Draft's First Round Full of Intriguing Possibilities
/ Arizona Coyotes
ST. PAUL, MN. -- For the second straight year, the Edmonton Oilers are on the clock with the first pick of the NHL Entry Draft.
And while General Manager Steve Tambellini has several options, the name that keeps popping up as the unanimous choice among NHL scouts and fellow GM's is Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
"Nugent-Hopkins, I think, is the clear consensus No. 1 but that's not what I would call a marquee name," Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "He's going to be a good player. In terms of depth after the first four or five picks (this year), we really like this group a lot."
Tambellini will actually have two selections in the opening round on June 24 (7 p.m ET, VERSUS, TSN, NHL Network) at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., when the draft returns to the Twin Cities for the first time since 1989.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer Rebels)
If Nugent-Hopkins is taken by the Oilers with the first pick, he'd become the first prospect from the Western Hockey League to go No. 1 since defenseman Chris Phillips of the Prince Albert Raiders went to the Ottawa Senators in 1996.
Still, the Oilers might also consider Kitchener Rangers left wing Gabriel Landeskog, thought by many to be the most NHL ready of the bunch. And lest we forget, the Oilers defense did allow 3.17 goals per game last season -- the 28th highest total in the League. So Tambellini might look to solidify the back end with highly touted defenseman Adam Larsson of Sweden's Skelleftea.
Landeskog was ranked No. 2 behind Nugent-Hopkins on NHL Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters. Larsson was the top-rated European skater on Central Scouting's chart.
In Nugent-Hopkins, Tambellini would certainly be adding a significant piece to the offensive puzzle. The 18-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., led Red Deer and finished tied for third in the WHL scoring race with 106 points, including 32 multi-point performances, in 69 games during the 2010-11 regular season. His 75 assists led all WHL players, and he produced 4 goals and 11 points in nine playoff games.
Nugent-Hopkins was also named the Canadian Hockey League's best professional prospect, beating out Landeskog and center Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the process.
"I think Nugent-Hopkins is the still the guy I'd take No. 1, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Landeskog or Larsson or even Jonathan Huberdeau (Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL)," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "If a team really liked one of those guys, they could jump ahead of Nugent-Hopkins."
Central Scouting's Chris Edwards believes Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog and Huberdeau offer different elements on the ice.
"They're very close," he said. "I think they are very different types of players. Landeskog can take the puck and get to the net through traffic, fight guys off the whole way. The other guys are going to beat you … it's skill. Though not as physical as Landeskog, they certainly have the smarts and playmaking. I think they're different types of players."
Tampa Bay Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray has already determined his team won't have any shot at Nugent-Hopkins with the 27th pick in the draft.
"He's one of those guys in the top eight for us, and I'd think for all teams," Murray told NHL.com. "Nugent-Hopkins is a tremendously skilled player offensively. A lot of it has to do with his vision in addition to his skating skills and hand skills. He sees the ice so well and his hockey IQ is so strong. He's going to transition really well to the NHL when he gets even smarter players around him. He's a terrific prospect for whoever is lucky enough to get him."
Also vying to be the first selection with Nugent-Hopkins are Landeskog and Larsson.
Landeskog was named captain in Kitchener this season -- his second in the Ontario Hockey League. While there's pressure wearing the "C," he still produced 36 goals, 66 points, a plus-27 rating and 61 penalty minutes. In Kitchener's seven game setback to the Plymouth Whalers in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, he had 6 goals, 10 points and a plus-1 rating.
"He's more mature than the other top picks right now and he could probably step in and play sooner than the other picks depending on which team takes him," Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan told NHL.com. "He's got all the assets that you need to be a team leader; that's what you'd want your No. 1 pick to be."
The reason many scouts feel Landeskog could step right into an NHL lineup is the fact he's already adopted a pro-style game.
Gabriel Landeskog (Courtesy: OHL Images)
"By that we mean that when you get to the NHL level, everyone on the ice should be able to do their job properly to make certain everything works well out there," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "If one guy doesn't do his job properly, then it sort of falls apart … it's a fine line. It makes a difference when you see an 18-year-old kid doing the little things properly like playing his position and covering up for players at both ends of the rink."
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Larsson, meanwhile, has visions of becoming the first Swedish-born player to hear his name called first at the draft since Mats Sundin went to the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. Despite battling minor groin and shoulder ailments this season, Larsson persevered as a teenager playing among men in the Elitserien.
He also represented his country at the 2010 and 2011 World Junior Championship, finishing as the team's highest scoring defender at the tournament this past season with 1 goal and 4 points.
"Larsson played a big role on Skelleftea, which went as high as to the Swedish playoff finals, so in a way, he's ready, yes. He could play here (in 2010-11)," Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "I think what he wants really is having a big role when he comes over, so it's perhaps better for him to stay one more year at home. It's always in the individual. Some say it's good to come over, others say it's not good."
At the NHL Scouting Combine, Larsson scored exceptionally well in the grueling aerobic-max VO2 bike test, which measures the endurance capability of a player's heart, lungs and muscles. He lasted 14 minutes, well ahead of this year's average of 10.34.
Other snipers likely to hear their name called early include Huberdeau, who was named MVP of the Memorial Cup tournament, and Couturier.
Huberdeau is rated the first (No. 3) of nine Sea Dogs on Central Scouting's list of North American skaters. The native of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, led the team with 43 goals, 62 assists, 105 points and a plus-59 rating in 67 regular-season games. He also finished with 3 goals and 6 points in Saint John's four games in the Memorial Cup.
Couturier, the only prospect to play for Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., was not only voted the QMJHL's best pro prospect but also its most valuable player after collecting his second straight 96-point campaign, including 36 goals. The top European forward on the board is Djurgarden's Mika Zibanejad, who had 4 goals, 8 points and a plus-8 rating in six games during Sweden's silver-medal winning performance at the 2011 Under-18 World Championship in Germany.
Defensively, Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL, Nathan Beaulieu of Saint John, Ryan Murphy of Kitchener and Duncan Siemens of the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL are all ranked among Central Scouting's top 10 North American skaters.
John Gibson (Getty Images)
There appears to be two players vying to become the first goaltender off the board -- John Gibson of the U.S. National Team Development Program in the United States Hockey League and Christopher Gibson of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL. The only difference between the two, according to Central Scouting's Al Jensen, is consistency.
John Gibson, Central Scouting's No. 1 goalie, went 24-11-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 40 contests in 2010-11 and led the U.S. Under-18 National Team to its third consecutive gold medal at the Under-18 World Championship in Germany, making 28 saves in a 4-3 overtime victory over Sweden in the final.
Christopher Gibson went 14-15-8 record with a 2.42 GAA and league-leading .920 save percentage with four shutouts in 37 regular-season games for a club that finished 13th out of 18 teams in its league.
The Chicago Blackhawks have stockpiled 11 draft picks, including six over the first three rounds. The Toronto Maple Leafs, rumored to be seeking a trade to move up in the draft, also have 11 picks, five of them in rounds six and seven.
Three teams have multiple first-round picks -- Edmonton (Nos. 1 and 19), the Colorado Avalanche (Nos. 2 and 11) and the Ottawa Senators (Nos. 6 and 21). The Philadelphia Flyers have just five picks, none of which are in the opening two rounds.
"It's a fairly good draft, there are some good top-end guys and from 17 down, you might get the same player," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said. "They are all good prospects, so it's a considerable draft. (We are) drafting at 84 right now and we'd like to move up, absolutely. Are we going to be able to? I don't know, we will see how it goes.
"The fact we don't have any second-round picks is not an ideal position."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale