U.S. improving on world stage

RALEIGH, N.C. -- To understand how U.S.-born players were regarded in the 2004 NHL entry draft, consider this:

In making his first pick, the fifth overall, Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes had narrowed their options down to two players. Both were Americans.

"We think [Al] Montoya is a great goaltender," said the Great One in explaining the Coyotes' decision to select high-schooler Blake Wheeler. "It was a tough decision for us, and probably the biggest reason we decided to go with the other way was the fact that probably our best young prospect is a goaltender. So, in saying that, we decided to go with more of a forward or defenseman. That was the reason we chose the forward over the goaltender."

That Wheeler is 17 and still has one more year of high school left before joining the University of Minnesota says a lot about the quality of U.S. hockey players and the programs they come from.

Maybe it's because the U.S. won this year's World Junior Championships or perhaps it's because U.S. college hockey programs have become more fertile breeding ground for NHL prospects. Whatever the reason, America had a good showing.

There were 64 U.S.-born players selected in the nine-round draft, second only to Canada (125) and well ahead of the Czech Republic (21), Sweden (19), Russia (18), Finland (14) and Slovakia (10). The U.S. total was the most since 1991, when 68 players were selected.

That's quite an uptick from the all-time low of 16 in 1995, and it continues a fairly steady climb from 2001, when 41 were taken, followed by 60 in 2002 and 59 in 2003.

Gretzky acknowledged the Coyotes may have gone a bit off the board in taking Wheeler as high as they did. Central Scouting had the right winger rated 17th among North American skaters, but the Coyotes boss had him pegged as having tremendous upside.

"We really felt strongly as a collective group that, obviously, the first four guys that were drafted will play in the National Hockey League and will be a big influence on the NHL," he said. "From there, we felt there were a bunch of players that were kind of similar in as far as their 'upside,' and we just feel that this young man has tremendous upside. He's really only 17 years old and is a tremendous athlete."

A total of six U.S.-born players were selected in the first round -- an indication that the game is starting another upward cycle in the United States, one not seen since the aftermath of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team's gold-medal win in Lake Placid.

Montoya is considered a can't-miss prospect and went sixth overall to the New York Rangers. Michigan State's A.J. Thelen went 12th, to the Minnesota Wild, and was the fourth defenseman taken overall. North Dakota's Drew Stafford is a highly regarded right winger who went 13th to the Buffalo Sabres. Center Rob Schremp, who played last season for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, was taken 25th by the Edmonton Oilers, and goalie Cory Schneider of Phillips-Andover Academy was picked 26th by the Vancouver Canucks.

"I really loved to watch Mike Richter play," Montoya said, referring to the recently retired Rangers goalie who was a mainstay for Team USA in international competitions. "When the Olympics came around, it was Mike Richter time. Then I started loving the Rangers, you know. That city has great fans. It's always been a dream of mine to play in Madison Square Garden. Hopefully it will happen one day."

Though only three current players were selected, the U.S. college system still had a respectable showing in the first round. Wheeler (Minnesota) and Schneider (Boston College) are slated to attend college in fall 2005. The addition of Canadians Travis Zajac (North Dakota) and Kris Chucko (Minnesota) brings the total to seven. A total of 28 current U.S. college players were chosen, up from 23 last year.

There are economic advantages to selecting U.S.-born players. Unlike major junior players, who have to be signed within two years or they can go back into the draft, teams have up to four years to sign a U.S. college player, should they use up their eligibility. That gives teams more time to assess their growth and decide whether they want to offer them a contract.

That can be an advantage for cash-strapped teams, but it's not the only reason for the run.

"There's good coaching with an emphasis on skill development, and that matters," said Atlanta general manager Don Waddell, who was a standout defenseman at Northern Michigan University. "You look at where the U.S. programs are today and the kind of players they are putting out. It isn't easy to win a medal at any level of international competition, and the U.S. program is starting to have a lot of success there. You win at that level and people notice."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.