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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Central European Skaters rankings: The Persian Prince rises

THe NHL's Central Scouting Service released its final rankings on Monday, and this blog took a close look at the North American prospects. Now, it is time to turn the attention to the list of European players available in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

It looks like another big year for Sweden, with six of Central's top-10 Euros coming out of that Scandinavian hockey factory.

Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson kept his spot atop the rankings and is still a candidate to go first overall in the draft, as the Edmonton Oilers hold the No. 1 selection. The 6-3, 200-pounder is a powerful skater who is smooth with his stride and footwork. He has very good hands and vision for advancing the puck and hitting teammates with speed coming out of their zone. He plays a smart positional game and has a big shot. He can run the power play effectively as both a distributor and triggerman.

Larsson made it to the Swedish Elite League at age 16, just the third defenseman to do so behind Calle Johansson and Victor Hedman. As such, Larsson's game has been nitpicked a lot, much like Sean Couturier's has, taking a little of the bloom off the rose.

At the same time, this kid is so solid and mature, it's hard to imagine he'll fall much if at all in St. Paul. The challenge he faces with Edmonton is that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a wide fan and media favorite. A lot of folks are going to want the Oilers to take the slight but supremely skilled center. At the same time, Larsson is a safer pick, even if he doesn't have RNH's dynamic, game-breaking element.

Countryman Mika Zibanejad, whom we like to call the "Persian Prince of Sweden" because of his Iranian (and Finnish on his mother's side) parentage, is second on Central's list and deserves to be there. We could argue that no player is generating more buzz and interest right now than Zibanejad is. He broke into Djurgarden's SEL club after beginning the year on the J20 squad and played extremely well against the men.

Zibanejad (aka "Z-Bad" by THN's Ryan Kennedy) plays with some real fire and passion. He's a good skater with an extra gear, has a quick stick and a lethal shot. With his 6-2, 191-pound frame, he plays a physical style and is going to get bigger and stronger as he continues to mature. We will have a more detailed analysis of Zibanejad soon, as he will be profiled in this blog's next "case for" post, but with 5 goals and 9 points in 26 games, he showed enough to be a potential top-10 pick in June.

Another Swede rounds out the top-three, with defenseman Jonas Brodin of Färjestad locking it down with his very solid all-around game and intelligence. Brodin didn't score a goal in 42 games this season, but his game is more than his stats indicate. He's highly mobile, with the poise and vision to make plays all over the ice. He's not an aggressive, attacking-type player but is going to make a team defense dangerous because he has the smarts and wheels to jump into the play when he needs to, but is also going to make all the plays defensively. He's extremely light and needing to add strength and mass to his 6-1 frame, but along with Zibanejad and fellow Färjestad defender Oscar Klefbom, Brodin will be watched closely at the Under-18 Championship tourney this week and next.

Big Finnish forward Joel Armia is next on Central's list at four. Many would argue he should be ahead of Brodin and even Zibanejad, but we have no problem with where he is. At 6-3, 191 he has terrific size for a winger and is a fluid skater who can handle the puck well and beat defenders with an array of impressive 1-on-1 moves. He's got a real big shot and release, but can also handle the puck well in traffic and is effective with the deke. Where he loses his luster with us a bit is in his overall defensive game (needs major work) and tendency to fade and disappear for stretches. He got off to a very hot start and still finished with a respectable 18 goals in 48 games- it's just that we feel Armia is one of the more overrated prospects in this draft because he still gets a ton of credit for what he did early on, but his supporters don't want to talk about how he seemed to hit the wall at mid-season. Make no mistake- he's a legitimate draft talent and could end up being a stud NHLer in time. But right now, he's pretty one-dimensional and we don't see what all the top-10 fuss is about. Now, if he rips it up at the U18s, that will be huge for him, but inside the top-10, we wouldn't be comfortable making the recommendation to take Armia there. After 10, it's on just about anywhere. High upside with this one, but there's a bust factor, too. His body language and playing style reminds us a lot of Mikko Lehtonen, whom the Bruins recently traded to the Wild after he didn't work out in Providence.

