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Flyers blockbuster trades could signal more as teams prepare for NHL draft

MINNEAPOLIS - What was thought would be a straight-forward NHL draft highlighted by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being picked first by the Edmonton Oilers became a more mysterious place Thursday after an explosion of trades by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Now the question going into the opening round on Friday night is not only where the top dozen or more highly regarded 18-year-old olds in this year's pool will be selected, but what sudden moves may be made on the Excel Centre floor.

Already, the Columbus Blue Jackets have dealt away the eighth overall pick, plus 21-year-old Jakob Voracek and a third-rounder, to the Flyers for veteran centre Jeff Carter.

That came just before Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren sent his captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings for two players and then signed free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a US$51-million, nine-year contract.

Now there's a sense it may set off a round of big deals involving several other clubs.

"That probably will shake some other things moving, but it doesn't affect anything we're working on," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who nonetheless is ready to move his 25th and 30th overall first-round picks plus a high second rounder if he can get a good NHL-ready skater.

Columbus GM Scott Howson said his team needs to start making the playoffs now and the Flyers gave him the chance to land a proven scoring centre to go with star winger Rick Nash.

"The time has come for us to do something like this obviously to try and get an immediate impact on our team," said Howson. "I don't take trading away a Jake Voracek — a 21-year-old player that's got tremendous upside — or the eighth overall pick lightly, but our fans have been very patient. It's been 10 years now.

"And we just had to do something that's going to make us better right now."

It was already a tough draft to call, with widely varying opinions among scouts on what order to place the strong crop of prospects that come after Nugent-Hopkins, the skinny playmaking centre from the Red Deer Rebels who is a consensus choice as the top pick.

The Oilers hold the first pick and, without confirming it, have given every indication they will add Nugent-Hopkins to a pool of talented young forwards that includes last year's first-overall pick Taylor Hall as well as Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and others.

"If I do go first there's a lot of young guys there who have gone through the same things I have, so they'll be great to talk to," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I joined a rebuilding team in Red Deer a couple of years ago and I really liked that.

"Edmonton is going through the same thing right now. I'd love to join a rebuilding team like that and help them to the ultimate goal, which is the Stanley Cup, eventually."

The Burnaby, B.C product can also make history as the first, first-overall pick from British Columbia.

"It would be a huge honour," he said. "I've had a lot of help from a lot of people in B.C. so it would be great for me."

Some feel the Oilers, who also draft 19th overall thanks to last year's Dustin Penner trade with Los Angeles, would be better off taking a defenceman like Adam Larsson, a Swede who is said to be ready to step into the NHL.

NHL Central Scouting has Larsson ranked as the top European skater and he is ranked second overall in the draft by the International Scouting Service, but others have him going fourth or fifth.

After Edmonton, Colorado drafts second, but they have good defence prospects and may want a big forward in Sweden's Gabriel Landeskog, who is captain of the Kitchener Rangers.

Florida, which also has good young blue-liners like Erik Gudbranson in the fold, holds the third pick and may also want a forward. They are followed by New Jersey, the New York Islanders, Ottawa, Winnipeg/Manitoba, Philadelphia, Boston (from Toronto in the Phil Kessel deal) and Minnesota.

The Senators also hold the 21st overall pick from the Mike Fisher trade deadline deal while Colorado also holds the 11th pick from a trade with St. Louis.

The Panthers are said to be interested in centre Jonathan Huberdeau, the scoring leader of the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs who rocketed up the rankings this season for his playmaking skills and strong playoff performances.

He even passed six-foot-three centre Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs, who was considered the best draft prospect at the start of last season but was dropped to No. 6 by Central Scouting.

Couturier missed camp last fall with mononucleosis but still won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's most valuable player award and was the only draft eligible player to play for Canada at the world junior championship. Some feel he is slow, but he still should go anywhere from third to 10th in the draft.

It could be the Sea Dogs' day as they have nine players ranked by Central Scouting including four for the first round — Huberdeau, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, centre Zach Phillips and left-winger Tomas Jurco.

Ottawa is thought to covet Landeskog and may use their second first-round pick to move up from sixth spot.

Others likely to go high are six-foot-four defenceman Doug Hamilton and his Niagara IceDogs teammate, scoring forward Ryan Strome, as well as smaller, puck-moving rearguard Ryan Murphy of Kitchener.

Swedish winger Mika Zibanejad and Swiss forward Sven Bartschi are also in the mix.

Calgary picks 13th overall, Montreal 17th and Vancouver 29th.