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NHL Draft Preview: Top 30 Prospects

Jon Litterine

Jon Litterine is RotoWire's lead MMA Writer and MMA Editor. He has covered numerous MMA events live. He's also RW's NHL Prospect Analyst. Jon has been writing for RotoWire since 2005. He is a graduate of U Mass-Lowell.

The 2011 NHL Draft begins June 24 in St. Paul, Minnesota; and the Edmonton Oilers hold the first overall selection for the second year in a row.

Below are our rankings for the top 30 prospects in the upcoming draft:

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C, Red Deer-WHL): Just because he might not be the top overall pick doesn’t mean Nugent-Hopkins isn’t the best player in the entire draft. Since Edmonton already has three promising forwards in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, they may prefer a defenseman with their first selection. Still, whoever gets Nugent-Hopkins is going to get an absolute stud. With 75 assists this season, to go along with 31 goals, Nugent-Hopkins is more of a playmaker than a finisher. He would benefit from another season in Red Deer to fill out physically and get over the injury bug that haunted him a bit in the past, but don’t be surprised if he is rushed to the NHL next season by a team in desperate need of immediate offensive help.

2. Adam Larsson (D, Skelleftea-Sweden): Larsson is head and shoulders above any other defenseman in the entire draft. His offensive upside is somewhat limited, but his skills are certainly good enough to get by, and he has the potential to be a number one defenseman in the NHL. He has been playing in the Swedish Elite League for the past three seasons and there is no doubt he is ready to make an impact in the NHL right now. Larsson has a chance to be taken with the number one overall pick if the Oilers go defense

3. Gabriel Landeskog (LW, Kitchener-OHL): An injury at the 2011 World Junior Championships - he had a goal and an assist in the one game he did participate in - prevented Landeskog from showing his skills on the world’s biggest stage for draft eligible players, but he returned to Kitchener, healed up, and cemented his status as a top prospect. Landeskog may be the smartest player in the entire draft, and he has the offensive skills to match his smarts. He is easily the most NHL-ready forward in the entire draft.

4. Jonathan Huberdeau (C, Saint John-QMJHL): An argument can be made that Huberdeau is the most naturally gifted offensive player in the entire draft. Ranked ninth by the International Scouting Services (ISS), Huberdeau deserves to be a top-five pick. Playing for a Saint John team that was the top team in the CHL for almost the entire season, Huberdeau produced 43 goals and 105 points in 67 games. Listed at just 167 pounds, Huberdeau needs to add some serious muscle to his frame, but that should become less of an issue as he grows older.

5. Sean Couturier (C, Drummondville-QMJHL): You see it every time the draft rolls around - a player who was viewed as a top prospect and has been under the microscope for a couple years starts falling down the rankings as the draft draws near. Granted, falling for Couturier will likely consist of going from the number one pick to somewhere between third and sixth. Couturier made the Canadian World Junior team, but he only picked up three points in seven games. After finishing with 96 points last season, Couturier finished with the same total this season, although he played in 10 fewer games. The size is there at 6’4” and 195 pounds, but the consensus is that once he turns pro, Couturier will be better served as a number two scoring option as opposed to a top-flight center.

6. Ryan Strome (C, Niagara-OHL): All you need to look at to see how much Strome improved in the past year is his point total. After finishing with 27 points in 61 games the previous season, Strome raised his point total a ridiculous 79 points to finish with 106 points in 2010-11. A true playmaker in every sense of the word, Strome had 73 assists last season. A projected second round selection at best before the season began, Strome has turned himself into a potential top-5 pick.

7. Dougie Hamilton (D, Niagara-OHL): Perhaps no defenseman in the entire draft possesses the combination of skill and grit that Hamilton brings to the table. He hits hard, has the ability to jump into the play offensively and is very solid in his own zone. At 6’4”, if Hamilton can eventually gain another 15-to-20 pound of muscle (he‘s listed at 195 right now), he has the potential to be an unstoppable force from the back end. He won’t be selected before Adam Larsson, but Hamilton has a real shot to be the second defenseman off the board on draft night.

8. Ryan Murphy (D, Kitchener-OHL): The similarities between Murphy and 2009 Nashville first round pick Ryan Ellis are almost scary. Both are offensive-minded, right-handed shooting, OHL products who struggle in their own zone but project to be an NHL power play quarterback one day. To Ellis’ credit, he improved his play on the defensive end last season. It remains to be seen if Murphy can do the same. Similar to Cam Fowler last year, Murphy’s skating ability was good enough to help make up for many of his defensive shortcomings while playing in the OHL. That won’t be the case once he turns pro. Still, you can’t teach Murphy’s offensive abilities. With 26 goals and 79 points in 63 games for Kitchener last season, Murphy is a likely top-10 selection.

