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Pronger is choice for defense

The startling thing about hockey prospect Chris Pronger is his size _ 6 feet 6 and possibly still growing.

While that's average for an NBA player, he's Manute Bol to the NHL. But Pronger is no giant project, scouts say _ he's the real thing.

Pronger is the only defenseman ranked among the top six prospects for the 1993 entry draft Saturday in Quebec City. He finished the season No. 2 (behind Alexandre Daigle) among North American prospects. But the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau says because of the deep draft of franchise-type players, he could go anywhere from second to sixth.

With the No. 3 pick overall, Tampa Bay may have a crack at Pronger, an 18-year-old who helped the Peterborough Petes win the Ontario Hockey League title this year and played on Canada's gold-medal winning team at the World Junior Championships.

The Lightning has not decided whether to go with offense or defense. Last year, Tampa Bay did not decide whether to take defenseman Roman Hamrlik or forward Todd Warriner until hours before the draft. While most Lightning scouts believe Pronger may be the best available player when their turn comes, general manager Phil Esposito and coach Terry Crisp are leaning toward one of the forwards.

Pronger grew up in Dryden, Ontario, a rural town of 6,500. "It's got a McDonald's and a rink," he said.

While growing up, Pronger ventured outside Dryden to play hockey for all-star teams. One team (Canada's under-18 entry of the Pacific Cup) took him to Japan, where he decided he would forgo college to play junior hockey in Canada (usually the quicker road to the NHL).

"It was the right decision," Pronger said during a news conference of the top prospects in Los Angeles before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. "If I stayed in school, I would have drove myself crazy. The little guys can stick and elbow you and there is nothing you can do about it."

College rules are more strict than junior hockey. And for a guy like Pronger, who has a mean streak in him, it might have been suffocating.

That mean streak will serve him well in the NHL. So will his offensive prowess.

"He can jump in the offense without being a defensive liability," Peterborough coach Dick Todd said. "He knows the right time to attack and the right time to stay home."

Pronger led the entire Canadian Hockey League _ that's three leagues, 44 teams _ with a plus/minus of 92. (At even strength, he was on the ice for 92 more goals scored for the Petes than against). He contributed to that mark with 15 goals and 62 assists in 61 regular-season games. He added 15 goals and 25 assists in 21 playoff games.

The scouting report on Pronger: powerful skater, hard shot, effective on the power play, good puck control with his long reach, good passer, adept at checking and cool under pressure.

Pronger's biggest weaknesses are strength and stamina. He started the season at 190 pounds, but with all his playing time (averaged about 35 minutes a game), his weight dipped into the low 170s.

"I kept eating and eating during the season, but couldn't put it back on," Pronger said.

Lightning head scout John Chapman said the strength and stamina will come as he matures.

"I've watched him at all levels _ at the World Juniors, as a rookie. He always struggled at the beginning and then picked up the pace. At every level he had to move up, he made the adjustment."

The Prongers already have one draftee. Chris' older brother, Sean, was drafted in the third round by Vancouver in 1991. Chris could be the highest draftee for the Petes, who had two former players selected sixth overall _ Mike Ricci and Steve Yzerman.

Chris Pronger

Position: Defenseman

Hometown: Dryden, Ontario Born: Oct. 10, 1974

Height: 6-6 Weight: 190 lbs.

Year Team, league GP G A Pts PIM

92-93 Peterborough, OHL 61 15 62 77 108

92-93 Canada, World Juniors 7 1 3 4 6

91-92 Peterborough, OHL 63 17 45 62 90

90-91 Stratford, Junior B 48 15 37 52 132