On the day before he celebrates his birthday, Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins just so happens to be No. 1 in the minds of NHL Central Scouting.
Nugent-Hopkins, who turns 18 Tuesday, tops Central Scouting's final rankings as the No. 1 North American skater available for the 2011 Entry Draft, to be held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., June 24-25.
Nugent-Hopkins tied for third in the Western Hockey League with 106 points, led the league with 75 assists, and his 31 goals (11 on the power play) were third on his team. He also posted a team-best plus-30 rating.
The super-skilled Nugent-Hopkins was No. 3 in the mid-term rankings, but based on the strength of his season, he moved ahead of Kitchener Rangers forward Gabriel Landeskog, who was No. 1 in the mid-term rankings but is No. 2 in the final list.
So why did the 6-foot-1/2, 164-pound Nugent-Hopkins earn top honors?
"A couple of people high up in the Oilers' organization -- and I'm not naming names -- said Hopkins has the best vision on the ice since No. 99 (Wayne Gretzky)," Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan, who mainly scouts WHL prospects, told NHL.com. "That's the highest compliment you can get, but also another thing is the way Ryan competes. He never takes a night off and he works as hard in his own end as he does in the offensive zone. It takes a special player with special skills to be able to do that."
"A couple of people high up in the Oilers' organization -- and I'm not naming names -- said Hopkins has the best vision on the ice since No. 99 (Wayne Gretzky)." -- Peter Sullivan
B.J. MacDonald, who also specializes in scouting players from the WHL, agreed.
"I think Hopkins will be prolific because he's one of the few this year where he consistently beat players 1-on-1," MacDonald told NHL.com. "He's the only guy in the draft this year who can do it consistently. I always kid other scouts and say he's got the biggest gap in the league because when he swings out of his own zone with that puck, everyone else just backs up because they don't want to get beat by him -- that gives you a little indication of his talent.
"As he advances, his learning curve is so fast that he'll be able to elevate his play alongside better players."
While Landeskog dropped a spot in the ratings, the scouts at Central Scouting were in agreement that he might be the most NHL-ready player on the list. The 6-foot-1/2, 207-pound native of Stockholm had 36 goals, 30 assists, a plus-27 rating and 61 penalty minutes while also serving as team captain this season.
"Landeskog has matured a little more … he played in a higher division in Europe before he came over so he was ahead of the players over here and you can see that on the ice," Sullivan said. "He's more mature than the other top picks right now and he could probably step in and play sooner than the other picks depending on which team takes him. But three years down the road, he may not be the best player. Right now, he's mature enough to play."
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Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) forward Jonathan Huberdeau is No. 3 on the list, followed by Niagara IceDogs (OHL) defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Saint John defenseman Nathan Beaulieu.
Drummondville Voltigeurs center Sean Couturier is No. 6 on the list, followed by Portland Winterhawks (WHL) forward Sven Baertschi, Niagara forward Ryan Strome, Kitchener defenseman Ryan Murphy and Saskatoon Blades (WHL) defenseman Duncan Siemens.
Hamilton, also the top-rated blueliner in the mid-term rankings, had an exceptional season with Niagara with 12 goals, 58 points, a plus-35 rating and 77 penalty minutes.
"I've watched Dougie in the playoffs and he was dominant," Chris Edwards, Central Scouting's chief OHL scout, said. "He was pinning guys down and his puck movement was great. He moves the puck well, is a great decision-maker and he's a top-two defenseman right now … probably will be in the NHL, too."
Making one of the biggest jumps from the mid-term rankings was defenseman Jamieson Oleksiak, a freshman at Northeastern University. The 6-7, 244-pounder went from No. 27 at the mid-term to No. 13 in the final rankings after finishing with a team-best plus-13 rating. He was the team's second-highest scoring defenseman with 4 goals and 9 assists.
"I think he has unbelievable upside," Gary Eggleston, Central Scouting's Hockey East scout, told NHL.com. "Whoever gets him is probably going to hit a home run with this kid. You could be looking at a 15- to 16-year player in the League, and to get a kid that size who skates that well is not common. He covers a lot of ice in a very short time and it's a long trip around the outside with that wing span of his."
Two other players who soared into the top 30 were defenseman Connor Murphy of the U.S. National Team Development Program, who was rated 25th after not being considered at mid-term as a result of limited viewing, and Russian center Alexander Khokhlachev of the Windsor Spitfires (OHL). Khokhlachev, climbed from No. 45 at the mid-term to No. 29, is one of two Russian players competing in the Canadian Hockey League ranked in the top 30. The other is No. 11 Vladislav Namestnikov of the London Knights (OHL).
"Namestnikov is aggressive on the forecheck and not shy about getting involved and going to the net; he's a good playmaker," Edwards said. "Khokhlachev will take a hit to make a play. He's not at all afraid. I've seen him get hit hard a few times and he just bounces right back into the play. His energy level is always there, he's always working hard."
The highest-ranked player from the U.S. National Team Development Program is power forward Tyler Biggs, who slipped from fifth at the mid-term to No. 22.
Wayzata (Plymouth, Minn.) High School junior Mario Lucia was the first scholastic player on the board at No. 34. Eden Prairie's Kyle Rau, who was named Mr. Hockey as the top senior in the state of Minnesota, was No. 177.
Mario Lucia (Credit: Star Tribune)
There was no change at the top of Central Scouting's final domestic goaltender rankings as John Gibson of the USNTDP and Christopher Gibson of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL) repeated their spots atop the mid-term rankings.
Jordan Binnington of Owen Sound Attack (OHL) is No. 3, followed by Matt McNeely of the USNTDP and Stephen Michalek of Loomis-Chaffee School (Windsor, Conn.).
The top three skaters on Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters all are from Sweden -- No. 1 Adam Larsson, a defenseman with Skelleftea, No. 2 Mika Zibanejad, a center with Djurgarden and No. 3 Jonas Brodin, a defenseman with Farjestad.
Forward Joel Armia of Finnish club Assat Pori is No. 4, followed by right wing Dmitri Jaskin, a right wing with Czech team Slavia.
Samu Perhonen, a 6-foot-4, 172-pound netminder with Finnish club JYP, is No. 1 on Central Scouting's final ranking of international goaltenders.
Swedish goalie Magnus Hellberg of Almtuna is No. 2, followed by the Czech Republic's Jaroslav Pavelka of HR Kralove; Benjamin Conz of Langnau in Switzerland; and Norway-born Lars Volden, who plays for Espoo in Finland.
"Volden is a Norwegian playing in Finland with the Espoo Blues junior team and he took the team to the finals where they lost to JYP, 3-games-to-2," European Scouting Director Goran Stubb said. "He's already played for the Norwegian National Team."
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