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Goalie might go No. 1

Still, there is no consensus top pick in today's NHLdraft

By Teresa M. Walker

Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida scouts want Panthers general manager Rick Dudley to use the top pick in the NHL draft. Given his history, that isn't very likely.

Dudley traded away the No. 1 pick while with Tampa Bay in 1999, and he swapped the Panthers out of that spot last year. He estimated chances of yet another trade at 60-40 on Friday.

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"If someone wants a certain player, the only way they can get that player for sure is to deal with us," Dudley said.

The two-day draft, which begins today at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, has lacked a consensus No. 1 pick because of a very deep pool. But Dudley said at least three teams want goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury of Canada.

The Panthers don't need a goalie because they have Robert Luongo, who posted a .918 save percentage last season.

Dudley, who dropped down two slots after trading the top pick to Columbus last season, would like to move down a few spots again and possibly add some experienced players who can help the Panthers immediately.

He has heard some offers he described as "intriguing" as he prepared to wait until the last minute if needed.

"I've been in this position before," Dudley said. "Usually, it's right up to the end, and they're doing what everyone else is doing -- trying to assess exactly what they want in this draft."

Teams interested in Fleury reportedly include Colorado, Boston and Philadelphia. If drafted with the top pick, the 6-foot-1, 172-pound Fleury would become just the second goalie ever taken at No. 1. The New York Islanders chose Rick DiPietro with the first pick in 2000.

Vancouver general manager Brian Burke said Fleury is worth a trade.

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"This kid's big. He's skilled. He competes, handled pressure well playing up at the world juniors with the hometown crowd. We think he's the legitimate, real thing," Burke said.

"Ask five teams who they'd take No. 1, you'd get five different answers," he added. "That makes it interesting because it's much more difficult to predict what's going to happen."

Fleury said on Friday that he had no idea which team will draft him. He pondered the possibility of following recently retired Patrick Roy in Colorado.

"That would be big feet to fill there," Fleury said.

Fleury is a strong skater with a hybrid style that allows him to stay upright, and he also has a knack for making big saves at the right time. He led Canada to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships earlier this year where he was named the tournament's best goalie.

Other potential top picks include center Eric Staal, the top-rated North American skater in the NHL Central Scouting's final rankings; forwards Dustin Brown, Nathan Horton and Thomas Vanek, an Austrian ranked third for his play while at the University of Minnesota.

If teams work to fill needs, high draft selections could be defensemen Braydon Coburn or Ryan Suter, whose father Bob was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. His uncles Gary and John also played in the NHL.

Suter currently is slated to play in college at Wisconsin, a decision he said could change depending on how high he is drafted.

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"I'd definitely give it some thought," he said.

If Florida trades out of the top spot, that likely will be just the first of many deals this weekend as teams look to fill needs while dumping some silaries before the current labor agreement expires in September 2004.

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