Once again, the OHL looks to be the premiere pipeline for talent into the NHL, as we could possibly see half of the first 30 selections in the 2011 draft come from that league. There is still a lot of hockey to be played between now and June, but once again the OHL looks to have produced a bumper crop.
Gabriel Landeskog is king of the hill for now, coming out No. 1 on the list out of the gate. While this may have come as a bit of a surprise to some, it wasn't for this blog space, who actually ranked Landeskog as the top OHL draft prospect in a media survey last month on the OHL Prospects blog. Simply put, he's the complete package of size, skill, scoring, spirit and sense-- a five-tool winger who came over from Sweden and proved his mettle in North America so much that Steve Spott named him captain of the storied Kitchener Rangers hockey club. It says a lot about a player who can steal some of the spotlight away from what teammate Ryan Murphy has been doing this season, but Landeskog has done just that.
"I love this kid," one NHL scout told B2011DW. "He's very talented and is such a competitor. Every time you see him, you appreciate what he brings to the table even more."
Right after Landeskog is another power winger in Pennsylvania native Brandon Saad of the Saginaw Spirit. Saad topped many preseason OHL draft lists, but Landeskog's superior production has earned him the edge over Saad for now, even though the two are very similar players in terms of style and substance.
Here is what Red Line Report had to say about Saad back in September: Has all the tools to become a premiere pro talent- great size and strength, a nose for the net, good hands and vision plus a high compete level.
After Saad, big, skilled Niagara defenseman Dougie Hamilton rounds out the top-three. Again, no real surprise for this blogger. I've been hearing a steady buzz on this kid since August-- 6-4 defenders like Hamilton who can skate and even chip in the points are always a hot commodity. It's certainly not unanimous-- Hamilton has his critics, but I'm getting enough of a sampling of NHL opinions to tell me that come draft day, this youngster's wait is not going to be a long one, even with some of the doubts been circulated out in the blogosphere.
"You can't teach his size or skating ability," the NHL scout said of Hamilton. "I don't see how anyone could have him much lower given that he not only has the tools to be a top pro, but is only about three points away from surpassing his totals from last season. That's a pretty nice improvement right there."
Hamilton's Ice Dogs teammate, center Ryan Strome is fourth on Central's list, and could just be the entire 2011 draft's biggest riser. This is one kid few were talking about before the start of the season, but he exploded out of the gate offensively and has been a model of consistency over the two months of OHL play.
"Strome is tearing it up," said the scout. "It makes sense to have him there."
Things got interesting at No. 5, where Central has Saginaw winger Vincent Trocheck there ahead of notables such as Tobias Rieder, Ryan Murphy, Nicklas Jensen and Matt Puempel. The undersized but skilled Trocheck is fast and plays with some jam, but putting him ahead of the others in the pecking order created a bit of a kerfuffle when the list hit the streets.
"Having Trocheck at five is crazy and I like him," the scout said.
German winger Tobias Rieder is the second of Kitchener's sublime import duo, and may well be the best player to ever come out of that country when all is said and done. The speedy and ultra-skilled forward showed no transition struggles and has been a crucial element in keeping Kitchener's high-octane offense going, especially with the loss of 50-goal man Jeff Skinner to the Carolina Hurricanes. We're not saying Rieder is the next Skinner (he's got similar size and can really fly; doesn't have quite the sublime hands/hockey sense though), but he's one heck of a scoring talent, and hockey is in his blood. This is a kid who is absolutely driven to be in the NHL one day, and based on early returns, he's going to get there.
Oshawa center Boone Jenner was seventh, the second head-scratcher after Trocheck. Yes, Jenner is a character guy and has some excellent hands and scoring instincts, but his skating is mediocre (though hearing it has improved from last season). The thing with Jenner is some questionable upside at the pro level. This is a guy with five goals and 12 points in 18 OHL games. When you compare his numbers to what the other guys behind him are doing, it doesn't make a lot of sense, especially since Oshawa has a pretty loaded group of forwards.
At eight is Kitchener defenseman Ryan Murphy, the third Ranger in the top-10. What the diminutive but uber-skilled defenseman is doing in the OHL scoring race is truly remarkable. He currently sits third overall in the league with 11 goals and 35 points in just 20 games-- truly sick numbers for a blue liner (he's got just one goal less than Jenner has points-- think about that for a second).
Murphy is probably the draft's most polarizing figure right now. His skating and puck skills are elite; his offensive hockey sense off the charts. He can control the offensive tempo of a game like no other player at his position. He's even improved his defensive play from last year to this. Don Cherry went on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday and predicted that Murphy would be the No. 1 overall pick in June.
Yet, there are doubts, especially among some in the NHL scouting community. Here is one experienced and greatly respected talent hound's take on Murphy, and it's similar to others B2011DW has heard off the record.
"Ryan Murphy at the end of the day should be fourth on the Central List in my opinion," the scout said. "If you're a team like the Bruins, it's all gravy at this point, right? You've gotten a player like Tyler Seguin, so why not roll the dice a little bit on a player like Murphy if he's there (with that Toronto pick)?
"It all boils down to this: Can he play 5-on-5 in the NHL? I would say that if you pair him with Zdeno Chara then the answer is: Yes, he can. (My team) doesn't have Zdeno Chara, though, and the Bruins do. You can give Chara all of the physical, defensive responsibilities and then let Murphy do what he does best and it isn't going to kill you."
Murphy's offensive game is so dynamic, explosive, insert any other superlative here, that his ranking on independent scouting services and internet messageboards and fansites swings wildly between where Central and some NHL clubs I've managed to poll have him. What accounts for the divergence of opinion?
It's simple, really-- the independent scouting services can afford to rank him high and focus on his tools and otherworldly offensive capabilities because they aren't a team who has to decide where Murphy fits with their overall dynamic and whether his 5-on-5 play is going to be good enough to earn him the kind of minutes and regular shift that justifies taking him inside the top-five at draft time.
Murphy's role of a specialist has often been compared to Windsor defenseman and Nashville '09 first-rounder Ryan Ellis, but some don't like that comparable because Murphy is so much better a skater than Ellis. There are other reasons scouts out there like Murphy better than Ellis, too.
"There's a high energy and passion to Murphy's game that he brings every night," the scout said. "Ellis simply doesn't have it."
Danish forward Nicklas Jensen and 2010 CHL Rookie of the Year Matt Puempel round out Central's preliminary top-10.
Jensen has size and all-around skill; he's adjusted pretty quickly to the OHL after coming over from Denmark with seven goals and 17 points for the Generals. He's a bit like a Landeskog-lite in that he's big (6-3 with room to fill out) and can make things happen on offense, but doesn't have Landeskog's toughness or grit. Still, he's one of those high-upside developmental players NHL teams love.
Puempel's stock has been on the decline since the 2010 Ivan Hlinka and July evaluation camp, where he did not perform to expectations. Although he potted a hat trick in Peterborough's opening game of the season, it has been a few months of disappointment since. Puempel lost teammate and leading scorer Ryan Spooner to requested trade to Kingston, and the Petes don't have much going for them as the East Division's cellar-dweller. In 18 games since the hatty, Puempel has nine goals. Not bad, but not the expected jump from the 34 he scored as a rookie last season. His drop off in value shouldn't cause too precipitous a fall, because even though his effort has been uneven in the eyes of some scouts this season, Puempel is still a talented scorer and someone will likely jump on him inside the top-10 or just outside. If he gets it going offensively, then he could see a nice boost. Either way, seeing him No. 10 on Central's list was a mild surprise, as one would think he would be closer to five.
I will break this post into two parts to better cover 11-20 and the OHL goalies without subjecting you loyal readers to the internet version of "War and Peace"