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Ottawa 67′s opt for ‘infectious’ Travis Konecny with OHL’s No. 1 pick

Travis Konecny (left) with Ottawa coach-GM Chris Byrne and owner Jeff Hunt (Submitted photo)

The Ottawa 67's have already been first-guessed enough to last until the end of Day(s).

On their end, it's irrelevant the Ontario Hockey League club set a Twitterverse-fracturing precedent on Friday afternoon. Ottawa made it official that centre Travis Konecny its No. 1 overall pick for Saturday's OHL priority selection draft, meaning 15-year-old defenceman Sean Day will be the first exceptional status player who hears another talented teen's name called first on draft day. While the 67's themselves helped feed the Day hype — franchise patriarch Brian Kilrea called the teen the best 14-year-old he had ever seen and later likened the speedy Day to legend Paul Coffey — that was one small part of the evaluation process.

A 67's team coming off a 16-win season needs someone who's not only an individual talent but also has a catalytic effect on his teammates. Konecny, who likens himself to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, complements his skill with leadership qualities, which could valuable to a callow Ottawa dressing room which hasn't learned how to win together.

"Our staff is united in saying this is the best player and we took the player that we thought that was the best in the draft," Ottawa coach-GM Chris Byrne said on Friday afternoon. "Building around a high-end player was what we wanted to do, whether it was a centre or any other position ... our staff has viewed the top players numerous times, between all of us, we saw them five to eight times and we're convinced this is the best player in the draft."

"His combination of skill and character is the reason we selected him."

HockeyProspect.com notes Konecny, who's listed at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds but already has hockey haunches that seemed ready to burst through the spiffy checked slacks he wore on Friday, as a prospect who has "has already paved himself a great path leading to potentially being a very high draft pick in a future NHL Entry Draft."

The Clachan, Ont., native has spent the last three school years attending the PEAC school for elite athletes in nearby London. The younger son of Rob and Terri Konecny captained the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs midgets last season and had the London Free Press tracking his progress in a series called 'The Prospect.'

"I know the history here and to be a part of it is going to be an amazing experience," Travis Konecny said. "I can't wait for it. I'm just going to try to do whatever I can."

'Travis' game never decreased'

Only time will tell if Ottawa hit a home run by taking Konecny. Kilrea, who at age 78 serves as a 67's adviser, stood by his comments about Day.

"When Day was in the Whitby tournament he was just an incredible player," says Kilrea, who turned over Ottawa's coaching reins to Byrne in 2009 and handed off the GM's hat two seasons ago. "He had a great tournament and he's a great skater. So we saw him and certainly liked him and knew that if he applied, he was going to be a very high pick. He is an incredible talent, there's no doubt about it.

"The more we saw of Travis, the more we liked him — not to say that he's going to be better than Sean Day. It just means that he worked every shift, every game, every day. All our team just fell in love with the way he worked. Then we went down and saw Sean Day [with Detroit Compuware, prior to last month's OHL Cup showcase]. Travis' game never decreased. He just kept getting better and better."

Junior fans in Ottawa are probably in the greatest show-us state they have been since owner Jeff Hunt bought the team 1998 and restored it to relevancy, helping it keep a niche in a NHL market. This season, a mass exodus of older players hit right at same time Hunt moved the team to Scotiabank Place for two seasons during the revitalization of the Lansdowne Park complex, which includes the Ottawa Civic Arena. A slow start led to off-loading their best older players, save for 18-year-old NHL draft prosect Sean Monahan, and focusing on playing youngsters.

"The thought process was if we're going to have a tough time, we might as well do it now," Byrne said. "It was just the best way to get back to the mountaintop."

The 67's still have a lot of work to return to become competitive. Hunt noted their target date to return to good times is 2014-15, when they move back to their downtown rink.

"Coming into 2014 and moving back to the new Lansdowne, I think we'll be hitting our stride," Hunt said.

'Bring them to a different level'

Kilrea noted that while people debate players' potential, it does come down to who fits the situation. Could you put Day, who has faced questions about maturity, with a young team which could again be skating uphill on some nights, pending the status of Monahan? Or do you drop Konecny into a dressing room which is trying to develop a group identity?

"The way Travis plays, it's infectious," Kilrea says. "I think that everyone else will pick up off it. He'll bring them to a different level — once he adjusts. It's not going to an easy thing when you think of a 15-year-old coming in and some teams will be keying on him, such as [Connor] McDavid did this year with Erie."

Not only do you need a dynamic player, you also need one with charisma.

"The first thing I heard about Travis — and it's frankly what I like the most to hear about a kid — is his character," Hunt said. "He's just a really genuine kid and you build a team around great characters, great teammates. Forget about his skills on the ice, they're well-known, everyone can see that. The type of person he is, the type of family he comes from, that's what I'd like to think we're all about."

Positional needs also entered into it. Even with Monahan, who put up 78 points in 58 games, Ottawa was 17th in the 20-team OHL in goals with only 204. The departed Tyler Toffoli, who recently debuted in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, scored more goals than any other OHLer over the prior three seasons. Konecny is considered both a finisher and a playmaker.

"We had five returning defencemen and we don't have a lot of forwards," Kilrea said. "Defence wasn't as perilous as it was to beef up our forwards. In the last two years, we've lost of an awful lot a goals and we didn't replace it last year ... I think that weighed into some of our decisions. We need someone who can do both."

In Ottawa's eyes, that's Konecny. It seems worth noting he's attuned to the reality it will take more than having a first overall pick for Ottawa to make the climb back.

"I'm really excited to be part of the rebuild stage," he said. "I'm just another piece of the puzzle."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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