Don't overlook the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. In addition to forwards Sven Baertschi and Ty Rattie, defenseman Joseph Morrow is a prime candidate to hear his name announced in the opening round of the 2011 Entry Draft, on June 24, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Born in 1992, Morrow never had an opportunity to watch his dad, Dave, play the game. But that hasn't stopped him from learning all the positive details. The elder Morrow was drafted in the fourth round (No. 56) in the 1977 Amateur Draft by the Vancouver Canucks but never played in the NHL. He did spend three seasons playing professional hockey, including 10 games with the WHA's Indianapolis Racers in 1978-79.
"He always says don't have any regrets," Joseph Morrow said. "Whatever I do, if you do it to your fullest, then you'll never have any regrets with anything you do. So, say you didn't make it, it didn't pan out to be what you expected -- as long as you can live with yourself through that, that's all that matters. He helps push me through everything."
Including on the ice, where Morrow could turn out to be quite the catch for an NHL franchise deciding to draft the 6-foot, 197-pound steady blueliner.
"He might be one of the most overlooked defensemen in the draft this year because everyone is so busy watching the top forwards in Portland," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "He's a very smart player. He recognizes when to jump into the play and almost does it effortlessly, so that's a nice little component to his game that I think is overlooked. He's a smart player and the puck is always on the tape. He'll surprise a lot of people in the draft."
Morrow, who jumped four spots to No. 12 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, has some idea what today's NHL general managers might be looking for in a defenseman.
"I'd say they're looking for a defenseman who can skate and has mobility, has fair size and can hold his own," Morrow told NHL.com. "A guy who can make a good first-pass out of the zone and get the puck to the forwards … and let them do the rest."
Morrow will be scrutinized and publicized during the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto, which runs May 30 through June 4. Here's a synopsis of the top 10 defenders attending the Combine next week:
1. Adam Larsson, Skelleftea (Sweden): Could the 6-foot-3, 200-pound two-way dynamo become the first Swedish-born player to hear his name called first at an NHL Draft since Mats Sundin went first to the Quebec Nordiques in 1989? It's possible, since Larsson is that good.
While he battled minor groin and shoulder ailments this season, Larsson would return to the ice each time to showcase his wide range of irresistible traits, which include size, skill and poise. Keep in mind, the 18-year-old faced men twice his age in Sweden's Elitserien. Larsson also represented his country at the 2010 and 2011 World Junior Championships, finishing as the team's highest scoring defender at the tournament this year, with 1 goal and 4 points.
"Adam has everything you need to be a professional in the NHL," Sweden World Junior coach Roger Ronnberg said. "The smartness and skills that this kid has makes him one of the top players in the world. He plays really mature. Sometimes you feel he's 35 years old."
Two of Larsson's teammates on this year's WJC team praised their impressive young defenseman when asked for comparisons to Victor Hedman, another big, highly skilled Swedish-born defenseman. He was chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the second pick of the 2009 draft.
"I think Adam is better than Hedman, but that's my opinion," said Larsson's WJC defensive partner and Sweden's alternate captain, Fredrik Styrman. "He's more stickhandling and can move the puck quick. That's the big thing, and he can hit, too. He's a strong guy and he's big. I think he has a great future (in North America)."
Goalie Robin Lehner, who was drafted in the second round by the Ottawa Senators in 2009, felt confident with Larsson patrolling his end.
"Hedman was big, of course, and strong, and Adam is smaller, but he makes up for that with smartness," Lehner told NHL.com. "He's really smart with the puck, and tough. He won't back down from anything and even fought a 30-year-old in the Swedish league. He just has this glow in his eyes … you know he's going to be a great player."
2. Dougie Hamilton, Niagara (OHL): The Ontario Hockey League's Scholastic Player of the Year is No. 4 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters. He had 58 points in 67 regular-season games -- fourth among all OHL blueliners -- and his plus-35 rating led the team. Those numbers are better across the board from last season, when he had just 16 points and a minus-8 rating in 64 games. In 14 OHL playoff games this season, he had 4 goals, 16 points and a plus-7 rating.
"He moves the puck well and makes good outlet passes," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He does make good decisions with the puck, moves it very well out of his zone. He's a big guy, he'll take the body and uses his size well. He can muscle people off the puck."
Niagara coach Marty Williamson said he's always been impressed with Hamilton's initial jump.
"You're 6-foot-4, you don't have a lot of explosion, (but) the jump off his skates is phenomenal," Williamson said. "When he sees those opportunities to jump into the rush or lead the rush, I really believe it's untapped what he can do. He's a very special defenseman in our league. He just has to understand the details and he's going to be a very good pro."
3. Nathan Beaulieu, Saint John (QMJHL): As the top-rated defenseman in the QMJHL, and No. 5 North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting, Beaulieu has become the player everyone else is following these days. In 65 regular-season games with the Sea Dogs, Beaulieu had 12 goals, 45 points and a plus-44 rating. He finished with 11 multiple-point games.
Beaulieu is one of nine Sea Dogs on the Central Scouting ranking list. The club tied the league record for most wins in a season with 58 and went undefeated at home in regulation (32-0-1-1) to enter the 2011 playoffs as the top-seeded team in the QMJHL. In 19 league playoff games this spring, Beaulieu led all Sea Dogs defensemen and was third overall with 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) while sporting a plus-6 rating. He was second on the team with 68 shots on goal.
"We've seen a lot of improvement in Nathan, especially in his defensive game," Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant said. "Last year he competed in the defensive zone but wasn't strong enough, wasn't big enough. This year he made the effort. He's playing a lot better defensively, plus he's still getting his points. It just goes to show, the kid worked hard and he's still getting those offensive looks."
