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Projecting future vital aspect of NHL draft success

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
While Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs might not be NHL-ready just yet, he is highly ranked heading into this week's draft because of his long-range upside (Claus Andersen/Getty Images).
There's a reason why the term "future watch" is so often used to define this part of the game.


It's somewhat easy for observers of the talent available for the picking at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft to rank prospects based on their current talent level. Check just about any of the ranking services and you'll see many of the same names populate the top 10 or 15 on every list.

The tricky part, however, is trying to determine which of these players will grow into National Hockey League stars long after the glitz and glamour of Friday night's opening round at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., has come to an end. But that's the job facing the scouting staffs of all 30 NHL teams this week and the end result can have huge ramifications for years to come.

"Our job is about projection," said Pierre Dorion, the Senators' director of player personnel. "Our job would be way easier if we were just drafting for next year, because we could just say Player A is better than Player B. But our jobs as scouts has always been to try to project who will be the best player at 22 or 23, or sometimes at 21. So I think as an organization, we just try to (figure that out) ... seeing who will (eventually) be the best player.

"That's why, when guys first come to camp, we'll say he's got a long road to climb. But we know down the road, the way we develop players here, that down the line they'll be the best players for our organization."

To apply that kind of thinking to the 2011 draft, most scouts widely believe that Kitchener Rangers left-winger Gabriel Landeskog and Skelleftea blueliner Adam Larsson are the most NHL-ready players in this crop of prospects and could both make the jump right to the big show next season. But it's Red Deer Rebels centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a player considered to have higher long-range potential, who heads up just about every pre-draft ranking.

Along the same lines, Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs was considered a potential No. 1 overall pick at the season's outset. But over the course of the 2010-11 season, two other centres now considered to have bigger upsides — Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs and Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs — have surpassed Couturier in some eyes.

"You can't say on 18-year-old kids there's a huge difference now because they're all going to develop differently," said Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray. "They're at different stages of their development right now. Landeskog's development has been very quick up to this point but other guys, like Huberdeau and Couturier and Strome and those guys, it's been a little bit slower development and everybody matures at different rates.

"Our job is about projection. "Our job would be way easier if we were just drafting for next year, because we could just say Player A is better than Player B. But our job as scouts has always been to try to project who will be the best player at 22 or 23, or sometimes at 21. So I think as an organization, we just try to (figure that out) ... seeing who will (eventually) be the best player." - Pierre Dorion
"There could be a difference on our (ratings) list from No. 6 to No. 3 or from six to two, but I'm not saying in five years it's going to be a huge difference."

In the Senators' case, there's also the fact that, given the organization's new mandate to build through youth, this isn't a team under pressure to win big immediately.

"You don't win right away," Dorion said in reference to that kind of process. "The guys that you're going to take in the top 10 won't help you win right away in most scenarios. That's why you're always looking to draft (the player you think will be) the best possible player when they are fully mature, whether it's at 22 or 23. I think that's the way you have the most success.

"We know that whoever we take at No. 6 (Ottawa's first-round pick) ... there might be some guys who are more ready, but we want guys that help us win when they've become physically and mentally mature and they can contribute."

With 12 picks in this draft, including a second first-rounder (No. 21) courtesy of the Mike Fisher trade with the Nashville Predators, the Senators' diligent scouting staff has been working overtime in terms of preparation. They'll arrive in Minnesota armed with a list of 175 prospects, about 45 more than usual.

"Without a doubt, the depth is there," Dorion said when asked if the Senators expect to land quality prospects with their trio of second-round picks and beyond. "At a certain point in the draft, the depth does fall off but I think with our first six picks, we're going to get some pretty good assets for our organization."


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