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Nine 2011 draft picks could start season in NHL

by Adam Kimelman
As the NHL continues to see younger and younger players grab the spotlight, 2011 draftees are poised to seize their own time in the limelight.

With the start of the regular season just days away, eight of the 30 players selected in the first round this past June remain with their teams, as well as one second-round pick.

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad could be the surprise of the preseason. The 43rd pick of the draft, Saad likely will become just the second player picked outside of the first round to play in the NHL in his draft year since the 2003-04 season.


2010 draft to opening night
1. Taylor Hall, Edm
2. Tyler Seguin, Bos
5. Nino Niederreiter, NYI*
7. Jeff Skinner, Car
8. Alexander Burmistrov, Atl
12. Cam Fowler, Ana
2009 draft to opening night
1. John Tavares, NYI
2. Victor Hedman, TBL
3. Matt Duchene, Col
4. Evander Kane, Atl
14. Dmitry Kulikov, Fla
33. Ryan O'Reilly, Col
2008 draft to opening night
1. Steven Stamkos, TBL
2. Drew Doughty, LAK
3. Zach Bogosian, Atl
4. Alex Pietrangelo, StL*
5. Luke Schenn, Tor
8. Mikkel Boedker, Phx
9. Josh Bailey, NYI
14. Zach Boychuk, Car*
19. Luca Sbisa, Phi*
28. Viktor Tikhonov, Phx*
*- were returned to junior team/AHL
"He's been very impressive," Patrick Sharp told the Chicago Sun-Times. "You look at his age, and he's out here playing alongside Jonathan (Toews). He's definitely got the confidence for a young kid. He's made an impression. The coaches, scouts and the organization must be really high on him if he's still here pushing for a spot."

Saad had a goal and 2 assists in five preseason games, and could open on the Hawks' top line, alongside Toews and Sharp.

"He was disappointed to be not a first-round pick," Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman said. "To his credit, he took that as a challenge. We noticed him starting out in the summer with our prospect camp. When we get here, the competition has gone up each time and he's responded to the challenge."

The first of the draft pick making his way onto the roster is no surprise, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' skill has been obvious -- he had a goal and 5 assists in six preseason games -- but at just 6-foot and 171 pounds, the question is whether Nugent-Hopkins can hold up to a full season of NHL action.

Unlike last season, where it was pre-determined that No. 1 pick Taylor Hall was NHL-ready, the jury remains out on Nugent-Hopkins.

"We want to make the right decision for him and ultimately the organization," Oilers coach Tom Renney told the Edmonton Journal. "I won't suggest anything is a slam-dunk."

Hall doesn't have a vote, but if he did, he'd cast it for Nugent-Hopkins to stay. The two have formed quick chemistry on a line that also includes Jordan Eberle.

"With Sam (Gagner) out, I think it would be pretty hard to stop playing him and send him back," Hall told the Edmonton Journal. "It's not for me to decide, but he's done a lot of good things. Like I've said from Day 1 of camp, if he does what he does best, he'll put in a good showing."

The situation in Colorado is a lot more definite, as the belief going into the draft was that Gabriel Landeskog, the second pick was the most NHL-ready prospect in the draft, and the 6-foot-1, 204-pound left wing has done nothing to disprove that theory.

He finished the preseason with just one 1 assist, but showed enough to earn a promotion to the team's top line, playing alongside center Paul Stastny and right wing David Jones. He's also played on the third line, with center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Daniel Winnik.

Landeskog said he hasn't spoken much with GM Greg Sherman or coach Joe Sacco, but they've said that if he plays the game that earned him so much success to this point, he'll be fine.

"Just coming in, everything they said was the same thing to all the players," Landeskog told "Go out and work hard and do you do best out there. That's what I've been thinking about the last couple weeks here, just going out and doing what I do best, play my role and see where it takes me."

If Landeskog was first on that list, second might have been defenseman Adam Larsson, the fourth pick by the New Jersey Devils.

Larsson has two full seasons under his belt playing against men with Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League, and at 6-3 and 197 pounds, he's got the right build to play in the NHL.

"No doubt from what he has shown so far," Henrik Tallinder, Larsson's defense partner through most of the preseason, told the (Newark) Star-Ledger). "You can tell he's the real deal. At 18 it's unbelievable how calm and poised he is. It's remarkable. I think his skill level is one part of it and it's his personality, too. He's a calm guy. He never gets stressed on the ice."

Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello agrees, telling The (Bergen) Record, "(Larsson) will be given a chance. Without question he deserves it the way he's played in the preseason."

The fifth pick, Ryan Strome, also comes in on the small side at 6-foot and 183 pounds, and he was held scoreless in the preseason. However, he's impressed Islanders coaches enough to last this long into training camp.

"Ryan is a dynamic playmaker who will bring tremendous skill to our young core for years to come," said Islanders General Manager Garth Snow. "He played extremely well in the preseason and throughout training camp."

Mika Zibanejad, taken by the Ottawa Senators with the sixth pick, wasn't sure how he would do in his first training camp, but with 3 goals in six games -- including an overtime goal to beat the Boston Bruins -- the 6-2, 195-pound center proved his worth.

"I was expecting Mika to be a good player, being the sixth player picked in the draft, and he hasn't done anything to dissuade us from the opinion," Senators coach Paul MacLean told the Ottawa Citizen. "I think he has had an outstanding training camp, and he's looking like he's going to be a good player."

He's also fit quite well with his linemate, team captain and fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson.

"I think his overall game is really solid," said Alfredsson. "When you're a high pick, that usually means you have a lot of skill. But for a guy who doesn't have a lot of experience playing against men, he's doing really well.

"He's smart, with the puck and without the puck, and I think that's why he has surprised a lot of people."

Another surprise has been the seventh pick, Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele. The 6-2, 184-pound center played just one season in the Ontario Hockey League, but it looks like it might be his only season of top-level junior hockey. He tied for the preseason lead with 4 goals, and his 8 points was second only to Dallas' Mike Ribeiro, who passed him with a six-point game last week.

Jets coach Claude Noel was effusive in his praise.

"I'd like to say this: I love the kid. I absolutely love the kid," he told the National Post. "And I think our whole organization does. … I've seen enough, let's put it that way, to know that over the course of games that I've watched him that he's an excellent player. And I don't only look at what he presents, such as skill and stuff like that. But it's his mind that's so sharp. We've got some smart players … that's what I’m watching.”

"There really are no expectations," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. "He'll be in the lineup opening night and we'll take it day-by-day in those regards. There are no guarantees of anything. I met with him (Monday) and we're all on the same page in that we know it's an accomplishment of where he's gotten to at this point and we're just going to evaluate on a daily basis, on a game-by-game basis."

Philadelphia's Sean Couturier, the eighth pick, also seemingly has played himself into a job. The 6-3, 197-pound center put up huge scoring numbers with Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- 96 points in back-to-back seasons -- but it's his defensive proficiency that likely has earned him an opening-night NHL spot.

"He's a very well-rounded guy," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren told "He might be one of our smarter defensive players. The coach (Peter Laviolette) has no qualms putting him out to kill penalties, even 5-on-3. He knows his way around the defensive zone."

Defensive questions also surround the 12th pick, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy. An explosive offensive player in junior hockey -- his 26 goals with the Kitchener Rangers last season led all Ontario Hockey League defensemen -- his size and skill in his own zone at the NHL level remains a question.

However, the Hurricanes gave Jeff Skinner -- Murphy's teammate with Kitchener two seasons ago -- a chance as an 18-year-old, and we all know how that panned out.

"From a skill level point of view, Murphy has about as much skill as anyone in the 2011 draft, and in a lot of ways, he has as much skill as Skinner, only he plays a different position and may take a little longer to get to the team," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford told "But these are the types of defensemen you need with the way the game is played today."

Bryan Allen has been paired with Murphy and come away impressed.

"He's a very creative player with speed and skill," Allen told the Raleigh News & Observer. "And also for his size (5-11, 176), I've been impressed with how he utilizes it. Sometimes in your defensive zone you don't have to be the biggest guy. Use your stick properly and have your body positioned properly and it can make up for a lot."

If all nine players make it to opening night, it would be the most since 10 players from the 2008 draft class made opening-night rosters. Six players from the 2009 and 2010 draft classes made their teams' opening-night rosters.

Making the roster for Game 1 is one thing, however. NHL teams have nine games to evaluate players on entry-level contracts before deciding on whether to keep them or return them to their junior teams. Clubs still can return players after their junior team after the 10th game, but they will use up the first season of their contract, and the player can't be recalled unless under emergency conditions.

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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