Coyotes managing general partner Wayne Gretzky received two animated, and completely opposite responses as he announced Phoenix’s first pick of Saturday’s 2004 NHL entry draft.
First, the crowd at Raleigh N.C.’s RBC Center saluted The Great One with a 50-second standing ovation. Then came a pregnant, stunned silence when Gretzky revealed what the Coyotes were up to.
Using the organization’s highest draft pick since 1991, the Coyotes shocked everyone in the NHL by taking Minnesota high school junior Blake Wheeler — the youngest player in the entire draft — with the fifth overall pick. Wheeler was rated 17th among North America skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau and 72nd by The Hockey News, but the Coyotes think they know something everyone else doesn’t.
"This young man has a tremendous upside," Gretzky said. "We took a bit of a risk, but we’re very comfortable picking him (at No. 5). He’s a tremendous athlete.’’
But it’s a roll of the dice to be sure. A senior-to-be at the Breck School, a private prep academy in Minneapolis, the 17-year-old Wheeler became the NHL’s highest drafted high schooler since Brian Lawton was chosen first overall in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars. He turned out to be a bust, scoring only 71 goals in five seasons.
But fearing Wheeler wouldn’t last past the first 10 or 11 picks, the Coyotes passed on chances to trade down and collect more assets to grab the player they had ranked third — ahead of hulking Canadian defenseman Cam Barker and behind only Russian superstars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin — on their draft board.
"We didn’t want to risk moving down and not get him. We have good information that says he wouldn’t have lasted,’’ Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett said. "We were striving to find someone we project as an impact player. The more we looked at Blake Wheeler, the more our scouts felt he could have the biggest impact.’’
The Coyotes added physical defenseman Logan Stephenson from the WHL’s Tri-City Americans in the second round (No. 35) and traded two picks (Nos. 60 and 80) to the Rangers to move up and get Russian winger Enver Lisin — the fastest player in the draft — with the 50th overall pick. They also beefed up their NHL roster, trading the No. 57 and No. 112 selections to Edmonton for left winger Jason Chimera.
But the focus was on Wheeler and a selection that had the hockey world buzzing.
"I was floored,’’ one NHL scout told ESPN.com. "Who knows, in five years he may be a great player and they might look like geniuses . . . but you had to think he would be available 15 spots later. That’s what amazed us.’’
But the Coyotes’ scouting department, led by Vaughn Karpan and Dave Draper, felt Wheeler was worth the gamble. The dominating, 6-foot-4, 200-pound right wing scored 45 goals and collected 100 points in only 30 games while dragging Breck to the 2A (small school) state hockey championship. He scored in 26 of those 30 games.
"The kid is going to be a star,’’ Draper said. "Sometimes you have to pay a higher price than you’d like or what people would think, but we think we have a real gem and a guy who will play in the NHL for a long time.’’
It will take at least three years to find out. Wheeler has another year at Breck or with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Then it’s on to a college powerhouse, the University of Minnesota, which has produced Coyotes Jeff Taffe, Erik Westrum and Keith Ballard.
But if he moves up as fast as he did Saturday, the wait might not be so long.
"One minute I was standing up clapping for Mr. Gretzky and the next I was drafted and standing up again,’’ said Wheeler, who had a bandage covering a cut on his chin suffered in a recent pick-up basketball game. "This is like a dream.’’
TV cameras caught Wheeler’s father, Jim, grab his head with both hands in animated amazement after Gretzky’s announcement before bearhugging his son. "The Coyotes scouted him and Mr. Karpan came to our house about three weeks ago to explain they were interested,’’ he said. "We knew they had an early pick, but we didn’t pay much attention to it. We thought the second round was a pretty good barometer.
"And then Wayne Gretzky is standing there, calling your son’s name . . . totally amazing.’’