If defence really does win championships, then NHL scouts and general managers should feel rather fortunate since the 2012 NHL Draft will be loaded with high-caliber prospects along the back end.
The last time as many as five defencemen were among the top 10 players selected in the opening round of the draft was 1996, when six were chosen. There's a good chance that could be equaled in Round 1 this June 22 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
At least that's what NHL Central Scouting believes based on its midterm release Wednesday, as seven of the top 10 North American players listed happen to star along the blue line.
2012 NHL DRAFT
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Despite the depth of quality defenders to choose from, the top two North American skaters happen to be a pair of offensively gifted Russian forwards -- No. 1 Nail Yakupov of the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting and No. 2 Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Quebec Remparts.
That begs the question: Will this be the first year since 2004, when Alex Ovechkin went to the Washington Capitals, that a Russian-born player is taken with the No. 1 pick?
There's no doubt the 18-year-old Yakupov, who patterns his game after former NHL great Pavel Bure, is the top prospect on the board at this stage in the season. While he'll be sidelined up to four weeks with a knee injury suffered playing for Russia in the gold-medal game at the World Junior Championship on Jan. 5, the 5-foot-10.5, 189-pound right wing certainly has the goods.
"He's a dynamic player who plays with offensive energy … he wants the puck and he loves to score," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "But what he's learning now is how to play the game without the puck; he's not an individual player and he has a pretty good sense of responsibility."
He had 9 assists, a plus-4 rating and 21 shots on goal in seven games at the WJC.
Prior to the WJC, Yakupov had 21 goals and 53 points in 26 games for Sarnia this season. He was named the Canadian Hockey League's Rookie of the Year in 2010-11 after scoring 49 goals and totaling a franchise rookie-record 101 points -- shattering Steven Stamkos' former mark of 92 points in 2006-07.
After Yakupov, the only North American forwards listed among Central Scouting's top 10 are Grigorenko and No. 4 Radek Faksa of the OHL's Kitchener Rangers. Grigorenko, who had 2 goals, 5 points and a plus-2 rating in six games for Russia at the WJC, has team-leading totals of 25 goals and 58 points in 36 games for the Remparts.
"When Mikhail is on the ice, he controls the play and he's got deceptive speed for a 6-foot-3.25, 200-pound man," Marr said.
Faksa scored a pair of goals in six games for the Czech Republic at the WJC. He's second on the Rangers with 17 goals and 34 points in 32 games this season.
Everett Silvertips' Ryan Murray is the highest ranked defenceman for the 2012 NHL Draft. (Photo: Frank Deines III)
"He doesn't get bounced around," Czech Republic assistant coach Jiri Fischer said of Faksa. "The great thing is he keeps moving so he's harder to hit, harder to cover, and he's got enough skill to be successful later on in pro hockey."
The laundry list of defencemen among the top 10 are No. 3 Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League; No. 5 Morgan Rielly of the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors; No. 6 Olli Maatta of the OHL's London Knights; No. 7 Mathew Dumba of the WHL's Red Deer Rebels; No. 8 Griffin Reinhart of the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings; No. 9 Jacob Trouba of the U.S. National Team Development Program; and No. 10 Derrick Pouliot of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.
"What stands out with this group of D-men is their composure and presence on the ice," Marr said. "They can handle pressure well and they don't get rattled. A majority of them are strong skaters, so they have those puck-moving skills guys who are successful in the NHL. For their age, they are as complete in development as you'll see."
Murray was the only draft-eligible defenceman on Canada's bronze-medal winners at the WJC after notching 3 assists and an impressive plus-6 rating in six games. Barrie Colts left wing Tanner Pearson, the No. 22-rated North American skater, had 1 goal, 6 points and a plus-1 rating in six games for Canada at the WJC.
"Murray is one of those calm, cool and collected guys … an excellent skater with a lot of poise," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "He really defends well because he's so confident skating backwards and really uses his positioning well. He'll end up with a ton of assists."
Rielly underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in November, but should be 100 percent by mid-April. Maatta, who suffered a concussion playing for fourth-place Finland in an opening-game loss to Canada in the WJC, is expected to return to the ice for the Knights on Friday. In his second full season in Red Deer, Dumba has 11 goals, including 7 on the power play, and 25 points in 38 games.
"Dumba is more of the run-and-gun … a gunslinger-type of guy," Gregory said. "He has a ton of skills and is a guy who will come at you hard in the corners and plow you down. I don't think he's as solid defencively right now as a Ryan (Murray), but he's not afraid to throw his weight around and you can't help but notice him on the ice."
"Dumba is more of the run-and-gun ... a gunslinger-type of guy. He has a ton of skills and is a guy who will come at you hard in the corners and plow you down."
-- Central Scouting's David Gregory
The top-rated U.S.-born player is Trouba, the youngest member of the U.S. team at the WJC. Trouba, who has 2 goals, 10 points and 30 penalty minutes in 26 games for the NTDP's under-18 team, is one of four NTDP players ranked among Central Scouting's top 30. Joining Trouba are No. 13 Stefan Matteau, No. 18 Brady Skjei and No. 27 Nicolas Kerdiles.
"Jacob has offensive skills and he really does defend well," Gregory said. "You can just tell by how he plays in all areas of the ice that he's a big kid who skates really well, he loves to jump into the play and has confidence because he knows his skating can get him back, so he rarely gets caught out of position. He's going to be someone people are going to talk about; we've known about him for a couple years and he's not disappointing this year."
The top-rated defenceman among Central Scouting's top 135 European skaters is Ville Pokka of Finland. The 6-foot, 196-pound blueliner who plays for Karpat in the top Finnish pro league, is rated fifth among all European skaters; he's projected as a second-round pick. The top-four European skaters, all forwards, are No. 1 Filip Forsberg of Leksand in Sweden; No. 2 Sebastian Collberg of Frolunda Jr. in Sweden; No. 3 Tomas Hertl of Slavia in the Czech Republic; and No. 4 Pontus Aberg of Djurgarden in Sweden.
Forsberg was spectacular playing for his country at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August, totaling 4 goals and 10 points in six games for the silver medal-winning Swedes. He then won a gold medal for his country at the 2012 WJC, contributing 1 assist in six games.
"He's a talented, speedy, two-way forward who can score the big goals," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said of Forsberg. "He also has a good selection of shots."
Collberg had 4 goals and 7 points for Sweden at the WJC.
"He has a great first step … is so quick," Stubb said of Collberg. "He rushes down the wing and shoots a lot; he's got soft hands and a quick shot. He's a player with great offensive instincts."
The top North American goalie among the 36 listed is 6-foot-1, 188-pound Malcolm Subban of the OHL's Belleville Bulls. The top European goalie is 6-3.25, 204-pound Andrei Vasilevski, who had an unbelievable run at the WJC for the silver-medal winning Russians. Vasilevski finished 4-1 with a 2.01 goals-against average and WJC tournament-high .953 save percentage. He sports a 2.52 GAA and .920 save percentage in 14 games for Tolpar Ufa in the MHL, the top minor league in Russia.Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale