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Brennan tops the charts Defenseman leads eight players taken Campbell's hit on Umberger an inspiration to Sabres' first selection

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The instant Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell delivered that whiplash check in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, he made an impression on more than Philadelphia Flyers forward R.J. Umberger.

In suburban Philly, watching on television, T.J. Brennan bolted out of his seat.

"I remember standing up," Brennan said, "and going, 'Oh, my gosh. This guy is 220 pounds and knocked out on the ice.' It was a big time for a big hit, and that's what big players do. They make plays. It was inspiring."

A lifelong Flyers fan applauding Campbell for such a devastating hit? How Brennan develops into a pro hockey player remains to be seen, but Sabres fans already have to love the way he thinks.

The Sabres on Saturday made Brennan their first selection at the NHL draft in Nationwide Arena, taking the junior defenseman from Willingboro, N.J. with the first pick of the second round, 31st overall. Three months from now, Brennan will skate alongside Campbell at training camp.

"He had that hit on Umberger, which I'm sure everybody remembers," Brennan said. "I was like 'Wow, this guy's awesome.' I just really love how he plays. He thinks offensively and has defensive abilities. He's always a threat.

"That's what I want to consider myself as, someone that makes the other teams say 'Watch out. He's carrying the puck.' "

Brennan was the first of Buffalo's eight selections, and he came with a pick the team got from his hometown team in the Martin Biron trade. They grabbed defenseman Drew Schiestel later in the second round, winger Corey Tropp in the third, goalie Bradley Eidsness and center Jean-Simon Allard in the fifth, center Paul Byron in the sixth and goalie Nick Eno and defenseman Drew MacKenzie in the seventh.

Brennan is the most intriguing of the lot. He owns a 97 mph slap shot and isn't shy about burying his fist in an opponent's head.

But he didn't play organized hockey until he was 10. Just two years ago he was skating for a club team. While playing for a pickup team at a tournament outside Philly, he caught the attention of a scout from the St. John's Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Brennan had 16 goals and 41 points in 68 games for St. John's this year. He was named the league's top rookie defenseman.

"I never would have thought of anything like this happening," Brennan said of his remarkably fast track. "I would have done whatever it takes, and I still will do whatever it takes to get to where I want to go, but this seemed out of reach just a year or two ago.

"You never thought something like this would happen. You just have to stay focused and tell yourself to settle down. You've got to play with the best now."

The Sabres considered trading their initial pick, but they decided Brennan was the best way to go. NHL Central Scouting rated him 29th among North American skaters.

"Brennan was the guy everyone felt the most comfortable with," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "He found his way into the [QMJHL] and has played well and is getting better. He started late, but he's really going the right direction."

Brennan admitted he needs to work on his defensive skills before he's ready to turn pro. He will return to St. John's and has been invited to Lake Placid in August to try out for the World Junior Championships squad.

"I just set little goals for myself," Brennan said. "Once I reach them, you just kind of keep raising the bar. You have to. You can't be satisfied. This is unbelievable to be drafted, but it can't stop here. I can't be satisfied with this."

NHL Central Scouting ranked Schiestel the 124th North American skater, but he soared up team draft charts with a solid second half and postseason for Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League.

Schiestel -- he said it rhymes with "pistol" -- finished the regular season with six goals and 21 assists in 66 games. The Hamilton, Ont., native added six assists in five playoff games.

"I was happy with the way I was playing, so I had a lot of confidence coming into the draft," Schiestel said. "But I was expecting maybe more mid, late third round and on. So this is a surprise to me."

Sabres amateur scouting director Kevin Devine said the Sabres, because of their late draft position as Presidents' Trophy winners, had to reach on pretty much all of their picks after Brennan.

"We were picking at the end of every round, which is a new experience for us," Devine said. "We kind of had to step up a couple times and take guys that we thought we probably could get maybe 10 or 15 picks later."

Tropp is headed to Michigan State, where he will play with local boys Tim Kennedy, Chris Mueller and Michael Ratchuk. Tropp had 26 goals and 62 points last season for Sioux Falls of the U.S. Hockey League.

The Sabres used their first three scheduled picks, but dealt the 116th choice to the Calgary Flames for the 139th and 147th selections. That gave them two fifth-round picks, whereas they previously had none.

Eidsness was rated the fifth-best North American goalie. He had a 2.87 goals-against average and four shutouts for Okotoks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He will play for the University of North Dakota.

Allard, who dropped from 37th to 54th on the NHL Central Scouting list since the mid-term rankings, was Brennan's teammate at St. John's and finished his season with 12 goals and 50 points in 69 games.

"He's got loads of talent, so it will be up to himself," Devine said."

The 5-foot-8 Byron certainly will draw comparisons with Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere. Byron played in Briere's hometown of Gatineau, where he had 21 goals in 68 games.

Eno was 9-14-2 with a 3.60 GAA for Green Mountain of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

MacKenzie, drafted out of Taft School in Watertown, Conn., is a 6-2, 200-pound defensive defenseman.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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