down there (to Columbus in early June), so I had a feel for how much they liked me and where they had me on their list. I’m a little surprised to go No. 4 overall, but I’ve put in the work to be where I am today.”

This is the third time in the Winterhawks’ 33-year history that two players were among the top-10 picks in an NHL draft. They have now had 23 players picked in the first round.

Rounds 2-7 of the draft are today, and more Winterhawks figure to hear their names called. Defenseman Troy Rutkowski, forward Brad Ross, defenseman Taylor Aronson, and goalie Mac Carruth were all ranked in the final NHL Central Scouting report.

As expected, two Ontario Hockey League forwards topped the draft.

With the first pick, Edmonton chose Taylor Hall, the two-time MVP of the Memorial Cup for the Windsor Spitfires. Center Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers went second to Boston.

Despite missing most of last season with a hip injury, Prince George winger Brett Connolly was projected as the first Western Hockey League player selected on Friday.

Connolly, though, followed the two Winterhawks, getting picked by Tampa Bay with the No. 7 pick.