Czech power forward Dmitri Jaskin checks in at five, and he's worthy of that ranking based on what we hear. A knee injury kept him out of the World Jrs. in Buffalo and he missed February's Five Nations tourney as well, but he's in Germany with a chance to make a run for a top-20 or top-15 selection in June. His skating is a drawback, but everything else about the kid- size (6-1, 200), hands, shot, passion- is all there. He's the best prospect coming out of the Czech Republic this season and bears watching. He'd be ranked much higher if not for his plodding skating and lack of agility, but he goes hard to the net and makes things happen.

Oscar Klefbom is an intriguing defender rising up the various draft boards because of his size and offensive upside. Although not the all-around defender his teammate Brodin is, Klefbom nevertheless is more of a visible presence on the ice and does more to key the attack. In fact, we would not at all be surprised if Klefbom ends up getting picked ahead of Brodin in the NHL draft. The U18 will obviously make or break that kind of scenario happening. But at 6-4, 200 pounds, this excellent skater and skilled player loves to join the rush and has strong offensive instincts. One player to watch for the 2011 draft as a darkhorse to be an off-the-board pick.

Miikka Sälomaki and Joachim Nermark are seventh and eighth on the list. We liked Sälomaki at the WJC- he was involved and played with a lot of energy for Team Finland. We've wondered about his offensive upside at the NHL level, but this guy just keeps hanging around and playing well in international tournaments. He may not have high-end skills, but compensates with his anticipation and hustle. He's only average-sized and needs to get a lot stronger, but played well for Kärpät in the SM-Liiga and will be a solid, if unspectacular prospect for the team that drafts him.

Nermark has been a disappointment after looking so good at the Ivan Hlinka in August. He could drop some at the draft as a result of his struggles in finding the back of the net and putting up the points this season playing on Linköping's J20 team for much of the season (he played 12 SEL games- 1 assist). That said, he's one of those players with the raw talent and scoring intangibles to get back on track and evolve into a beast, so one team just might take the plunge earlier than expected. He's a good skater with a 6-1 frame and room to grow. His soft hands and knack for threading the needle is impressive as his quick release and ability to score, but he didn't finish enough in his draft season with 8 goals, 26 points on the junior squad. Nermark is another one who could get a big boost in Germany if he can get back to his Slovakia-like dominance.

Markus Granlund, brother of Wild prospect and top-10 selection last June Mikael Granlund, is on the list at 9th overall. We're not sure about this one, to be honest. Granlund is a solid player, but he's not his older brother. He's also undersized and is a better skater than Mikael, but still lacks that top-end speed scouts want to see in smaller guys. He doesn't have his older brother's pure offensive hockey sense and vision however. He was productive on HIFK's junior team with 20 goals and 52 points in 40 games, and he has been very good in 15 international games this season, posting 11-10-21 totals. Could be flying under the radar a bit, but we always wonder about expectations about brothers when one is so clearly a top prospect in Mikael's case. Markus could be a solid complimentary player, but based on what we're hearing, he doesn't have the star potential.

Rounding out the top-10 is defenseman Rasmus Bengtsson, who spent the season in the Allsvenskan with Rögle. At 6-2, 196, he's still filling out. He's a good skater with solid all-around skills and some two-way potential. He can move the puck effectively and has a cannon shot. He just needs to keep working on his defensive awareness and decision-making, but held his own against men in the Swedish second division.

Swiss forward Gregory Hoffman just missed the top-10, but he should probably be in there. There's a lot to like about the skilled, intelligent pivot who just seems to be able to make the big play when his team needs it. He's up eight spots to 11 from 19 at mid-season, but we still like Hofmann a lot and feel he's one of the more underrated Euros in the draft.

We'll be back later with more of a look at the European players on the list outside the top-11.

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