I'll be particularly curious to keep an eye on the pre-season progress of five elite prospects. To get a better handle on their respective games and their chances to make the jump, I reached out to a long-time amateur scout, who has watched these teenagers develop and emerge over the past few years.
EJ's Instant Analysis
Ryan Ellis, D, Predators (11th overall, 2009)
Despite his size (5-9, 173), the Windsor Spitfires defenseman has been an electric offensive force over the past few seasons in the OHL. One former executive feels he's already among the best power-play triggermen in the world. That's pretty heady praise for a 20-year-old who has yet to play a single game in the NHL.
"Ellis doesn't look like a player until the game starts," says our scout. "Then, you really see it. "He can flat out hammer the puck. He'll play, but I'm not convinced he'll be a star at the NHL level. I think it will depend on whether or not his mobility can support terrific puck skills."
In other words, he feels that Ellis needs to continue to work on his skating. The Predators usually start prospects like Ellis with their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. I suspect he'll make a stop there before getting a full-time work in Music City.
Ryan Johansen, C, Blue Jackets (4th overall, 2010)
At the 2010 draft in Los Angeles, I ran into Portland Winterhawks GM/coach Mike Johnston. I'd never met him before, but after a few minutes he was singing the praises of his lanky center. Several hours later, Johansen was selected fourth overall by Columbus.
"He's a prototypical top-six NHL center," the scout says. "He's a big kid (6-2, 192) with great reach, hands and vision. "The only question is he ready for the NHL yet? He's still a gangly kid and I think there might be some concern about him getting banged up against the big boys."
With newly acquired Jeff Carter locked in as the Jackets' top center, Johansen could earn the second or third spot with a good camp.
Adam Larsson, D, Devils (4th overall, 2011)
I had a chance to catch the big Swede at the Devils' summer prospect camp in July. Larsson's size (6-3, 220) is impossible to miss, but he also struck me as a pretty mature young guy. He was so eager to have an opportunity to skate in the NHL; he signed an entry-level contract minus the usual bonuses for a prospect of his ilk.
"He's real calm, poised," the scout says. "He's rock solid and he's got upside on both sides of the puck. I see him as the closest kid from the last draft that could play in the NHL."
In New Jersey, Larsson will have the opportunity to learn from Hall of Famer members Larry Robinson and Scott Stevens, who remain as teachers in the organization. I believe Larsson will get every chance to crack the Devils' opening night lineup. In fact, I'm thinking he'll be there.
Ryan Murphy, D, Hurricanes (12th overall, 2011)
"I don't think he's quite ready yet," the scout says. "He's got the tools, though. He can really accelerate with the puck on his stick. He's got a heck of a shot that he gets off without taking a big wind-up and he's got a real short memory. He's not afraid to make mistakes."
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford says Murphy will have every chance to make the team in camp. He did admit that it might be tougher than it was for Skinner because of his position. It's usually harder for a young defenseman to make the jump to the big league than it is for a forward. This year or sometime down the road, Murphy is going to be a player in the Triangle.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Oilers (1st overall, 2011)
The top pick in last June's draft hasn't disappointed the Oilers with his play in their rookie games. In fact, as advertised, Nugent-Hopkins has stood head and shoulders above his peers, making one clever, eye-opening play after another.
"He's as skilled and smart as they come," our scout says. "He has great agility that makes him hard to pin down in tight areas of the ice. The only question about him playing this year is his size. He's still a skinny kid, so I think you have to be a little worried about injury."
Another exec is less worried about that problem. "He's really hard to get a good hit on," he says. "If you can't hit him, you can't hurt him."
I'm thinking that Nugent-Hopkins is going to be in an Oilers uniform on opening night. This kid seems like one of those smart young players who'll benefit by playing with his most talented peers.