After two days of watching some of the best 2012 draft prospects here at the 2011 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp, the common thought among scouts seems to be this current crop of defensemen could be on par with that one.
"I think when we get closer to June, this draft is going to identify itself as the year of the defenseman," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "I think there's as many as 15 or 16 defensemen that could go in the first round."
"You can start at one end of the defense group and go to the other end and they're all talented guys," added Toronto Maple Leafs Director of Player Personnel Rick Dudley.
The starting point for most scouts seems to be three defensemen from the Western Hockey League: Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips, Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Mathew Dumba of the Red Deer Rebels.
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Rielly, who measures in at 5-11 3/4 and 198 pounds, had 28 points in 65 games as a WHL rookie, and had 3 points in seven games at the World U-18s. He started his 2011-12 season with a strong showing at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, totaling a goal and 3 assists in five games to help Canada win the gold.
Dumba (5-11 1/4, 175) might have been the most electrifying of the bunch, with Button saying he has "that P.K. Subban style." He had 15 goals and 11 assists with Red Deer last season, and jumpstarted his 2011-12 season with 2 goals and an assist in five games at the Hlinka tournament.
Those aren't the only three, however. Different scouts had glowing things to say about a number of blueliners, including Cody Ceci of the OHL's Ottawa 67's, Jordan Schmaltz of the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, Michael Matheson of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, Derrick Pouliot of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks and Jacob Trouba of the U.S. National Team Development Program.
"The Dumba kid, you watch him out there and how well he skates, and handles the puck, he's a smart defensive guy," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "Pouliot, I remember seeing him a couple times in Portland because he just stood out. He was on the No. 1 power play in Portland. He really played well the two games I saw him and he's done the same here."
"I think Ryan Murray just shows his class and ability to control a game and understand it positioning-wise," Edmonton Oilers Head Amateur Scout Stu MacGregor told NHL.com. "Cody Ceci has done a great job defensively. He's a big kid (6-1 1/4, 208) -- one of the bigger guys here. It's not an overly big group of players, not a lot of 6-3, 6-4 guys, so he stands out in that area."
It wasn't just the defense group that stood out, however. Scouts were very pleased by some of the high-end forwards as well. Topping that group is a pair of skaters from the Sarnia Sting, Alex Galchenyuk and Nail Yakupov.
Both players are of Russian decent -- although Galchenyuk was born in Milwaukee -- and had outstanding debuts in the OHL last season. Yakupov, a 5-10 3/4, 183-pound right wing, led all first-year OHL players with 101 points, the most scored by a player in his debut season in the league since Patrick Kane had 145 points in 2006-07. Galchenyuk, listed at 6-foot 1/2 and 185 pounds, was second to Yakupov among first-year players with 83 points.
"You can see their skill," Edwards said. "You don't have to wait long to see that. Every shift they're doing something to show you how skilled they are. … They're both real smart players, playmaking guys. I expect big years out of them this year."
"Galchenyuk obviously is a big forward, good skill, on the puck a lot, likes to shoot the puck," MacGregor said. "I really like Yakupov. He's got great speed, really dances around defenders and he's got a great shot. Really, really smart around the net and he's got a quick release."
Other forwards who got solid reviews from scouts included Scott Kosmachuk, a right wing with the OHL's Guelph Storm; London Knights (OHL) center Andreas Athanasiou, who showcased his blistering speed; Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) right wing Martin Frk; Kitchener Rangers (OHL) center Matia Marcantuoni; Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL) left wing Raphael Bussieres; right wing Miles Koules of the USNTDP; and Dubuque center Zemgus Girgensons.
While the forwards were impressive, the scouts polled by NHL.com repeatedly came back to how impressed they were by the group of blueliners assembled, and believed this year's crop certainly fares well when measured against the burgeoning NHL talents drafted in 2008.
"Those are great names and very high-end (players)," MacGregor said, referring to the 2008 group. "I think this might be a deeper group of players -- there's more of them. Are they going to be of the high level as that? It's hard to say. They'll certainly rival it."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK