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HOCKEY'S FUTURE: Staal leads draft prospects

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He honed his skills on a rink in the backyard of his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Now, Eric Staal is inching ever so much closer to a career in the National Hockey League. In a draft class that is said to be one of the deepest in years, Staal is seen by many as the top player available in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. In its pre-draft rankings, the Hockey's Future Prospect Advisor has Staal rated tops among all prospects. Despite those who think the contrary, there are many people who believe that regardless of who has the top pick, Staal, a center for the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, will be the first player selected come Saturday in Nashville. Staal has been under the microscope all season long, ever since the fall when he was ranked behind fellow OHL star Nathan Horton of the Oshawa Generals. Since then Staal has been heavily scouted and has posted career highs in goals (39), assists (59) and points (98) and most other offensive categories. Staal didn't let the pressure get to him, though, and said he was comfortable under the scrutiny of the scouts. "It was fun," Staal said. "A lot of guys on our team are eligible and playing against guys like Horts, you know there's going to be a lot of people in the crowd." The Thunder Bay area has been a hotbed for Major Junior talent, producing a number of quality players including former OHLers , who starred for the Sudbury Wolves, and Malcolm MacMillan, who suited up for Sault Ste. Marie, Guelph and Barrie. Current Windsor Spitfire defenseman Mitch Maunu also hails from Thunder Bay. Staal was captain of his hometown Thunder Bay Bantam AAA , who won the inaugural OHL Cup in Mississauga in 2000. That team featured two other future OHL players in Jeremy Swanson of Barrie and Michael Krelove of the Soo Greyhounds. Staal scored 11 goals in seven tournament games after posting 48 goals and 100 points in 59 regular-season games with the . Aside from being the top-rated prospect for the draft, other accolades have rolled in for the 18-year-old center throughout his OHL career. After being named to the OHL all-rookie first team two seasons ago, Staal has received a number of awards and accolades this season, including being named the Petes' team MVP and being named to the OHL Second All-Star Team and the Canadian Hockey League First All-Star Team. Most scouting reports on the young Peterborough forward like Staal's size (6-3, 185) and say that his skill and speed are solid. The only knock on him is thought to be a lack of strength. Whatever he lacks in strength though, he makes up for in creativity, as Staal is strong with the puck. Regardless, Staal is an outstanding player, although he agrees he can improve his strength. "I need to get stronger," Staal said. "I'm working on that over the summer." Staal sees himself as a two-way center with a stronger offensive side to his game. He feels that there are two things that are real strengths in his game: His skating and his ability to see the ice. "(Staal) has an insatiable appetite for the game," said agent Darren Ferris of The Orr Hockey Group, who represents Staal, along with several other draft prospects, including Anthony Stewart, Jeff Carter and Nathan Horton. "Eric is a highly skilled centerman. He's a great hockey player." Not only is Staal a great player, but his agent says he is also a great person away from the rink. "Eric is a great kid, he comes from a great family," Ferris said. "Whoever drafts him is getting a really fine young man." Eric isn't the only hockey player in the Staal household, as his three younger brothers are all solid players. Staal's younger brother Marc was recently chosen in the OHL priority draft by the Sudbury Wolves, who used the second overall pick to take the younger Staal. Eric's other two younger brothers, Jordan, 14, and Jared, 12, also display the same level of talent and tenacity as their older brothers. Staal commented that playing with former Florida Panther first-round pick and veteran OHL blueliner Lukas Krajicek has been a help in preparing for the draft. "He's a really good player," Staal said of his Peterborough teammate. "He loved Florida. He talked a lot about it and what it was like." A veteran of three OHL seasons, Staal wouldn't go as far to say it was an advantage in the draft but he did say Krajicek's experience in the draft helped him. "I don't know if it's an advantage," Staal said. "I improved every year. My first year I was just getting my feet wet and this year I felt a lot more comfortable." Ferris said that there was one main piece of advice he could give to the OHL veteran concerning the draft. "I tell him to enjoy the day. I call it 'Hollywood for a day'," Ferris said. "You still have to work hard for a contract, then earning a job, and keeping a job. It's a privilege to play (in the NHL)." Staal joins a number of his Peterborough teammates as possible picks in the draft. Aside from Staal, three other members of the Petes are rated by the HF Prospect Advisor: Aaron Dawson (76th), Jamie Tardif (79th) and Mark Flood (199th). Greg Williams and goalie Jeff McDougald also merit consideration and could possibly be selected. If all six Petes are picked, that would move Peterborough's number of players drafted since 1969 to more than 150 players, tops among Ontario Hockey League teams. Regardless of where Staal ends up being selected, judging by what scouts think of him, he will likely go on to a strong NHL career. And if his brothers are as good, we could possibly have another family affair in the NHL. Brad Coccimiglio is a contributor to Hockey's Future, the No. 1 source for news on hockey prospects in print and on the Web.
Tagged: Sabres, Taylor Pyatt

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