4. Ryan Murphy, Kitchener (OHL): In 2010, Murphy was CBC hockey analyst Don Cherry's pick to be the No. 1 choice at this year's draft. In hindsight, he isn't too far off in his projection since Murphy's 79 points in 63 games was second among OHL defensemen.
"His greatest quality may be his skating. He loves to lead the rush and his skating allows him to get back on defense quickly," NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations Kris King, who has seen his share of top prospects, told NHL.com. "Many of today's defensemen skate the puck up the ice and then pass it or dump it in, when puck possession is so crucial to offense. Ryan would rather hang onto it, draw someone to him and make the play to an open teammate if he doesn't try to beat everyone himself. He also has a real accurate and heavy shot from the point for a smaller guy."
"Ryan has always had to overcome the tag as the small d-man," King said. "I really feel he has used this as motivation and a way to develop. What he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in smarts and determination. He reads the play better than anyone I've seen at his age. His ability to step in the path of where the puck is going allows him to gain puck possession without the physical contact … he fronts many situations in his defensive zone rather than getting involved in a physical confrontation with a much bigger forward.
"And when he hits, he has the ability to time and catch guys unsuspecting."
5. Duncan Siemens, Saskatoon (WHL): In 72 regular-season games this season, the potential Scott Stevens clone had 5 goals, 43 points, 121 penalty minutes and a plus-40 rating. The native of Sherwood Park, Alta., also was involved in eight fights this season -- nine if you include his tussle with David Musil of the Vancouver Giants in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January.
"I think Siemens is a complete package," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He does everything really well and has really good composure for a younger player and that's really important, even more so for a defenseman, because he has to get used to having that forecheck and pressure all the time. When you get these guys who are poised at this young an age, it'll only go up a notch at the pro level. He has good size, skates well, has good mobility. He has the capability, in a year or two, of stepping up and playing in the NHL."
Siemens, who models his game after Stevens, believes that today's NHL general managers are in the market for defensemen who possess a mixture of offensive skills and shut-down ability.
"There's always going to be room for both those types of players and it all depends on the style of game the team plays," he said. "I think that being diverse, being able to play hard in your own end and contribute offensively, is huge."
6. Joseph Morrow, Portland (WHL): Perhaps the 6-foot, 197-pound blueliner was a bit overshadowed this season with the high-caliber of forwards playing for the Winterhawks, but he still finished with 40 assists, 49 points, a plus-23 rating and was extremely active as evidenced by his career-high 67 penalty minutes in 60 games.
7. Jamieson Oleksiak, Northeastern (H-East): As a freshman for the Huskies, he finished with a team-best plus-13 rating, was the second-highest scoring defenseman with 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists) and averaged 1.36 shots per game.
But all that pales in comparison to the natural gifts that Oleksiak brings to the table and that NHL general managers crave in a defender -- size. Born in Toronto, Oleksiak will be the biggest player at the Combine at 6-foot-7 and 244 pounds.
"Whoever gets him is probably going to hit a home run with this kid."
-- NHL Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston on Jamieson Oleksiak
8. Jonas Brodin, Farjestad (Sweden): Though his numbers weren't impressive playing for Farjestad in the Swedish Elite League in 2010-11, keep in mind he gained valuable experience as a teen playing with and against adults -- a few almost double his age.
Brodin, who had 4 assists in 42 games in the Elitserien, moved up one spot to No. 3 on Central Scouting's final list of European skaters. His mobility, smarts along the blue line and accurate first pass off the transition might enable him to become a first-round draft pick. He does need to improve his shot while adding some muscle to his 6-foot-1, 169-pound frame.
"Brodin is a very mature D-man with good mobility, smarts and coolness," said NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb. "He's effective in one-on-one situations. He has an OK frame, but could use a little more weight."
9. Scott Mayfield, Youngstown (USHL): The smooth-skating Mayfield had 7 goals, 16 points and a whopping 159 penalty minutes in 52 games for the Phantoms this season. A skilled, intelligent defender with good size (6-4, 197 pounds), Mayfield was named MVP for Team USA at the 2010 World Junior A Challenge in November, after the team claimed its third straight gold medal.
"Scott has very good size, he handles the puck very well and is composed," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "I've seen him carry the puck from end to end. I think he's a strong skater and I like his upside. Maybe at times he was a little inconsistent this year, but overall when I look at the big picture, I see tremendous pro potential. He's a quiet type of defenseman and is steady, not flashy."
10. Connor Murphy, USA U-18 (USHL): He missed much of the season due to injuries but most scouts feel the 6-3, 185-pound son of former NHL defenseman Gord Murphy has all the tools necessary to make it at the pro level.
After not being ranked on Central Scouting's mid-season report due to limited viewing, Murphy came in at No. 25 (eighth among defensemen) on the final list of North American skaters in April.
In his limited playing time, Murphy has proven to be quite the big-game player -- he served as captain of the U.S. team that finished second at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, totaling 3 assists and 4 points in five games. He also helped lead the U.S. to its third straight gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship in Germany last month, finishing with 3 goals, 4 points and a plus-7 rating in six games. He scored twice in the gold-medal game against Sweden, connecting for the game-winner 6:06 into overtime, to lead the U.S. to a 4-3 victory.
"The thing that impressed me was Murphy's poise, patience and confidence," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "He was able to take control of high pressure situations without any lack of any one of those three attributes; his execution was flawless. Even after his return from those injuries, he was as good a player as I've seen, all-around.
"He reminded me of Rob Scuderi, but he's better than Scuderi was in his Draft year. Murphy can join in the offense but can also dilute opponents defensively with that spin-o-rama and long reach and body."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale