LOS ANGELES -- If you think NHL scouts aren't paying attention to prospects within the high school ranks throughout the United States, better think again.
It was a big weekend for prep school players: NHL teams selected a record 22 scholastic players during the two-day NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center this weekend.
Fact is, more and more NHL general managers are willing to take a risk on a scholastic standout and have him mature both mentally and physically at a U.S. college, in the United States Hockey League or with a major junior team before making the jump to the NHL.
Since the 2003 draft, 135 high school players have been tabbed by NHL teams. In 2008, 15 were taken and, just last year, 19 were selected. This year, Nick Bjugstad of Blaine High School in Minnesota was the first of 22 scholastic standouts chosen. Bjugstad, who went 19th to the Florida Panthers, will attend the University of Minnesota in the fall.
Joining him in the first round among high school performers this year were Kevin Hayes of Noble & Greenough in Massachusetts to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks at No. 24 and Brock Nelson of Warroad High in Minnesota to the New York Islanders at No. 30.
The Blackhawks drafted two high school players with their first three picks. In addition to Hayes, the 'Hawks also spent a second-round pick (No. 54 overall) on Justin Holl of Minnetonka in Minnesota.
"There are a lot of talented players in high school hockey, but the big knock has always been that teams don't know if there's good enough competition there," Holl told NHL.com. "High school hockey is on the rise, and lot of people are beginning to realize it now. The leagues throughout the country can produce a lot of good players and we're beginning to see that."
Here's a breakdown of the top five scholastic players chosen this weekend at Staples Center. Each player is preceded by his draft number.
19: Nick Bjugstad (Blaine, Minn.), Florida Panthers – Bjugstad, nephew of former NHL player Scott Bjugstad, became the only player from Blaine ever to win Mr. Hockey as the outstanding high school senior in the state of Minnesota. He finished the regular season with 29 goals and 60 points in 25 games for Blaine (21-6-3), then added 5 goals and 9 points in five state playoff games, including 2 goals and 3 points in a 3-1 victory against Maple Grove in the Section 5AA championship on March 5.
"There's pressure in past years since a lot of Mr. Hockey-award winners have gone in the first round, so I really didn't want to come in with expectations in this draft," Bjugstad said. "I just happened to go in the first round, so it's definitely an honor and I'm looking forward to being a Panther in the future."
Said Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in U.S.-based prospects: "He's further along and more polished than (Boston's Blake) Wheeler. He's also a better skater than David Backes was at the same age (17). The only difference is Backes was thicker, but the ingredients are there. He wants the puck and wants to make plays. He's a blue-collar type kid who works his tail off."
24: Kevin Hayes (Noble & Greenough, Mass.), Chicago Blackhawks -- Hayes led Noble & Greenough with 67 points (25 goals) in 28 games during the 2009-10 regular-season. In two seasons with the Bulldogs, the left-handed right wing registered 53 goals and 69 assists in 50 regular-season contests. He represented the United States in the 2009 Ivan Hlinka Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, leading Team USA with 2 goals in three games.
A workhorse on the power play with good sense and vision, Hayes will attend defending NCAA champion Boston College this fall, joining his brother Jimmy, a second-round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2008 draft who was traded to Chicago on Saturday. Hayes is the cousin of newly retired St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk.
"He's a great skater with big, long strong stride and carries the puck very well," Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston said of Hayes. "He's become an excellent passer and sees the ice very well. I wasn't sure a year ago that he might have had that asset, but he's turned out to be an excellent playmaker. He's got a great shot and can score goals. I think he's probably as satisfied setting up someone for a goal and he has a knack for finding open teammates around the goal."
30: Brock Nelson (Warroad, Minn.), New York Islanders -- Nelson, who plans to attend the University of North Dakota in the fall, had 39 goals and 73 points in 25 games. He’s another prep player with hockey in his genes.
"He could be a sleeper in the draft," Barzee said. "He's got an unbelievable set of hands and some good blood lines. He grandfather is Billy Christian and his uncle is David Christian. Brock's got the skating, the size, the hands, the playmaking and the goal-scoring ability. He's the whole package and when it comes together, he could be really dangerous."
"I've seen a little bit of (the Islanders)," Nelson said. "I know they have a lot of young talent and they're on the rise. They should be a great franchise in a few years and win the Stanley Cup. Hopefully I can develop as a player and continue to work hard and get there as well."
53: Mark Alt (Cretin-Derham, Minn.), Carolina Hurricanes -- Instead of following in the footsteps of his dad, John, an All-Pro NFL offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs for 13 seasons, Mark decided to take his show on the ice. In the process, he'll forfeit a scholarship to play football at his dad's alma mater, Iowa, and will instead attend the University of Minnesota to play hockey.
The 6-3, 199-pound defenseman had 6 goals and 15 points in 22 games with Cretin-Derham this past season.
"He's got great speed and we let him go because he likes to cover a lot of ground," long-time Cretin-Derham coach Jim O'Neill said of his captain. "When you watch him, you notice him because he's big and loves to skate. It's not like he stays at home and does one thing. He's physical and can shoot well. His size and skating ability are what catches your eye."
54: Justin Holl (Minnetonka, Minn.), Chicago Blackhawks -- Holl, who will play for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League next season, is a puck-moving defenseman capable of skating extremely well in both directions. He makes a good first pass and prefers to go tape-to-tape instead of banking a feed off the boards.
"Right now, a lack a strength might be my biggest weakness so I have to pack on some pounds and show my defensive side with even greater defensive-zone play," Holl said. "I pattern my style to that of Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver Canucks) -- a good skater and good puck-handler."
Holl finished with 16 goals, 29 points and a plus-32 rating in 23 games with Minnetonka this past season. He was ecstatic to be drafted by the defending Stanley Cup champion.
"My family and I were pulling for the Blackhawks throughout the whole playoffs and I never imagined I'd be part of the organization in a few short weeks," he said. "It's a big thrill and surprise. Now it all depends on how I play. I'll focus on the USHL and then college."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale