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ON HOCKEY

Amid surprises, team takes a timely route

If they're lucky, the Bruins will find out in a couple of years if Zach Hamill, whom they selected last night as their first pick (No. 8 overall) in the draft, is a player. The smooth-passing center, who won't turn 19 until September, will need at least two years to grow his game a little, bulk up his frame (5 feet 11 inches, 180 pounds), and prepare for the everyday shifts and struggles of the NHL.

As we know, these things take time. Mark Stuart was Boston's top pick (21st overall) in 2003, and four years later, the wide-bodied defenseman is still far more a wannabe than a go-to guy. He'll be a third-year pro in 2007-08, and he still may see a lot more of Providence (AHL) next season than Boston.

But that's the way it works, folks. When you're picking from a pool of 18- and 19-year-olds, there is a caveat emptor tag attached to every skate blade and equipment bag on the draft floor.

The story of last night's draft in Columbus, Ohio, however, was not so much the kids who were picked high in the draft, but instead the two very long faces of the high-end picks who sat, sat, and sat some more for the first couple of hours. That's high picks, as in projected high picks.

But for Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito, projection became a plummet.

Cherepanov, a dynamic Russian right winger, sat in the stands until the Rangers selected him 17th overall, roughly 6-12 slots lower than anyone imagined. As the picks ticked off, there sat the 18-year-old Cherepanov, an interpreter at his side.

By the 10th selection, two picks after the Bruins selected Hamill, TSN commentator Pierre McGuire acted as if he were ready to launch an international investigation.

"This is unconscionable and insane," exclaimed the excitable McGuire. "It's complete insanity that he hasn't been picked yet." And after the No. 13 pick, when the Blues chose the Denmark-born Lars Eller over Cherepanov, Maguire chimed in again over what he labeled a "bizarro pick."

A couple of large mitigating factors regarding Cherepanov:

His work ethic has long been in question. Gifted, yes. But a workhorse, no. If he had Alexander Ovechkin's big-engine drive, and his thirst to embarrass the opposition, he never would have gone beyond the top three picks. Impossible. The top-ranked European in the draft, he played for Omsk in the Russian Super League last season and collected 29 points in 46 games.

The Russians have yet to join hands with the International Ice Hockey Federation and enter into the standard transfer agreement with the NHL. It's a red-tape issue that can be surmounted by individual Russian players, but it's also seen as a hindrance. When in doubt, don't pick a Russian, is today's conventional wisdom among NHL general managers.

Nonetheless, Rangers GM Glen Sather went against that wisdom, and not surprisingly. According to reports, Slats made four solo trips to Russia this past season to get a look at Cherepanov. No doubt he received a primer from Blueshirt superstar Jaromir Jagr, who played 32 games with Omsk during the NHL's lockout season.

Sather clearly didn't buy the knocks on Cherepanov. When pick No. 17 rolled around, the Rangers sent ex-Bruins assistant coach Gordie Clark to the podium to anoint Cherepanov the newest Broadway show.

"A steal!" proclaimed McGuire.

Meanwhile, the Montreal-born Esposito kept up the vigil in the Nationwide Arena stands. The picks kept coming and Espo, once considered the clear favorite to go No. 1 overall, remained seated, his long, dark face all but puddling on the arena floor.

As with Cherepanov, there were a couple of issues in the Esposito dossier. Despite his abundant skills, the 6-1 pivot who played for Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts this past year didn't always use his linemates effectively. His "compete level" (read: desire) wasn't always cranked to its optimum.

But just as the waiting worked out well for Cherepanov, it was even better for Esposito. Ray Shero stepped to the podium with the 20th pick and promptly added Esposito to the talent-rich roster in Pittsburgh, where he soon will have the chance to join top young stars Sidney Crosby ( the league MVP for 2006-07) and Evgeni Malkin (rookie of the year last season).

What better cases for patience being a virtue? Cherepanov has the enviable opportunity to be the next best thing in Madison Square Garden. Esposito, who slipped at least a dozen slots based on projections, gets the chance to light it up in Pittsburgh, where a former Quebec-born star via the Quebec League now owns the team after owning the town as an NHL icon. No, Esposito won't be another Mario Lemieux, but with the rich talent on that roster, he won't have to be.

Now the waiting begins anew, not just for Cherepanov and Esposito, but for all the first-round picks of the Class of 2007. Of the bunch selected last night, No. 1 pick Patrick Kane probably has the best chance to play next season, which is a tribute to his skill and a reflection of the thin talent base of the Blackhawks.

By and large, unless they have plans to attend a United States college in the fall, the first-rounders will report to NHL rookie camps in September. By the time the varsity players report 3-5 days later, most of the newbies will be packed and gone, reporting to their junior teams or European clubs. No one knows how long any of their waits will last. They could become shining stars or forgotten flops. Last night, the timeline began.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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