Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford wanted to check out some junior hockey during his team's off-day last week, so he flew to Michigan for Game 3 of the hyped Ontario Hockey League playoff matchup between the Plymouth Whalers and the Windsor Spitfires. The game featured three of NHL Central Scouting's top-five North American prospects for the 2010 Entry Draft -- left wing Taylor Hall and defenseman Cam Fowler for Windsor and Plymouth center Tyler Seguin.
Central Scouting's final North American ranking had Seguin No. 1, followed by Hall. Fowler, who was third at the midterm release in January, dropped to fifth, and was the No. 2 defenseman.
Windsor won the game, 5-0, but the outcome didn't concern Rutherford as much as the play of those top-ranked skaters.
"All three players are very talented, they skate well, they see the ice and they've got all the skill level," Rutherford told NHL.com. "I think that Hall, Seguin and Fowler can all play in the League right now as we speak. So for the teams that are going to get those players, they're going to start to get pretty excited leading up to the draft in Los Angeles."
The Entry Draft will be held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, June 25-26.
"You have to be very careful when you talk about two or three players because it's not always the top-rated player that ends up being the best player in the draft," Rutherford said. "And this is certainly a draft that is very deep and there are a lot of very good players."
The Hurricanes entered the weekend ranked 24th in the League. If they remained in that spot they could move into the top three when the NHL's Draft Lottery is held April 13 (8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN, NHL.com). To have a shot at the No. 1 pick, however, they'd have to finish in the bottom five in the standings, as League rules dictate teams only can move up five spots in the lottery.
Rutherford was asked what he looks for in a potential draft prospect.
"The skill level is the first thing," he said. "Certainly, with the game we have now, speed is so important. Hockey sense is always important but it seems like the players who come into the League with the extra speed are the players that succeed. Of course, the character of a player is also important but you can't always get a full understanding of the player in a half-hour to hour interview, but you get a little bit of a feel for him."
General managers will have an opportunity to meet many of the League's top-rated prospects during the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto, May 24-29.
And should Seguin and Hall be considered in the class of recent top draftees Steven Stamkos and John Tavares?
"If they're not in that class or group of players, they're pretty darn close," Rutherford said.
Steady Schultz -- Washington Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz may not get the attention that many of his teammates command, but it certainly isn't for a lack of effort.
Schultz, taken 26 spots behind Alex Ovechkin in the 2004 Entry Draft, entered the weekend with an NHL-leading plus-44 rating. In fact, Schultz is battling Ovechkin for the best plus/minus rating in the League, as Ovi is a plus-43.
"I think this year we've kept him with Mike Green from the beginning," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said of Schultz. "There's been some time with Shaone Morrisonn, who has gone in there. But they (Green and Schultz) have gotten to play well with each other. I think our team has played better than in the past so (Schultz's) numbers show that. But he's a pretty solid defenseman. Nobody gets to know him because he's quiet and he doesn't score. He just does his job. He just goes out there, moves the puck and eliminates people."
Green is third in the League at plus-35. Ovechkin, Schultz and Green, all selected by the Caps in the first round of the 2004 Entry Draft, are a combined plus-122 for the season. In addition to his fantastic plus/minus rating, Schultz leads the team with 127 blocked shots and is 10th with 65 hits.
"That '04 draft was kind of neat," Schultz told NHL.com. "Especially with Ovi there. He kind of steals all the attention away from Mike (Green) and myself. But Mike has kind of developed into a key player here while I've kind of slid under the radar -- just doing my thing to help and remain in the League."
Schultz points to this season's training camp as a critical point in his turnaround. He knew it was important to prove to the organization that he had recovered from a rib injury that sidelined him for all but one game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
"I kind of had a lot to prove after my injury in the playoffs last year and wanted to get back to being a key part of this team and being a top-four defenseman out there," Schultz said. "So I came into camp and got into the best shape possible and was in the lineup at the start of the year. I got on a little role there and was getting better and better."
"I don't think his play has surprised me," Boudreau said. "I knew how dependable and reliable he's been all year long, or in the past. He's struggled. He got hurt in the first game of the playoffs the last two years. But other than that, he's always been reliable."
Growing pains -- Tampa Bay Lightning rookie defenseman Victor Hedman feels his best is yet to come.
And he's determined to prove that by working hard over the summer and returning to training camp in tip-top shape and better health.
Hedman, the second pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, ran the power-play and logged more than 20 minutes of ice time in his first 22 games at the tender age of 18 this season. He showed glimpses of his offensive ability on an end-to-end rush against the Sabres' Ryan Miller in January, but unfortunately, that was most recent goal.
He's been labeled a work in progress but that's not to say he can't make a quick turnaround, just as teammate Steven Stamkos did this season, his second.
"I know what it's like coming into the League as a high pick and a lot of expectations and he was thrown right into the mix from the get-go," Stamkos told NHL.com. "His learning curve is there -- you won't be great every night and you will make mistakes, but as long as you learn from them and he's done a great job with that. He always has a positive outlook on things and he's fit in nice. He's going to be a big part of our team for a lot of years."
"My play wasn't at the standard I wanted through the season," Hedman told the St. Petersburg Times. "Obviously, you learn from it and hopefully take it into next season."
Entering the weekend, Hedman had 4 goals, 20 points and a minus-3 rating in 74 games. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the fact he's averaged 20:50 of ice time and 27 shifts per game while accumulating 97 blocked shots and 59 hits.
"Now I know what it takes to play 82 games," Hedman said. "There's no easy games. Every team has good players, and you have to keep your head up. The games change down the stretch. They become more physical with teams battling for a playoff spot. I need to bring it to another level. I didn't do that the way I wanted, but I'll learn from it."
Lightning coach Rick Tocchet is confident Hedman will rebound.
"He can be a very good hockey player," Tocchet said. "His skating ability, his reach, all that stuff. A good summer of training is really going to help him. He knows he has to get a little grittier."
Booth remains confident -- The 2009-10 season couldn't end fast enough for Florida Panthers forward David Booth.
Booth, who suffered his second concussion in five months March 25 on a hit by Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek, spoke publicly for the first time Monday regarding the collision that ultimately would sideline him the remainder of the season.
He said he's confident he'll return to lineup in 2010-11 without any issues.
"There's enough time over the summer to really recover and get my head where it needs to be," Booth told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
When asked about the consequences of suffering two concussions in one season, Booth put a positive spin on the situation.
"That's something I can't look at," he said. "I can't play the game knowing I've had that (second concussion). You just have to forget about it and be fine. There have been people that have had multiple concussions and still play. I'm confident I'll come back and be fine."
Booth told the newspaper he plans to take a month off, slowly begin exercising and then gear up for next season in July or August. He said his post-concussion symptoms mostly are gone.
"Sometimes sleeping is hard, and there are headaches, but those things are expected," he said. "It's definitely not as bad as the last one."
Booth missed three months with his first concussion, which he suffered Oct. 24 on a hit by Philadelphia's Mike Richards. He returned to play 18 games and produce 6 goals and 13 points before a legal hit by Spacek sidelined him for good.
"I kind of know what to do now," Booth said. "Last time was the first time I went through that. I didn't think it was going to be that long. I just worried about when I was going to be back, if I was going to get a chance to play on that (U.S.) Olympic team."
Despite Booth's positive outlook, Florida coach Peter DeBoer prefers to err on the side of caution.
"It's definitely scary, not just the short term, but potential long-term effects of it and the unknown of it," DeBoer said. "It's not like a broken leg or something. These are injuries where you don't know the ramifications, whether you're going to be the next Eric Lindros or whether you're going to be able to come back and be fine."
Rewarding Thrashers -- On the night the Atlanta Thrashers were eliminated from playoff contention, there was a bright spot.
Veteran goalie Johan Hedberg and forward Marty Reasoner were recipients of team awards presented by the organization prior to the opening faceoff Wednesday against the New Jersey Devils.
"We knew what our position was going into the game," Hedberg told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after stopping 24 shots in the loss to the Devils. "We knew about it for the last month or so. It's a very disappointing feeling knowing that you are not going to make it to the postseason. It's the best time of the year. Nothing is as fun in hockey as playing playoff games."
After a four-game winning streak brought them close to the eighth and final playoff spot in March, Atlanta went 2-4-2 over it's next eight to end all hope.
"We're still growing as a team," coach John Anderson said. "We've got some young players. We've had some injuries along the way, and I guess everybody does, but when you are on that fine line, you've got to watch your depth and how much guys play. We had that one bad stretch where we didn't win in nine (games), and then after the Olympic break we won two in a row and couldn't win in six and couldn't score a goal. Just those little streaks really killed us. We tried to stay away from them, but sometimes when you get on a roll it's hard to stop."
The Three Stars of the Year Award is presented annually to the player who garners the most points over the course of the regular season as the First, Second, or Third star of the game. Hedberg, who earned five First Star nominations this season, entered the weekend 20-16-6 with a 2.68 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts. It was Hedberg's first 20-win campaign since 2001-02, when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For the second consecutive season, Reasoner was selected for the Players' Player Award. He had 4 goals and 17 points in 78 games, and entered the weekend with a 50.8 faceoff winning percentage, and sixth on the team with 50 takeaways.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com