Teams go for defensemen in first round of NHL Draft
PITTSBURGH -- Moose Jaw Warriors defenseman Morgan Rielly arrived in town for the 2012 NHL Draft unsure where he would end up.
In a draft considered deep in blueliners, Rielly had an extra strike against him due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that limited him to just 18 regular-season games.
However, the Toronto Maple Leafs saw enough in that small window to take him with the fifth pick Friday, making Rielly the third of 13 defensemen picked in the first round. That matches the record set in 1996.
The run on defensemen started early, with three of the top five and eight of the top 10 players picked playing the same position.
By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer With the first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, the Edmonton Oilers selected 18-year-old right wing Nail Yakupov, making him the first Russian-born player chosen No. 1 overall since Alex Ovechkin in 2004. READ MORE ›
"Probably pedigree, hockey sense, intangibles, character, leadership," he said. "They're all good players, they're all good defensemen. It's not something that you easily decide but I think it became pretty clear for us."
Howson said there's a chance Murray could earn a full-time NHL job as soon as the 2012-13 season.
"I think he's got a chance," he said. "Most of the people I talked to said [Nail] Yakupov and Murray are the guys who had the greatest chance to play in the League."
Murray said he was aiming to play in the NHL in 2012-13.
"That's what I want to do," he said. "I want to jump into there as soon as I can."
After Edmonton blueliner Griffin Reinhart went No. 4 to the Islanders, Toronto GM Brian Burke said there was no doubt who his team would select with the fifth pick.
"Once the Islanders announced their pick, there was no discussion at the table, no hesitation, just punched the name in the computer as soon as they told us," Burke said. "We did our scouting meetings about three weeks ago and he was number one, and that didn't change when we did our final meetings."
Rielly said he had no idea where he might get picked.
"With me, I didn't really know what to expect," Rielly told NHL.com. "I didn't have any expectations in terms of how high. … I came here with open mind. I didn't have any expectations. Just to be a Leaf is unbelievable and a dream come true as a Canadian kid. It's a huge honor. It was a bit surprising, but I'm happy about it."
As is Burke, who said learning about how hard Rielly worked to come back from his knee injury is what won over him and his scouting staff.
"This kid never viewed the injury as a setback; he viewed it as a challenge," Burke said. "He met that challenge with legendary … the workouts he did to rehab this. While he was hurt he was meeting his team on the road. Those kind of things told character. This kid was brought up right. The way he attacked his rehab and recovered from that injury is impressive."
Rielly has game-breaking skill, but because of his injury, few were able to see it.
"I've seen Rielly do things on the ice that nobody else was doing," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "I saw him make those little passes to guys who weren't expecting the puck to get there. He's the type of player who can lead the rush and he'll be the first guy back. I think his creativity makes him one of the top players in the [Western Hockey League]. He's like a chess player; he's thinking one or two moves ahead. He sees stuff coming that a lot of players don't see."
Rielly was among five WHL blueliners to go in the first eight picks -- Murray, Reinhart, Red Deer's Mathew Dumba, taken seventh by Minnesota, and Derrick Pouliot of Portland, taken No. 8 by the Penguins.
"I think we've all pushed each other throughout the year," Reinhart told NHL.com. "It's really cool to be categorized in the same group as them. With all the media hype around the WHL defenseman, that was motivation to get better."
Rielly added he wasn't surprised to see so many of his WHL brethren taken so high.
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"We had a great crop of [defensemen] in this draft, and to be in that conversation is a huge honor," he said.
Swedish defender Hampus Lindholm, who played 20 games with Rogle in the Swedish Elite League's second division, went next to the Anaheim Ducks. He was No. 4 on Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters, and was a bit of a surprise to be the first European-based player selected.
"I was a little bit surprised, but I talked to Anaheim before and I knew they were interested," Lindholm told NHL.com. "I was surprised but it was fun."
Lindholm said he has one year left on his contract and expects to play in Sweden for at least one more season.
Regardless, Ducks GM Bob Murray said he was happy to land the 6-foot-3, 195-pound blueliner.
"Hampus is a complete defenseman who plays with poise and passion," Ducks GM Bob Murray said. "We were thrilled to have the opportunity to select him at sixth overall."
Howson said the talented blueliners taken so early reminded him of the 2008 draft, when six defensemen were taken in the top 10 and 12 in the first round, among them the Kings' Drew Doughty (No. 2), the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4), the Sabres' Tyler Myers (No. 12), 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the Senators (No. 15) the Rangers' Michael Del Zotto (No. 20) and John Carlson of the Capitals (No. 27).
"It reminded me of the  draft at the top," he said. "Six of the first eight were defenseman [this year]. That's a lot of defensemen, especially with the trend being recently to go after forwards early, because they tend to play earlier. This was a unique draft that way."
Rounding out the blue-line run in the first round were Ottawa's Cody Ceci going with the 15th pick to the Senators; London's Olli Maatta going to the Penguins at No. 22; Dubuque's Michael Matheson going No. 23 to the Panthers; Green Bay's Jordan Schmaltz going 25th to the Blues; and Brady Skjei of the USNTDP going at No. 28 to the Rangers.
NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr said he also sees similarities to the 2008 group of defensemen and believes that over time, this year's group could match that heralded group's accomplishments.
"These kids certainly have the abilities, the hockey sense, to make a same or better impact than the 2008 group," he told NHL.com.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK