By Kirk Luedeke
The 2012 NHL Entry Draft is shaping up to be one of the strongest classes for defensemen in history, and that does not even take into account several sterling forwards expected to be at the top of it all next June.
Russian forwards Nail Yakupov (right) and Mikhail Grigorenko are both playing hockey in North America with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts respectively. Yakupov is in his second OHL campaign, while Grigorenko will be a major junior rookie. Also in the mix in the top-five is dual-citizen Alex Galchenyuk(also with Sarnia) who was born in Milwaukee while his dad (Belarus) was playing pro hockey in the IHL.
Beyond the high-end forwards sprinkled at the top of the projected draft class, this group is defense-rich. We could see about half or even more of the first 30 players taken from the back line. While that may or may not happen as the 2011-12 hockey season unfolds, what cannot be debated is how deep this draft is at the position.
For the second consecutive year, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of options for first-rounders at the goaltender position.
Here is a quick look at some of the potential players who will be top-30 selections in Pittsburgh next June by league/region. Keep in mind that every year, there are players who push themselves into the top round, and those who fall. With European leagues starting up, and the North American amateur hockey season around the corner, nothing is set in stone.
Nail Yakupov, RW Sarnia Sting- Although having below-average size (5-foot-10, 175), this dynamic winger plays with a feisty edge and can score at will. He tore up the OHL as a rookie with his speed and stick to the tune of 49 goals and 101 points in just 65 games. 150 points is not outside the realm of possibility this season for Yakupov, who is the #1 overall frontrunner (and benefits from having Galchenyuk to feed him the puck).
Alex Galchenyuk, C Sarnia Sting- Lanky centerman is creative, dangerous with a loping stride and excellent vision. He scored 31 goals and 83 points a year ago as a first-year OHLer after being the top selection in the OHL draft. He played for Team USA at the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August.
Olli Määttä, D London Knights- The top selection in the 2011 CHL Import Draft also became the youngest Finn to play in the World Jr. Championship (Under-20) last winter at age 16 (with an August ’94 birthdate). Although he didn’t play much, he has good size (6-foot-1, 198), vision and puck-moving ability with a physical dimension. He could stand to get a little quicker, but could thrive in London this season under Dale Hunter.
Nick Ebert, D Windsor Spitfires- New Jersey native possesses both skill and some toughness on the blue line. Has a big point shot and used it to score 11 goals, 41 points in 64 games as an OHL rookie after coming over from Waterloo of the USHL. At 6-foot-1, 194, this two-way defenseman should be in demand.
Slater Koekkoek, D Peterborough Petes- Skinny defender needs to pack on the muscle, but is a very good skater with nice footwork and some offensive upside. He isn’t on a great team, but showed immense promise as an OHL rookie a year ago. Skated for Team Canada’s gold medal-winning Ivan Hlinka squad in Slovakia this past summer.
Matia Marcantuoni, C Kitchener Rangers- Underrated pivot brings speed and quick moves to the mix as well as some creativity. Yet another in a long line of promising NHL prospects to come out of Steve Spott’sKitchener program, watch for MM to up his production and turn heads after being a contributor to the Canada draft dream team at the Hlinka.
Andreas Athanasiou, LW London Knights- Stock on the rapid rise after an excellent showing in Slovakia in August. B’s prospect Jared Knight’s OHL teammate is described by Knight himself as such: “Great speed, sick mitts and a real good guy.” Athanasiou looked like a first-round prospect at the Hlinka and could put up some real good numbers on a re-vamped Knights squad.
Cody Ceci, D Ottawa 67′s- Late ’93 is big (6-foot-2, 205), mobile and after scoring nine goals and 34 points a year ago, is primed to put up even bigger numbers in his draft season. His progression has trended steadily upward since arriving to the OHL two seasons ago.
Jarrod Maidens, C Owen Sound Attack- Perhaps a first-round darkhorse, but given his size (6-foot-2) and penchant for big goals (Maidens scored the OHL championship-winning tally in overtime of a game seven against favored Mississauga), don’t bet against the kid everyone likes to call “Iron”.
Gianluca Cucuruto, D Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds- Quietly on a lot of scouts’ lists this season as a player flying under the radar out west in the OHL. Talented and underrated: one NHL scout said Cucuruto “does everything well- he just gets overshadowed by a great ‘D’ class.”
Mikhail Grigorenko, LW Quebec Remparts- Slick, shifty, creative and dangerous only begin to describe the 6-foot-2 winger who left his native Russia in hopes of getting a nice draft bounce in June. Watch for it to work in spades as he joins Patrick Roy’s stacked junior club. He is expected to battle Yakupov and WHL stud defender Ryan Murray for top billing in 2012.
Martin Frk, RW Halifax Mooseheads- When it comes to offensive skill, the Czech native is one of the best prospects in the 2012 draft, but his overall game and discipline need work. Even with the flaws however, it’s hard to imagine he’ll drop very far in the draft, as he has signifiant talent and upside.
Luca Ciampini, LW Halifax Mooseheads- Frk’s teammate has a good blend of quickness, hands and hockey sense. He doesn’t have a very high “wow factor” but is steady and has some potential to solidify himself in the first round. With top prospect Nathan MacKinnon in the fold in Halifax, Ciampini’s stock could benefit
Ryan Murray, D Everett Silvertips- When it comes to a package of skill, smarts and leadership qualities, they don’t come much more complete than Murray, who not only captained the 2010 gold medal Canada team at the Ivan Hlinka, but also wore the ‘C’ for the 2011 Under-18 entry as well. Murray just missed being eligible for the ’11 NHL draft class, but with his experience and track record, he’s going to be a likely top-three selection this June. The only real knock on Murray is his average size, as he skates well, shoots the puck hard and can play effectively in all zones while being one of the more mature kids you’ll find anywhere.
Matt Dumba, D Red Deer Rebels- This guy immediately jumps out as a gamer with his speed, agility, puck skills and shot. The captain of Team Canada’s Hlinka winners has stud written all over him and could muscle his way into the top-five when all is said and done. Scouts rave about his tools and he appears to have the toolbox as well. With 15 goals as a rookie a year ago, Dumba is only scratching the surface of his high offensive potential.
Griffin Reinhart, D Edmonton Oil Kings- The second of former NHL All-Star defender Paul Reinhart’ssons is proving that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He has excellent mobility, passing ability and a strong overall game. Unfortunately, he may have inherited his dad’s tough luck when it comes to injuries. He played just 45 of his team’s 72 games a year ago (six goals, 25 points) but has the size (6-foot-3, 195) and skill thing going for him. Projected as a solid top-10 candidate in 2012 if he can stay healthy.
Morgan Rielly, D Moose Jaw Warriors- Well-rounded defender can do it all: be a stalwart in his own end, quarterback the power play, advance the puck or lead the rush. Rielly is only about 6-feet, but plays bigger than that and is one of several outstanding rearguards coming out of the WHL this year.
Derrick Pouliot, D Portland Winterhawks- Another offensive-minded gem coming out of Portland the wayJoe Morrow did a season ago. Adroit with the puck, keeps his head up and can get it up the ice quickly. Only has average size at a shade over 6-feet, but has good vision and feet.
Ryan Olsen, C Saskatoon Blades- Tall (6-foot-2), lanky centerman has some legitimate potential given talent and hockey sense, but got knocked for what was an alleged poor performance at Team Canada evaluation camp for the Ivan Hlinka tourney in July. His work ethic and effort will be watched closely after failing to impress in Calgary, but has the tools to be a first-round prospect out of the gate.
Zemgus Girgensons, C Dubuque Fighting Saints- Former standout with the EJHL’s Green Mountain Glades (and University of Vermont recruit) is a skilled kid with good size and character who helped expansion Dubuque win the USHL championship last season. He spurned the Kelowna Rockets’ attempts to get him into the WHL this season, and has some good hands, instincts and work ethic. His father played on the same Latvian developmental team as former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe.
Jordan Schmaltz, D Sioux City Musketeers- Wisconsin native and University of North Dakota recruit isn’t a blazing skater but thinks the game at an extremely high level. His patience and puck skills make him one of the more effective puck-movers and power play QBs available in the draft. Schmaltz has some work to do on his rail-thin 6-foot-2 frame, but he has NHL potential as a top-three.
Mike Matheson, D Dubuque Fighting Saints- The rich got richer with thee Montreal native and Boston College-committed blue liner who turned heads in Slovakia with Team Canada and again at the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation Camp in Toronto last month. Although QMJHL his rights are owned by the Shawinigan Cataractes (who host the 2012 Memorial Cup), he still opted to stay on the NCAA track. An excellent skater with poise and smarts.
Jacob Trouba, D U.S. NTDP Under-18- Hard-working, intelligent defender from Michigan who plays a physical, shutown style. Skated for Team USA’s gold medal club at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship last April. Trouba may not have as much skill or upside as other defenders in this draft class, but his all-around game makes him a safer option.
Filip Forsberg, LW Leksand (Sweden)- Impressed a lot of folks at the World Under-18s last spring in nearly leading his team to an upset of Team USA. The speedy, opportunistic forward with a lightning-quick stick followed that up with another sterling performance in Slovakia at the Hlinka. Yet another in a long line of impressive NHL prospects coming out of Sweden.
Henrik Samuelsson, RW MoDo (Sweden)- Ulf’s son left the US NTDP when the elder Samuelsson got hired as MoDo’s head coach and will skate in that club’s system this year. Unlike his dad in that he’s a skilled and dangerous forward, he won gold for Team USA in the Under-18 championships last April, but may be gambling a bit by leaving the USHL to play junior hockey in Sweden. It will be interesting to see how he does, but at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he could make a name for himself.
Pontus Åberg, LW Djurgarden Jr. (Sweden)- This two-way winger missed the 2011 draft by eight days, but impressed at the 2010 Hlinka for Sweden and last season with the Djurgarden jr. club, netting 13 goals in 41 games.
U.S. Highschools, prep, jr
Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, C Kent School(Connecticut)- With a lean 6-foot-3 frame and explosive skating ability, Nieves looks real good on the ice but needs to prove to scouts that he has the hands and creativity to be a consistent presence. The Michigan recruit didn’t endear himself to the NHL scouting community by returning to prep, but Kent is thrilled to have him.
Brian Hart, RW Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire)- Big rugged power forward from Cumberland, Me. has some legitimate upside. Like Nieves, he’ll need to dominate offensively to prove himself at what is seen as a lower level of competition. He and Eric Nieley did some real damage last year for Dana Barbin’sExeter squad, and Hart is at his best when driving to the net and fighting through traffic.
Keep an eye on:
Brendan Gaunce, C Belleville (OHL)- Big-bodied forward is moving up on draft lists after an eye-opening preseason with the Bulls. He has the size(6-foot-2, 200) and skill to be a legitimate first-rounder next June. He’s not all that agile, but has good straight-line speed and can be a horse when he takes the puck to the net.
New England Hockey Journal will bring you periodic updates on the 2012 draft class all season, so be sure to bookmark and check back regularly. You can follow me on Twitter at: @kluedeke29