9. Mika Zibanejad (C, Djurgarden-Sweden): The biggest knock on Zibanejad’s game is, despite the fact he is already 6’2” and 190 pounds, he tends to shy away from the physical aspect of the game. However, this is common with young European forwards, and it’s not going to be a huge concern for teams on draft day. The fact that Djurgarden held a regular shift in the second best league in the world - behind the NHL - at age 18 is very impressive, and it should help Zibanejad quickly acclimate to hockey in North America. He has the ability to finish and projects as a solid two-way center.

10. Sven Bartschi (LW, Portland-WHL): Nino Niederreiter may be just 18 years old, but he paved the way for Bartschi to come over from Switzerland and join him in Portland. This will benefit Bartschi on draft night because scouts love when young European players come over to North America at an early age instead of playing in their home country. Bartschi is undersized at 5’11” and 175 pounds, but his skill level is off the charts. There’s no doubt playing on a top junior team with Niederreiter and top Columbus prospect Ryan Johansen helped make Bartschi’s transition to North American hockey easier, but he has proven to be a hard worker and is very coachable, two traits you don’t always see out of young players from overseas.

11. Duncan Siemens (D, Saskatoon-WHL): Siemens’ skating ability isn’t quite at the level of Ryan Murphy’s, but it isn’t too far off. However, once you get beyond that, their games are drastically different. Siemens battles hard, is tough in his own zone, and will stand up for his teammates. He is your typical WHL defenseman who can be mean and nasty but still contribute on the offensive end. That being said, his point production seems likely to be somewhat limited at the professional level.

12. Tomas Jurco (RW, Saint John-QMJHL): Jurco’s game consists of skill, skill, and more skill. Easily the best pure stick handler in the entire draft, Jurco is an offensive wizard who certainly thinks defense second (if at all). He struggled while playing for a weak Slovakian team at the World Juniors, but he was a solid contributor all season long in the QMJHL. An argument can be made he was the best player at the Memorial Cup for Saint John, and he scored a countless number of highlight reel goals this season.

13. Brandon Saad (LW, Saginaw-OHL): Given his physical dimensions - 6’1”, 210 pounds, more was expected from Saad is his first season in Saginaw. He scored 27 goals, but scouts expected to see more out of him. Even though he is a bit inconsistent, Saad’s strong frame makes him extremely hard to move off the puck, and he is pretty solid in his own zone for such a young player. He is the type of player who could very easily raise his goal total by at least 20 marks next season.

14. Zach Phillips (C, Saint John-QMJHL): Phillips’ critics will say that his solid numbers are a product of playing with Jonathan Huberdeau, and for a stacked Saint John team. His supporters will tell you that it takes an awful lot of talent to finish with 38 goals and 95 points in 67 games, no matter who you are playing with. The truth is Phillips is probably somewhere in the middle, but everyone is pretty much in agreement that his skating is well below average. He is talented enough to get by in juniors with the poor skating, but it could be a much bigger issue at the next level.

15. Joel Armia (RW, Assat-Finland): To say that Armia struggled at the 2011 World Junior Championships is a huge understatement. He finished with just one assist in six games, and his dreadful effort was one of the tournament’s bigger stories. What was forgotten was the fact that the World Juniors is a tournament for older players and always has been; very few draft eligible players jump right in and put up big numbers. Armia responded by going back to Assat and finishing the season with 18 goals and 29 points in 48 games while playing in Finland’s top league. You don’t see many players with Armia’s combination of size and ability to finish around the net; and as a result, he’s likely to be selected in the top half of the first round.

16. Alexander Khokhlachev (C, Windsor-OHL): More so than players from any other country, young Russians tend to stay home and play rather than come over to North America. However, Khokhlachev is going to gain bonus points for simply being willing to play in the OHL. Many Russian players (both young and old) have been knocked for being lazy while on the ice, but that’s one other thing that won’t be an issue for Khokhlachev. He gets in quick on the forecheck and battles hard along the boards. There is always the risk that a Russian player will eventually go back and play in the KHL, but the fact Khokhlachev was willing to come to Windsor at such a young age bodes well for his future in North America.

17. Nicklas Jensen (RW, Oshawa-OHL): Jensen was often outshined by teammate, and 2010 New York Rangers second-round pick, Christian Thomas - who finished with 54 goals - but he had a solid and productive first season in North America. The native of Denmark finished with 29 goals and 58 points in 61 games. Jensen projects as a power forward at 6’2”, but he needs to put on quite a bit of muscle. Jensen isn’t a physical player and he doesn’t battle hard along the boards, so if he isn’t scoring goals he likely isn’t doing much to help his team.

18. Jamie Oleksiak (D, Northeastern-HE): You don’t find many 6’7”, 245-pound, 18-year-old defensemen who can skate, but Oleksiak is one of them. He isn’t as physical as he should be for a player of his size, but he isn’t exactly soft either. Oleksiak doesn’t have the offensive upside that Tyler Myers did at the same age, so he’s kind of caught in between in regards to what type of player he will be at the pro level. He made a very smooth - and a bit surprising - transition to college hockey as a freshman at Northeastern.

19. Mark McNeill (C, Prince Albert-WHL): McNeill’s pro body is what is going to make him a first round selection. Already 6’1” and 205 pounds, McNeill is good at using his size to both go to the net and play on the outside. The other thing that will make McNeill attractive to many teams is his ability to play both center and wing. McNeill’s game has steadily improved each year while in the WHL.

20. Tyler Biggs (RW, US NTDP): Biggs provides a nice combination of toughness and skill. He may not score much as a pro, but he does everything else well, including fighting and standing up for his teammates if necessary. He is the type of player who can do many things to help his team win, even if he isn’t scoring. You don’t find that very often among younger players; and as a result, Biggs should be a fairly high pick.

21. Nathan Beaulieu (D, Saint John-QMJHL): To illustrate just how strong the program in Saint John is right now, consider that four of the top 21 players on our list played for the Sea Dogs last season. Beaulieu is the first Saint John defenseman to show up here. He has had nearly identical numbers the past two seasons, putting up 12 goals and 33 assists in 66 games last season, and the exact same totals in one fewer game the year season before. He would have put up even better numbers if 2009 Penguins first-round pick, and 2010-11 QMJHL defenseman of the year, Simon Despres wasn’t running the power play for the Sea Dogs and playing 30+ minutes a night. Once Beaulieu puts on some weight, he should be an effective player in both the offensive and defensive zones.

22. Matt Puempel (LW, Peterborough-OHL): The dreadful Peterborough team Puempel played for is going to affect his draft stock, although it probably shouldn’t. Despite playing for a poor team, and spending much of the year dealing with a hip injury, he still managed to score 34 goals in 55 games after scoring 33 in 59 games the year before. If he is paired with a talented center, and can shake the injury bug, Puempel has the ability to be an elite goal scorer.

23. David Musil (D, Vancouver-WHL): The son of former NHL defenseman Frank Musil, David projects as a typical strong and big-bodied defensive defenseman. He doesn’t have much offensive upsid,e but he moves the puck well enough to get by and plays a tough and honest game. Born in British Columbia, Musil grew up in the Czech Republic before joining the Giants two seasons ago. It was a smart decision because Musil has a very “North American” edge to his game.

24. Daniel Catenacci (C, S.S. Marie-OHL): It’s not often that the player who is widely considered to be the best skater available ends up as a potential second round pick, but that’s the current situation for Catenacci. A case can be made that Catenacci’s offensive numbers (74 points in 67 games this season) suffered because he was on a poor Greyhounds team. He’s only 5’10”, but he doesn’t shy away from the physical aspect of the game. The bottom line though is that a player of Catenacci’s skating ability should probably have put up bigger numbers than he did. He recorded just 36 goals in 132 career OHL games, but finding a player with Catenacci’s skating ability is a tough thing to do.

25. John Gibson (G, US NTDP): In a draft that lacks any true elite goaltending prospects, Gibson is the best of the bunch. The toughest thing for a young goalie to do is remain calm and poised in the net when everything in falling down around them, and that is probably Gibson’s biggest strength. He is the third ranked goalie by the ISS, but he clearly has the most upside of any netminder in the entire draft. It remains possible that no goalies will be taken in the first round.

26. Ty Rattie (LW, Portland-WHL): Rattie is another player some feel put up big numbers primarily because he played on such a strong team. When a player is 5’10” and just 170 pounds, it’s difficult to consider him a top prospect if he is not a great skater, and skating is probably Rattie’s biggest weakness. He has the talent, but it’s difficult to envision him as anything more than a late first round pick.

27. Rocco Grimaldi (C, US NTDP): Grimaldi is listed at 5’6”, which is probably a bit generous. He has scored goals and put up big numbers at every level he has played, but there’s a big difference between 5’9” and 5’6”. With the new rules, smaller players can now succeed in the NHL more than they used to, but there will certainly be some teams hesitant to take a player of Grimaldi’s size. To Grimaldi’s credit, he battles hard along the boards and is difficult to knock off the puck despite his diminutive frame.

28. Jonas Brodin (D, Farjestad-Sweden): A 17-year-old who can hold his own and take a regular shift in the second best league in the world stands out, and that’s what Brodin did last season. He had no goals and just four assists in 42 games with Farjestad, but he probably would have put up bigger numbers if given more playing time. The team that ends up drafting Brodin will do so on potential.

29. Victor Rask (C, Leksand-Sweden): No player available this year has fallen harder than Rask. Sean Couturier has fallen a couple of spots since the start of the season; Rask could fall a couple of rounds. The ISS had Rask ranked fifth in October’s rankings, but he finished the season ranked 28th. One has to have a really rough year in order to drop 23 spots in the rankings in just one season. Rask has the talent to succeed as a pro, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he will get his act together, or if the freefall will continue.

30. Adam Clendening (D, Boston University-HE): It remains to be seen if Clendening’s skating ability is good enough for him to make it as a pro, but if it is, he will be the quarterback of an NHL power play one day. He had five goals and 26 points in 39 games as a freshman last season at Boston University. His skating is such a concern though; that some scouts feel it could keep him out of the NHL altogether.