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Couturier, Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins and Biggs among the best 2011 NHL Entry Draft prospects

by Mike G. Morreale
The initial stage of projecting which draft-eligible prospects are considered to be future NHL stars was accomplished Tuesday when NHL Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings for the top levels of North American junior hockey.

"This is our first list in which we assign numbers to players and are forced to get off the fence and decide who is No. 1 and No. 2, No. 17 and No. 18," Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire told "There's a little bit of fun pressure involved, but the purpose of these lists hasn't changed. We're out to serve the 30 NHL teams. And as much as this process has evolved into a news event, we're not trying to make that much of a splash. We've also put the disclaimer out that our mid-term release (Jan. 10) and even this list, is subject to refinement."

Central Scouting ranked the top 25 skaters and top goaltenders for each of the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Western Hockey League and United States Hockey League, which includes the United States National Team Development Program.

One of the more intriguing storylines heading into the 2011 Entry Draft on June 24 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., is the fact quite a few players from the QMJHL could be tabbed early in the opening round.

"It's going to be a better year than the past couple, but I've seen some of the kids in Ontario and they're looking pretty good, too," Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau, who scouts the QMJHL, told "We can't get too overly excited. I'm kind of prudent, because it's happened before. I don't want to get too excited too early, but the top 15 players out of the 'Q' are looking all decent."

Topping that list is Drummondville Voltigeurs forward Sean Couturier, who could be the first pick.

Couturier led the QMJHL in scoring last season with 96 points, becoming the first 17-year-old to do so since Sidney Crosby of Rimouski Oceanic in 2004-05. Couturier represented Canada at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship and participated in Canada's World Junior Evaluation Camp in Newfoundland in August as one of only two 18-year-olds (defenseman Nathan Beaulieu of Saint John the other) in attendance.

Couturier, who also is lauded for his two-way skill, has 14 goals, 34 points and a 56.0-percent success rate on faceoffs in 26 games this season.

There are five players from the Saint John Sea Dogs rated among the top 10, including No. 2 center Jonathan Huberdeau, No. 3 Beaulieu, No. 6 right wing Tomas Jurco, No. 9 center Scott Oke and No. 10 left wing Ryan Tesink. Jurco and Huberdeau play on the Sea Dogs' top line with center Zack Phillips, who is No. 11 on Central Scouting's list.

Huberdeau leads the team with 15 goals, 30 points and a plus-26 rating in 23 games this season.

"I can put Jonathan on the ice in any situation … the last minute of a game when we're behind by a goal or ahead by a goal," Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant said of Huberdeau, who can play center and wing. "He comes to play every time. His vision is outstanding, he has great puck skills and I think he's the complete package."

"There's a little bit of fun pressure involved, but the purpose of these lists hasn't changed. We're out to serve the 30 NHL teams. And as much as this process has evolved into a news event, we're not trying to make that much of a splash. We've also put the disclaimer out that our mid-term release (Jan. 10) and even this list, is subject to refinement." -- NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire

It's been said that Christopher Gibson, the top-rated goalie in the QMJHL, has the potential to be the finest at his position coming out of the league since Marc-Andre Fleury (Cape Breton) and Jonathan Bernier (Lewiston). In his second season with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, Gibson (7-6-3) ranks second in the league with a 2.20 goals-against average and first with a .928 save percentage.

Leading the way among the OHL contingent is Kitchener Rangers captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has 16 goals and 29 points this season. Landeskog is the second European-born and -trained player to captain an OHL team -- Slovakia's Tomas Marcinko (Islanders, fourth round, 2006) captained the Barrie Colts in 2007-08.

Landeskog is joined on the OHL list by a couple of teammates -- No. 6 Tobias Rieder (14 assists, 23 points) and No. 8 Ryan Murphy (10 goals, 31 points). Additionally, goalie Michael Morrison (5-1-0, 2.71 GAA, .900 save percentage) is No. 4 among OHL goalies.

Landeskog, who competed for Sweden at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship and was selected to compete in the Under-20 Four Nations Tournament in Finland, enjoys watching how a few of the NHL's big hitters consistently get it done.

"I try and pattern my game like Jarome Iginla (of Calgary) and Mike Richards (of Philadelphia)," Landeskog told "They're kind of my role models. I look a lot like how they play, and I want to be a leader like they are for their teams."

As the No. 2-rated player on the OHL list, Pennsylvania native Brandon Saad of the Saginaw Spirit could be the first U.S.-born player off the Draft board in June. Saad spent one season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, leading the club with 29 goals and 58 points in 63 games last season.

