TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.
-- While the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament provided a glimpse into the not-so-distant future for eight teams, it's never too early to break out the crystal ball to start thinking about the next wave of draft-eligible stars.
Fortunately, two of the very best at doing just that were on hand at Center Ice Arena.
Al Murray and Hakan Andersson may not receive the same notoriety as, say, a Steve Yzerman
or Ken Holland. But make no mistake, their services have become an invaluable resource to the building of a perennial contender.
Murray served as Hockey Canada's head scout for three years before Yzerman, the Lightning's new general manager, hired him as Tampa Bay's director of amateur scouting in August.
"If you talk to most people, they'll probably tell you three players have established themselves as the frontrunners for the top picks. After that, there's probably a group of 20-30 players who can all shuffle around in any order, moving higher or lower in the draft. I think we're looking at 2-3 rounds deep of really strong players before we finally reach a cutoff."
-- Al Murray
"Al is a high-quality, character person who's very experienced in amateur scouting and in running a draft," Yzerman told NHL.com. "He knows not only the Canadian players, but he knows all the players. He's out there watching them. I'm quite confident he's the guy I want leading my amateur department."
Andersson began scouting for the Detroit Red Wings
in 1990 and now is the club's director of European scouting. Holland, Detroit's GM, considers the Swedish-born Andersson one of the League's premier gold diggers when it comes to striking it rich on draft day.
It was Andersson who saw potential in Tomas Holmstrom
(No. 257 in 1994), Pavel Datsyuk
(No. 171, 1998), Henrik Zetterberg
(No. 210, 1999), Niklas Kronwall
(No. 29, 2000), Jiri Hudler
(No. 58, 2002), Valtteri Filppula
(No. 95, 2002), Jonathan Ericsson
(No. 291, 2002) and Johan Franzen
(No. 97, 2004). Pretty soon, this all-star list could include Gustav Nyquist
(No. 121, 2008), who last season became the first player from the University of Maine to lead the NCAA in scoring (61 points in 39 games) since Paul Kariya
While secrets were not divulged, Murray and Andersson agreed that the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., could be one of the deepest pools in recent memory.
"It looks pretty good; an above-average draft," Andersson said. "Whether it's going to be one of the deepest or a little over average, it's too early, but there are a good number of interesting players."
European standout Adam Larsson
, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman out of Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League, could be the best player overseas.
"He's a big defenseman who's good at everything," Andersson said. "I think he plays with a little more bite than (Tampa Bay's Victor) Hedman (the No. 2 pick in 2009), but he's not quite as big. He's only 6-foot-3 (Hedman stands 6-6). But I think he has more bite than Hedman and is a little better with the puck."
Additionally, center Victor Rask
of Leksand in the SEL also is a strong candidate to go among the top 10.
One of the more intriguing debates that took place at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto in August centered around the handling of young European players developing in their own country instead of coming to North America at 16 or 17 years old to play junior hockey.
When asked his opinion, Andersson paused and said, "I think the key is when is a player really ready."
"A good example is a kid we drafted in the seventh round (No. 210) in 2009, defenseman Adam Almqvist
," Andersson said. "He ended up being the best scoring defenseman in the Swedish playoffs in the men's league last season. He went from playing on the junior team early in the season to being the best defenseman on the men's team. He's a very talented player with really good hockey sense, but really small (5-foot-10, 169 pounds). I don't think it would be optimum for his development to try and stick him in the American Hockey League at this time. This is the last year we have to sign him, but he's still very weak and needs to stay a few more years in Sweden to grow and mature."
Almqvist, 19, was the highest scoring junior player in the 2010 Swedish League's playoffs and contributed to HV 71's run to the championship.
When he worked for Hockey Canada, Murray's job was to scout players for Canada's national junior team and under-18 team, both of which feature the best draft-eligible players. Even though he now works for an NHL team and can't openly share his insightful analysis of the top Canadian draft-eligible prospects, he knows he has his work cut out for him prior to the first round next June 24.
"If you talk to most people, they'll probably tell you three players have established themselves as the frontrunners for the top picks," Murray said. "After that, there's probably a group of 20-30 players who can all shuffle around in any order, moving higher or lower in the draft. I think we're looking at 2-3 rounds deep of really strong players before we finally reach a cutoff."
Prior to joining Hockey Canada, Murray spent 12 years with the Los Angeles Kings
, serving as director of amateur scouting, so this position is nothing new. Having an opportunity to work longtime friend Yzerman is.
"I've known Steve for a long time … when I was finishing up my junior-hockey career in Ottawa and was getting into coaching, we knew each other to say 'Hello,'" Murray said. "I followed him as a great pro and then saw him a little bit when he was involved in Hockey Canada, doing things with the Olympic team and World Championship. When he called, it was very flattering. It's exciting to be moving into an organization with so much turnover -- it's almost like an expansion organization, except you have a core of really good players. So it's interesting getting to know the scouts already on the staff and returning."
The top three Canadian players opening some eyes are centers Sean Couturier
of Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins of Red Deer of the Western Hockey League, and depending on who you talk to, either defensemen David Musil
of Vancouver of the WHL or Ryan Murphy
of Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League.
"If I was with Hockey Canada, I'd be singing Sean's praises to you because he's the face of Canada's World Junior team potentially going forward," Murray said. "But I'm going to have to keep that information close to the vest now."
How great it that? Not even a month on the job and already a little scouting gamesmanship.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale