Red Deer center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is considered the top of a weak crop. (Lionel Switzer/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
The names of Stanley Cup champions Todd Marchand and Tyler Seguin, plus Jeff Skinner -- who won the Calder Trophy as top NHL rookie on Wednesday -- Michael Grabner, and most of their fellow first-year NHL cohorts weren't as widely known a year ago as they are now. But being drafted by an NHL club gave them the opportunity to show their stuff at the game's top level, and that opportunity will be extended to another 210 players this weekend. The seven-round NHL Entry Draft, which begins in St. Paul on Friday evening and continues on Saturday, will be many fans' introductions to names they'll be hearing and seeing in the NHL sometime in the future.
Follow the draft as it happens on the SI.com Draft Tracker.
Unlike fans of pro football and pro basketball who are more able to follow the exploits of the top college stars in those sports, the majority of NHL fans only get vague glimmers of recognition or even draw blanks for the names Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Gabriel Landeskog, and Sean Couturier. For scouts, draft geeks and fans of junior and college hockey, however, these names are quite familiar as young players whose progress they've tracked for a while. And that progress frames the drama -- and the tedium -- that will play out this weekend on the draft floor.
While the first round, on Friday night, almost always supplies some big excitement and emotion, with players sliding up or down from their projected slots, the draft is something akin to graduation day for all the young men who are selected, regardless of how high they go. It validates all the time they've invested into hockey during their still-young lives and all the sacrifices they and their families have made to get them this far.
The general thinking among scouts is that this year's draft does not have the sort of high-end superstar talent that some previous years have had, but there is an unusually large number of potentially very good players who will go in the first round and be valuable additions to their clubs when they make the NHL.
There are different philosophies guiding the teams' thinking when they draft. Some want to address specific needs, some just draft the best available player. Those who are drafting for specific needs often have to wait a few years before that player is NHL-ready. Of the players drafted last year, for example, only Skinner, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Alex Burmistrov and Cam Fowler played a full NHL season and with varying degrees of success. The rest stayed in junior hockey, college hockey or turned professional in Europe or the minor pro leagues of North America.
The marquee names and high picks always receive attention, but it's a real accomplishment -- not just for the player but the scouting department of the team that drafts him -- when a low pick becomes an NHL regular or even a star. The Red Wings have been particularly good at it. Pavel Datsyuk was taken in the 6th round, 171st overall, in 1998; Henrik Zetterberg was picked in the seventh round, 210th overall, in 1999; and Tomas Holmstrom was selected in the 10th round, 257th overall in 2004.
Will the kids drafted this week make the NHL with the clubs that draft them? That's an interesting question and Pat Hickey of The Montreal Gazette wrote today that "Many organizations talk about building through the draft, but only nine teams have at least 10 homegrown players. Buffalo leads the pack with 14, while Washington and Detroit have 13 each, and Edmonton and Nashville each have a dozen."
And Hickey notes that the Canadiens have drafted more current NHLers - players who appeared in at least 50 games last season, or have played more than 150 total -- than any other team (29), although most of them now play elsewhere. Only six of those players are currently on the Habs roster. The Sabres (27), Islanders (26) and Avalanche/Nordiques (25) follow.
Here are some resources to help guide you through the draft.
First is the order of selection for the draft (which is, of course, subject to change as a result of trades, and Jeff Carter's trade to Columbus that moved the Blue Jackets' first- and third-rounder to Philadelphia is reflected in that listing).
The league has an Entry Draft website with all sorts of information and draft history, including stories on each team's thinking going into the draft and some mock drafts.
TSN, which produces the draft program shown in both Canada and the US, also does a ranking of the top 60 players (two rounds worth of projections) without regard to position or country of origin. Here is that ranking, and here is an analysis of that ranking by Bob McKenzie, who coordinates it. "This is not a subjective analysis of who TSN believes will develop into the best prospects or the order that they should be taken. It's not a scouting report, per se," McKenzie writes. "It is a more objective numerical ranking based on the consensus of opinion gathered from 10 NHL scouts, a barometer of where we think a player is most likely to be taken in the draft." That page also has video of the TSN rankings.
If you've watched TSN telecast over the years, you know McKenzie is very good at determining who will be drafted by what team, but he doesn't take part in TSN's mock first round of the draft. That was done by two former NHL front office guys, Pierre McGuire and Craig Button, who alternated on the 30 picks, and here's video of that and a listing of those results. McGuire went against the conventional wisdom with his first pick, taking the defenseman Larsson instead of Nugent-Hopkins, citing organizational needs on defense. Button disagreed, thinking Nugent-Hopkins would be a great complement to Taylor Hall.
McGuire also had some very interesting comments this week during his morning segments over Team 1200's "Three Guys on the Radio" program and they are worthwhile listening to for his assessment of some of the top picks as well as insights into the dynamics that go on with NHL clubs at the draft (here's the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday segments; McGuire also discusses the NHL Awards and other current hockey topics in these segments).
There seems like an infinite number of mock drafts to be found in various places. The Hockey News has a long history of draft coverage (it's where McKenzie got his start) and here's their mock draft done by Ryan Kennedy, who believes "The 2011 draft promises to be one of the most chaotic in years, particularly at the top. Dominoes will fall based on the first pick and conventional wisdom may be tossed on its ear." Kennedy thinks Edmonton will go with Larsson.
Four staffers at NHL.com did mock drafts and they can be found on this page.
Here's one by Craig Custance of The Sporting News, and he asked a couple of NHL scouts to comment on his selections. He has Nugent-Hopkins going first.
Versus televises the draft in the US and the NBC Sports website has a mock draft here, selected by Mike Finewax, who is with the fantasy sports website Rotoworld. In fact, NBC seems to have just imported Finewax's selection from the Rotoworld pages which adds some of his thoughts on this draft, including, "Most seem to think that picks 9-45 could be interchangeable. Look for lots of trading on the draft floor as teams move up and down depending on what is still available according to its draft list.
"This draft has talent at the top of the list but every player with the exception of Adam Larsson is a project at this time and needs to develop," he continues. "The class is weak in comparison to some previous years and there could be a lot of third and fourth line players to come out of the 2011 Draft so it could be a good move for teams to look for players with size who are able to fill their needs as bottom six players"
That's a bit different than the thinking of Kyle Woodlief, longtime writer of the Red Line Report covering NHL prospects, who had his his annual mock draft published in USA Today. In a related story earlier this week, Woodlief writes in USA Today that he doubted there would be much trading of the top picks this year.
"First off, a lot of dealing has already been done with six first-round selections already having changed hands," he writes. "Second, several teams at the very top end of the draft such as the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators already own multiple first round picks, so there's no need for them to package up their picks to try to move up. We hear, though, that Ottawa is desperate to get its hands on Gabriel Landeskog and might try to cook up a deal with Colorado to move up into the No. 2 slot to grab him.
"The other factor working against a lot of trades at the top end is the nature of this year's class. There is a top tier of four, a second tier of four and then a steep drop-off. So the teams in the top eight likely won't want to move down out of the premium picks, and after that — as we have repeated many times this season — there's not much difference between the player a club can get with say, the 20th pick, and the players who will be available in the early 40s. So that means there's little incentive for teams in the late-teens and 20s to move up."
TSN's Canadian competitor Sportsnet did their own mock draft and here are the results, and Patrick King of Sportsnet believes as most do, that the Oilers will go with Nugent-Hopkins, whose "natural playmaking ability makes him the perfect weapon to play between (Jordan) Eberle and last year's top pick, Taylor Hall, on what could be the best line in hockey in five years."
That's certainly looking a long way up the road.