Among the first stops on that long road to the 2012 draft are Piestany, Slovakia, and Breclav, Czech Republic -- two towns that sit about 75 minutes apart on different sides of the border. Those hamlets host the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial Under-18 tournament, which, every year, is among the very first opportunities for many top draft hopefuls to impress the scouts.
Last year, for example, center Ryan-Nugent Hopkins cemented his status as a top prospect with a strong performance in helping Team Canada to its third consecutive gold medal in the event. Nugent-Hopkins went first to the Oilers and six of his Hlinka tournament teammates also were taken in the first round.
Swedish winger Mika Zibanejad and defenseman Oscar Klefbom were among others to attract some early-draft year attention with their play at the 2010 Hlinka tourney. The Sens grabbed Zibanejad with the sixth pick, while the Oilers' used their second first round pick to take Klefbom at 19.
The eight-nation tournament, which started on Monday and will wrap up with a gold medal game on Saturday, again has been a coming out party of sorts for a bunch of elite prospects. After eyeballing the first round, here are five guys that have really stood out for me.
Filip Forsberg, RW, Sweden: No relation to Peter Forsberg, young Filip has been the most dynamic player through the first three games of the tournament. This Forsberg, who turns 17 on Saturday, has good size (6-foot-1, 176 pounds), nasty skill and a willingness to go through opponents. On Wednesday, against the Czech Republic, he buried a pair of highlight-reel snappers, including the game-winner.
NHL evaluators will continue to track his progress in the Swedish Elite League during the season. At this point, I couldn't see Forsberg lasting past the second or third pick on draft day.
Alex Galchenyuk, C, USA: A lanky center (6-2, 200) with silky moves and a wiliness to play in traffic to get to the net, Galchenyuk will spend the upcoming season alongside fellow draft classmate Nail Yakupov in Sarnia (OHL). Many feel Yakupov (who was too old to participate in this year's tourney) will end up being the top pick next June. If Yakupov is first, Galchenyuk doesn't figure to be far behind.
In the American's win over Russia, Galchenyuk didn't let an equipment problem hold him down. After breaking one of his blades, he slipped his talented feet into the skates of one of his coaches and continued on. That's not easy to do, especially for a teenager.
Galchenyuk's dad, also named Alex, grew up in the former Soviet hockey system, but settled in the U.S. after working several seasons in the now-defunct International Hockey League, a former North American minor league. The father has been tutoring his son and he serves as an assistant coach in Sarnia.
Interestingly, Galchenyuk still holds the option to play for Russia in international competition. Because the Hlinka tournament isn't a sanctioned IIHF event, he can skate for the U.S. without making a final decision about which nation he'd like to represent at events like the world juniors or the Olympics.
Mikhail Gregorenko, C, Russia: Another big pivot (6-2, 185), Gregorenko jumped onto the scouts' radar during last year's Hlinka tournament. He can make things happen in the offensive zone with strong puck skills, while still getting back to take care of his defensive chores.
Morgan Rielly, D, Canada: In this tournament, Rielly clearly has been the best Canadian defenseman. That's a statement when you consider that all seven of their D-men could be selected in the first round next June.
Rielly is a smart puck-mover that doesn't get rattled under pressure. NHL teams love guys like that. The six-foot, 190-pound West Vancouver native can make things look almost too easy. He'll spend his draft year with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. I imagine scouts will be making regular stops in Saskatchewan to keep an eye on his development.
Ludwig Bystrom, D, Sweden: Like Rielly, Bystrom is a pretty cool customer. He makes the simple play and he keeps his team in a good position. In this tournament, he has been working big minutes, playing in all game situations for Swedish head coach Rikard Gronborg.
One scout told me he really loved Bystrom's opening game performance during a 5-1 win over Canada. He'll have to continue to play well if the Swedes are going to advance past Finland in Friday's semifinal showdown.
I expect Bystrom will learn some new tricks from incoming MODO head coach Ulf Samuelsson. The former NHLer/Coyotes assistant coach will be behind the bench for the well-known Swedish league team in the fall. Samuelsson is part of an all-star hockey operations group that includes GM Marcus Naslund and assistant GM Peter Forsberg. I'm sure some of both Naslund and Forsberg's friends in North America will be calling to get status updates on the young defenseman.