While a significant amount of attention has been focused on the top North American skaters available for the 2011 Entry Draft with Monday's release of NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings, don't count out the possibility of hearing the name Adam Larsson when that first choice is made in June.
Larsson, a Swedish defenseman whose exceptional puck-handling, poise and booming shot will have scouts and general managers considering their options, is the top-rated European prospect on the board.
One European NHL scout from a Western Conference team told NHL.com that Larsson might be ahead of where Victor Hedman was at the midway point of his draft year two years ago. Hedman was chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 2 pick in 2009.
"Hedman was allowed to do more with his home team in Sweden, so they let him be more active with the puck and try different things," the scout said. "I think Adam Larsson plays a safer game. I certainly think he has the same potential as Hedman. He's every bit as good with the puck and he might be a touch tougher. Hedman is a little bigger, but they're both unbelievably good skaters. I think I would take Larsson over Hedman if I could, based on what I've seen the last three years."
Adam Larsson (Getty Images)
Larsson represented Sweden at the 2010 and 2011 World Junior Championship, finishing as the team's highest-scoring defensemen at this year's tournament, with 1 goal and 4 points. He's currently playing for Skelleftea AIK in the Swedish Elite League, where he's produced 7 assists, 8 points and 37 penalty minutes in 28 games.
Two of Larsson's teammates on this year's Swedish National Junior Team praised their impressive young defenseman when asked for comparisons to Hedman.
"I think Adam is better than Hedman, but that's my opinion," said Larsson's WJC defense partner, Fredrik Styrman."He's more stick-handling and can move the puck quick. That's the big thing, and he can hit, too. He's a strong guy and he's big. I think he has a great future (in North America)."
Goalie Robin Lehner, who was drafted in the second round by the Ottawa Senators in 2009, said he feels very confident with Larsson patrolling his end.
"Hedman was big, of course, and strong and Adam is smaller but he makes up for that with smartness," Lehner told NHL.com. "He's really smart with the puck, and tough. He won't back down from anything and even fought a 30-year-old in Swedish league. He just has this glow in his eyes … you know he's going to be a great player."
Larsson's father, Robert, was a sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, but never came to North America. Instead, he stayed home and played 249 games with Skelleftea from 1985-95.
"Adam is a complete package," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "Now in his second season as a regular in one of the top senior leagues in Europe, he's going to play a big role."
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The No. 2-rated skater among the Europeans is Finnish left wing Joel Armia. He had 1 assist and a plus-1 rating in six games at the WJC -- somewhat disappointing number for a player who entered with high expectations based on his performance this season in the Finnish Elite League. Playing with Assat, he had 12 goals and 7 assists in 30 games.
Karri Kivi, who was Finland's assistant coach at the WJC, said he felt Armia's experience in the WJC only will benefit him down the road.
"He was the youngest kid on the (WJC) team and a lot of expectations were placed on him for the tournament," Kivi said. "I think he's not satisfied, but he tried all the time. I think it was a small surprise to him how tough the tournament would be, but we didn't expect him to be the No. 1 star in every game. He learned a lot."
Some NHL scouts felt playing in North America took Armia out of his routine.
"He didn't play quite as well as I expected," said one NHL scout from a Western Conference team. "I was hoping to see more; he's been scoring unbelievably good in the Finnish league. He's got a lot for a 17-year-old in that league. Obviously he's big (6-3, 191), but needs to fill out. His skating is good and he moves to the net well."
Armia said he knows he'll have to improve his skating and defensive game in order to be successful at the NHL level.
"He's a solid draft pick, and has two big tournaments left to redeem himself -- Four Nations in February and the Under-18 World Championships in April," the scout said. "Do well at those and you could go higher. If you don't do well, you could fall down a little."
The top European goalie is Finland's Samu Perhonen, who has a 2.65 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 19 games with JYP's Junior A team.
One goalie to keep an eye will be Switzerland's Benjamin Conz, who was passed over at last year's draft despite being named the top goalie at the 2010 WJC and leading Switzerland to the bronze-medal game.
Conz, rated No. 4 among European goalies, did wonders for his draft stock at this year's WJC. While his 5-10, 207-pound frame might be the reason NHL teams weren't willing to take a chance on him, he again stood tall at the tournament. Despite a 2-3-0 record in six games, he sported a 2.97 GAA and .918 save percentage as Switzerland finished fifth.
"I think those countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Norway have to prove themselves over and over again and that's probably why no one drafted Conz when he was first eligible last year," an NHL scout told NHL.com. "I wouldn't be surprised if someone drafts him this year in the late rounds, though, because he's now proven the last couple of years that he's a good goalie. The only concern is his size."
Switzerland captain Nino Niederreiter, drafted No.5 by the New York Islanders last June, feels Conz has paid his dues, proved his ability and deserves a shot with an NHL team.
"I have no idea why no team has taken a chance on him," Niederreiter said. "He played another great tournament and was a key player for us. In the end, maybe this tournament helped him even more and he'll be drafted."
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