Preds' top pick Hamhuis not lacking in desire

Monday, June 25, 2001 at 1:00am

SUNRISE, Fla. - Defenseman Dan Hamhuis is diminutive in stature, but possesses a gargantuan desire to make his mark in the National Hockey League - A.S.A.P.

Hamhuis was the first-round selection of the Nashville Predators here Saturday during the NHL Entry Draft at the National Car Rental Center. Listed at 6-feet in height, the 195-pound Hamhuis, selected No. 12 overall, has always been aware that his size might be a problem. Still, he was ranked second behind No. 2 pick Jason Spezza, in the final rating of defensemen and forwards by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau. He is the second first-round pick in a row by the Predators from the Western Hockey League. Last year Scott Hartnell was selected from Prince Albert.

The Predators have now selected a center (David Legwand), a goaltender (Brian Finley), a winger (Scott Hartnell) and a defenseman.

"People sort of always reminded us he was a small defenseman in a big game world," said his father Marty, an account manager for the Coca-Cola Company in Smithers, British Columbia. "He seems to have adapted well enough. He does a very good job of giving body checks and he has also made a good progression in his ability to receive hits."

Marty admits that through all of the years Dan has played he never thought he was watching a future first-round NHL draft pick.

"I don't know if I ever really thought it would ever happen," Marty said. "Being a dad I was probably more of a pessimist about everything. But when Prince George started showing some interest in him I had to believe somebody else's recognition of his talent so then I started to believe he could do it."

Marty also influenced his son in terms of the players he idolized, changing allegiances through the years from Steve Yzerman to Paul Coffey, and finally to Scott Stevens of the New Jersey Devils.

"He has done some switching," Marty said. "After the last Stanley Cup Finals, he fell in love with Scott Stevens.

"As a Canadian hockey player I sort of see Scott Stevens as the kind of player Dan can model his game after," Marty said. "He is not as big as Scott Stevens, but Dan has offensive skills and he loves to hit."

Dan was also impressed with the play of Ray Bourque of the Colorado Avalanche and Scott Niedermayer of New Jersey.

"They are small guys and they are in the upper echelon of defensemen in the NHL," Dan said. "A lot of people have talked about my size, but I look at the examples of those guys and the fact that I have played really well in the Western Hockey League."

Dan is a native of Smithers, located approximately 13 hours by car from Vancouver near the Northwest Territory. He played for the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League, scoring 13 goals and collecting 46 assists in 62 games this past season. He has played three seasons for Prince George and it is expected that he will return there for a fourth this season, despite his NHL aspirations for this season.

"The easiest position to play in the NHL as a young kid is forward and after that is defense and goaltending," said Craig Channell, the Predators chief amateur scout. "He will play a lot in Prince George and he will play on the Canadian National Team. Those are good positives for him to go back there.

"I said the same things about Scott Hartnell last year and he played 75 games for us. But I really expect Dan to be back in junior hockey. I think it will be best for him to go back physically, mentally and emotionally. It won't hurt his development at all."

The Central Scouting Report from the NHL rates Hamhuis as "a very good, well-balanced skater with good agility and excellent speed." His puck-handling skills are rated as good with "excellent passing skills" and "strong playmaking ability." He quarterbacks the power play at Prince George. In a nutshell, he is considered to be an offensive defenseman.

"If he develops as has done so far in juniors he should be a top-four defenseman," said Predators general manager David Poile. "He certainly has the skills and skating ability. He is very competitive. He is better than a lot of our players in the organization in terms of offensive ability. That's an area we know we have to address if we are going to become more competitive. We have some hard-playing guys that can't contribute too much offensively, but this guy has skills and can contribute offensively. "

Florida is the closest Dan and his family have been to Nashville. They made a 10-hour flight with three stops on the way to Fort Lauderdale for the draft. Marty admits that it will be tough for he and his wife Ida, to adapt to not seeing their son player regularly if he does latch on with either the Predators or their top minor league club, the Milwaukee Admirals.

"We drove four hours to see him play," Marty said. "I can't wait to see him hit the ice again."

There were some who questioned if Dan might have been happier if he had been selected by a team closer to home such as the Vancouver Canucks or Calgary Flames. But Dan thinks the Predators are a good fit for his ambitions. He admits that he had no idea what the teams in front of the Predators might do. Channell and his staff had Dan rated eighth. But Hamhuis rated his discussions throughout the past season with Predators representatives as positive and his overwhelming feeling was that he would go to Nashville at No. 12 if his name was still on the board.

"I think this is an excellent opportunity," Dan said. "I want to be in the NHL as soon as I can. This is a very exciting young franchise. They are a young team and they really seem to welcome the young players.

"I want to put my best foot forward in my first training camp. I would love to make the team this year if I could."

Channell thinks Dan, who will soon be talking to Predators strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish, will be able to make it in the NHL as soon as he adds another 15 pounds to his frame over the next couple of years.

"What we were looking for was a defenseman who can move the puck like he can," Channell said. "He has big legs and is built very well. They do a lot of mountain biking up in Smithers. He doesn't have Hartnell's size, and he doesn't play with as much grit as Hartnell, but he does play with grit. He is a very quiet and unassuming kid."

The rest of the first day for the Predators had a distinct European flavor. In the second round they selected forward Timofei Shishkanov from Spartak of the Russian Junior League and defenseman Tomas Slovak from Kosice, Slovakia. Third-round selections were forward Denis Platonov, a relative unknown from Saranov of Russia and center Oliver Setzinger, an Austrian playing for Ilves in Finland.

"If we have rated the players correctly we should have done fine in the draft," Poile said. "We clearly got the guys where we thought we could get them in the first three rounds. We feel like we accomplished what we were trying to do."

"We drafted a lot of European players, but I'm very impressed with these guys in comparison with some of the other kids we have drafted in terms of language and their North Americanization. They are ready to go."

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