In his first season with the Spirit, he has 12 goals, including 7 on the power play, and 23 points in 20 games. Saad's teammate in Saginaw, No. 5 Vincent Trocheck, also was born in Pennsylvania. He has 10 goals and 22 points in 21 games for the Spirit this season.

"Brandon has very good speed and agility and that makes him dangerous," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told "He's solid on his skates and fights through checks very well. He plays a solid two-way game and is very responsible defensively. It is early in the year, but at this point, I think Brandon will hear his name called early on Friday night in Minnesota (at the Entry Draft)."

The highest-rated OHL defenseman is No. 3 Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs.

Owen Sound goalie Jordan Binnington, the top-rated goalie in the OHL, is 5-2-1 with a 3.51 GAA and .836 save percentage in eight games. Binnington is competing with New York Rangers 2009 draft pick Scott Stajcer for playing time.

Electrifying center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels tops the list of players from the WHL.

As a rookie last season, Nugent-Hopkins finished second on his team in scoring with 65 points, including 24 goals, in 67 games to earn WHL's Rookie of Year Award and help the Rebels reach the playoffs for the first time in three years. He hasn't slowed down this season, totaling 5 goals and 25 points in 22 games.

"The goals aren't coming too easy for me right now, but I'm really working on bearing down in practice on scoring," Nugent-Hopkins told "I'm also working on my shot after practice whenever I can so I can start putting the puck in the net. It's kind of frustrating that I'm not scoring because I would like to be helping my team out in that way a little bit more."

Despite the lack of goal production, Center Scouting's B.J. MacDonald likes what he sees in Nugent-Hopkins.

"This guy has very good puck-handling capabilities," he said. "His on-ice awareness is very good. He's one of those guys that knows where everyone is and where they should be and where the puck should go."

The Brandon Wheat Kings' Liam Liston is the WHL's top-rated goaltender. He's 8-5-1 with a 2.85 GAA and .909 save percentage in 15 games.

"Liam has excellent net coverage and good overall quickness," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told "He's strong in his crease and possesses strong legs for lateral pushes. He has a very good butterfly style and continues to get better."

Tyler Biggs, a forward with the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team, is the top-rated U.S. junior skater. The 6-2, 210-pound right wing, who will attend Miami (Ohio) University next fall, has 4 goals, 5 points and 54 penalty minutes in 13 games this season.

Biggs' father, Don, enjoyed a 16-season professional career, including NHL stints with the Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers.

"He's a big, strong kid and is an extreme character player," USNTDP U-18 coach Ron Rolston said of Biggs. "He skates well and is physical and tough. He shoots and attacks the net well with or without the puck. He's certainly someone on our team who's a physical presence, and he makes room for a lot of our skilled players."

Players from the USNTDP account for five of the top seven players from the USHL. They include forwards Jonathan Miller (No. 2), Rocco Grimaldi (No. 5) and Adam Reid (No. 7), and defenseman Michael Paliotta (No. 6).

The top-rated non-USNTDP skater is Omaha's Seth Ambroz, who comes in at No. 3. The New Prague, Minn., native recently played a key role in the gold-medal winning effort of the U.S. team at the 2010 World Junior 'A' Challenge, scoring 2 goals and 5 points in four games.

Jensen was impressed with Ambroz's play during the USHL Fall Classic in September. The 6-2, 211-pound power forward had 5 goals (4 power-play goals), 6 points and a plus-1 rating while taking 17 shots in five games.

"He's a John Tonelli-type player, very strong," said Jensen, comparing Ambroz to the left wing from the New York Islanders championship teams. "I've seen him run over players along the boards to get by them. He competes very hard and has good hands and puck skills. He has a strong skating stride -- not lightning speed, but very effective and strong. He has a good, hard wrist shot and is responsible in his own end."

The U.S. World Junior 'A' Team featured 22 players from the USHL. Youngstown Phantoms defenseman Scott Mayfield, who was named tournament MVP, has 3 points and 50 penalty minutes in 10 games this season.

Said Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston: "Scott plays the body well and is physical but not in an overly rambunctious way. He can close off the forechecker up high and is controlled, poised and calm in his play. He plays like a seasoned veteran. Scott has a smooth, strong and effortless stride, his passes are crisp and he sees the ice well. He has a very good wrist shot and controls the play from the point on the power play."

The top-rated USHL goalie is the USNTDP's John Gibson, who is 3-4-1 with a 3.33 GAA and .906 save percentage in nine games.

"John is similar in style to Liston," Jensen said. "He has good net coverage, good size and is great on his angles. He looks big in his initial set up and while in butterfly … he's not flashy but confident and is always focused. He's controlled in his movements, strong in his crease and smart at reading plays."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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