At the top of the list is power winger Tyler Biggs of the U.S. NTDP Under-18 team. Twitter debates with other draft pundits aside, and I'll admit to not being above the fray when it comes to hyperbole at times, this is the kind of player who because of his size, ability and natural aggressiveness and snarl, should go higher than some think because NHL teams do love their power forwards with legitimate toughness.
Red Line Report scout Max Giese has been following Biggs for several seasons now, and had this to say about the son of former Cincinnati Cylcones (IHL) standout Don Biggs:
"He's right up there (at the top of the USHL list) and could be the best choice of this bunch to be a good pro," Giese told B2011DW. "He's a fast, mean, physical in-your-face guy with some leadership qualities. If there's a knock on him it's that he doesn't have the real skills or finesse to his game, and he doesn't always bring that competitiveness on every shift. The consistency is not always there."
Biggs has six goals and 10 points in 19 games with the U-18 team; his 68 penalty minutes leads the squad by a significant margin.
Again, he has a tendency to sleepwalk through games sometimes, but if he gets going, he has the ability to dictate the flow and tempo with his ferocity. If he brought it on a more consistent basis, he'd probably be rated a lot higher on most boards. Still, don't be surprised to see him go somewhere around pick 20 because of the potential upside.
"We're keeping an eye on Biggs," said one NHL scout for a Western Conference team. "He's got the size, is a pretty good skater and has that natural toughness that you either have or you don't-- a coach can't instill that in a guy. We like the bloodlines, too. This is a kid who has some real potential even if its raw. Would we like to see him turn it on more? Yes. But, overall, we think he's going to be a player."
Jonathan "J.T." Miller is second and this is a heck of a hockey player on skills and talent alone. Said by one scout to be above average to exceptional in just about every measurable aspect of the game, his production hasn't been commensurate with the kind of player Miller is.
The Pittsburgh area native has been on a high developmental trajectory for several years, and given his good size (6-1, 198) and high talent level, it's hard to see him slip all that far down the draft boards in the first round. At the same time, with two goals and 15 points in 19 games, he's capable of more.
"He's playing well and you can chalk it up to bounces not going his way," said Giese. "But at some point, you have to ask, 'Where is the production?'"
Seth Ambroz is next at third on Central's list, and the New Prague, Minnesota native has long been seen as one of the better power forward prospects available in the 2011 draft.
"When you hear scouts talking about a player who has 'plateau'd' then you should open up a book and see Ambroz's picture there," the NHL scout said. "He's essentially the same player he was a couple of years ago: real nice size, hands, not-so-good wheels and a whole lot of question marks about the desire and work ethic."
Now in his third season with the Omaha Lancers, the 6-3, 200-pound winger isn't tearing it up by any stretch of the imagination. His five goals and nine points in 12 games is decidedly pedestrian and only good for fourth on his team's scoring list. He's behind the passed over in 2010 former St. Sebastian's star Tommy O'Regan in scoring, even.
"Some guys still like him," Giese said. "He's very difficult to move from in front of the net and has an excellent release, but his skating hasn't improved. And, I wish he would do more in the corners. Too often, he's standing around in front of the net and letting his 5-8 teammates do all the work for loose pucks in the corners."
Even with the criticisms, Ambroz has likely done enough in past seasons that some NHL team will step up to the plate, believing that they can harness his size and ability effectively enough to get him to play with more of a sense of urgency.
"He will play in the NHL and he'll score some goals, too," said Giese. "But he hasn't put in the work; he's not anywhere near the player he should be right now."
After Ambroz, Youngstown Phantoms defenseman Scott Mayfield is next on the list. As far as raw, projectable talent goes, you won't find many defensemen in this draft with the size, skating and offensive potential that Mayfield has. Unfortunately, he plays on a poor team and isn't getting the kind of coaching that is allowing him to effectively address his flaws, which means downgrades for some NHL teams scouting him.
"(Mayfield's) a second-rounder for some," said Giese. "But he's exactly what the pros are looking for: great size (6-4) with still a lot of weight to add to that frame, really good skater. I'm not saying he's Jay Bouwmeester, but with that size and skating combination, I'd say he's right up there with (Niagara defenseman) Dougie Hamilton."
One thing that helps Mayfield's case is the fact that a lot of NHL scouts got a nice look at him at the Research and Development Camp back in late August.
"He opened up some eyes there in Toronto," said one NHL scout who attended. "He's got that long, powerful stride, makes the good first pass and has a nice reach. He's raw, but you can coach the flaws out of him. You can't coach that big frame and edge he plays with."
It will be very interesting to see where Mayfield goes in the 2011 draft, because opinions are pretty divergent on him. Like Derek Forbort last year, he's got the size and upside, though Giese feels that Mayfield doesn't quite have Forbort's polish. Still, Mayfield, like Forbort last season, won't be at the top of many draft discussions when it comes to defensemen, but does bring interesting upside that will keep people talking. His OHL rights are owned by the high-powered Kitchener Rangers, but he has at least up until now, seemed intent on playing out the string in the USHL to protect his NCAA eligibility. The St. Louis native is committed to the University of Denver for next season.
The small, but dynamic Rocco Grimaldi rounds out the USHL top-five. As far as skills go, Grimaldi belongs in the top-10 in terms of pure talent, but at barely 5-6 (if that), his size will drop him because he brings too much risk to take as high as his ability would normally allow.
The SoCal native and North Dakota recruit is a fascinating story, because he has the ability and a huge heart that you would think should help him overcome the significant size concerns.
"He has the passion and drive that reminds me of Sidney Crosby," said Giese. "He always expects himself to make the play, to put the puck in the net. His dedication is there, too: he's a rinkrat and gym rat and does all the things you want from a player. "
Giese then related how Grimaldi struggled in a recent game against the Chicago Steel, in which he was effectively neutralized by an effective defense that didn't have any real big, physical "monsters" on the blue line, which raises concerns of what Grimaldi will face at the pro level.
"I think he'll be a great college player and fan favorite," Giese said of Grimaldi, who leads the U-18 team in scoring with 16 goals and 26 points in as many games. "But I think his growing pains at the pro level will be the same ones Nathan Gerbe's had. It's a concern when you're looking at drafting a player like him with an early pick."
We'll wrap up the Central Scouting series with Part 2 of the USHL, taking you through some of the rest of the list (but not all) and a look at a couple of the goalies.