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Draft pool deep for Senators, NHL in Minnesota

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels is the top-ranked prospect heading into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, set for June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images).

There will be no “next one” waiting to hear his name called.

No Taylor vs. Tyler, no Tavares or Stamkos.

But if you’re thinking the lack of a marquee name at the top of the heap means the 2011 NHL Entry Draft is lacking in quality, guess again. While sure-fire franchise players might be in lesser supply, high-end talent isn’t.

“There’s no dominant, dominant player at the top,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said in providing a quick overview of the prospects that will be available in the 2011 draft, set for June 24-25 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. “There’s not the (Sidney) Crosby or (Alex) Ovechkin.… Just looking at it overall, there are three quality defencemen that will probably go in the top eight or nine (picks). I think there are three or four forwards that are real quality players.”

In other words, the Senators — who hold the No. 6 position in the first round of the draft — should come away with a top-end prospect. Murray also expects the first-round selection Ottawa obtained from the Nashville Predators in the Mike Fisher trade — the 21st overall pick heading into the playoffs — should also yield another solid building block for the future. The Senators also have a trio of second-round picks as well.

“Our guys feel that there’s a real good possibility of getting at good player (at No. 21),” said Murray. “And there should be, in the second, a couple of real good players that will be available. They will play in the NHL, it’s just a matter of when.”

So who’s likely to hear his name called first on June 24? Unlike a year ago, when Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin duelled for that honour right up until the moment the Edmonton Oilers made the former the No. 1 overall pick, there is no real consensus in 2011. Depending on team needs, any one of three or four players could earn that coveted distinction in St. Paul.

By season’s end, however, a trio of young talent started to separate itself from the pack. And nobody was making more of a statement than Red Deer Rebels centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who rose to the No. 1 spot among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings.

Although slight of build by National Hockey League standards — he packs only 164 pounds on his 6-foot frame — the native of Burnaby, B.C., has the skill level, vision and hockey sense that have already drawn comparisons to some of the game’s all-time greats. He was a dominant force in the Canadian Hockey League’s top prospects game earlier this year.

"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, who mainly works the Western Hockey League for NHL Central Scouting, told "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."

Nugent-Hopkins, however, isn’t necessarily the clear-cut No. 1 choice just yet. Many consider Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog, who toils for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers, to be the most NHL-ready prospect in this draft. He’s been compared favourably to former Rangers standout Mike Richards, now the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers.

“He doesn’t need one game in the American league next year,” said NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Edwards. “He should step right into the NHL. I think the team that gets him (in the draft) is going to get a player that helps them win a Stanley Cup.”

If defence is your need, look no further than Adam Larsson, the Skelleftea (Sweden) blueliner who’s rated tops among European skaters by Central Scouting. He’s considered the best of the defence crop in this draft ahead of Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs (OHL), Nathan Beaulieu of the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) and Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy.

“Adam is one of the best skaters in this year’s draft,” Edwards said of Larsson. “He has excellent speed and mobility. He also has patient puck-handling abilities and can surprise an opponent with a solid hit. His size and skating ability make him comparable with Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman (the No. 2 overall pick in 2009 behind John Tavares).”

Making a late push to join that group is the Sea Dogs’ Jonathan Huberdeau (ranked No. 3 among North Americans), whose stock has risen sharply since his MVP performance in leading Saint John to the Memorial Cup crown.

“He’s the type of player who can change the outcome of a game suddenly and quickly,” NHL Central Scouting’s Chris Bordeleau said of Huberdeau, who racked up 43 goals and 105 points for Saint John this season. “He’s displayed unbelievably quick hands and an ability to set up and score goals. He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability … he’s also gritty and does not back down when challenged.”

Barring a trade, the trio at the top would appear to be out of the Senators’ reach in this draft. But available centres such as Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs (No. 6) and a couple of fast risers — Niagara’s Ryan Strome (No. 8 North American) and Mika Zibanejad of Sweden’s Djurgarden (No. 2 European) — would hardly be seen as a consolation prize in Ottawa management’s eyes. The Senators brought the trio in for a closer look on Monday, with Landeskog and Huberdeau visiting the capital on Tuesday.

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