Two years ago, NHL teams had to decide between high-skill defensemen Zach Bogosian Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo at the top of the draft board. They could face a similar conundrum at this year's draft.
Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler, Brandon Gormley, Mark Pysyk and Derek Forbort all have NHL-caliber skills, and all five are certain to hear their names called early in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft, June 25-26 in Los Angeles.
Central Scouting's final ranking had Gudbranson leading the pack at No. 4, followed in order by Fowler, Gormley and Pysyk. Forbort is No. 9.
Fowler was No. 3 in January's midterm ranking, while Gudbranson was No. 6. Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire said the switch in ranking was due to Gudbranson moving up in the eyes of scouts, not because of any slippage in Fowler's game.
"We erred on the side of the prototypical big, mean NHL defenseman," McGuire told NHL.com.
Separating Gudbranson and Fowler was one of the scouts' tougher calls, as the players seem to be two sides of the same coin.
The 6-foot-3 3/4, 195-pound Gudbranson plays a skilled but nasty game that has drawn comparisons to Chris Pronger and Dion Phaneuf. Fowler, a silky-smooth skater, has a style more reminiscent of Brian Leetch and Phil Housley.
"What Fowler needs to add is the edge and toughness," McGuire told NHL.com, "and what Gudbranson needs is what Fowler has in point production."
Gudbranson had 23 points, a plus-11 rating and 68 penalty minutes in 41 games for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs, but scouts see a definite offensive upside.
"You get a guy as big as he is and skates as well as he does, handles and moves the puck as well as he does, there's not much there not to like," Central Scouting's OHL scout, Chris Edwards, told NHL.com. "He has real high-end puck moving ability, he sees the ice very well. In the offensive zone … I used to see Chris Pronger do the same thing -- wind up one of those slap passes after faking a shot and send everyone down to block it, but he sends it across the slot for an outstanding goal.
Fowler made a seamless adjustment to OHL this season, joining the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires and quickly becoming one of their top defenseman. He had 8 goals, 55 points, a plus-38 rating and just 14 penalty minutes in 55 games. He also led all OHL defensemen with 31 power-play assists, and it's not a stretch to see him quarterbacking an NHL's team's power play next season. At 6-foot-1 1/4 and 190 pounds, Fowler has a build more NHL-ready than, say, his Windsor teammate and power-play specialist Ryan Ellis, who was just 5-9 and 173 pounds when Nashville drafted him 11th in 2009.
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"There's nothing that prevents Cam Fowler from playing in the NHL next year," said McGuire.
Gudbranson and Fowler may be the tough choice for first defensemen taken on draft day, but no one will overlook Gormley and Pysyk.
Gormley, the top-rated skater from the QMJHL, had 9 goals, 43 points and a plus-31 rating in 58 games with the Moncton Wildcats, and he has 6 points in seven playoff games as the Wildcats advanced to the league quarterfinals.
Pysyk had just 7 goals and 24 points in 48 games with the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings, but his season ended Feb. 10 due to a broken foot suffered blocking a shot. He also had a minus-19 rating, but that had much to do with the Oil Kings finishing with the second-fewest points in the WHL.
"I think Gormley came up to Fowler (in the rankings)," said McGuire. "He's a big, strong guy (6-2, 185). A big, strong kid -- a good defenseman. If anything, he may have vaulted a little above Mark Pysyk, and all Mark Pysyk did was play really well, but for an Edmonton Oil Kings team that didn't make the playoffs and was poor all year."
Forbort, who was No. 11 in the midterm rankings, moved up after a strong showing with the U.S. Under-18 team that saw the 6-4 1/2, 198-pounder finish the season with 25 points in 56 games.
"He's probably a top-two defenseman in the NHL if he reaches his potential," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com.
Much like the five blueliners who went in the top 12 of the 2008 draft, this group in a few years all could be top defensemen for some very happy NHL teams.