Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

NHL draft primer: Top 10 players to watch

For many NHL fans, the run up to the draft is a crash course in getting up to speed on players who have been toiling far from the madding crowds, in junior hockey, in Europe, in the NCAA. Of course, Buzzing The Net is very mindful of such realities.

In advance of the first round of the NHL draft on Friday in St. Paul, Minn., here is a list of 10 players to watch. Please bear in mind this isn't a mock draft, but more of a helpful primer.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, centre, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

The draft is still three days away and Edmonton Oilers fans are already in need of being disabused of likening Nugent-Hopkins to another skinny centre who wore a 9 on his back — Wayne Gretzky. There can only be one Great One, but among the players up for grabs this weekend, Nugent-Hopkins has few peers when it comes to his playmaking. It seems like he also has that Michael Jordan rise-to-the-occasion quality about him. Last summer, he led Canada's under-18 team to the gold medal in the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament, scoring the only goal in the final, and he also dominated at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Toronto. He's special.

Jonathan Huberdeau, left wing/centre, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Feel free to argue that Huberdeau would be a household name if he played closer to the centre of the universe instead of in the port city of Saint John. The rangy forward, who calls to mind a young Vincent Lecavalier, raised his draft stock more than anyone else in the NHL's Class of 2011. It was evident long before by February that the Sea Dogs had a potential NHL superstar in their midst, as Huderdeau sometimes made games look like And1 mixtapes on ice. Like Taylor Hall two years ago, he was MVP of both his league's post-season and the MasterCard Memorial Cup as he helped the Sea Dogs become the first Maritime team to achieve Canadian major junior hockey supremacy. He could be back to try for the repeat, too.

Adam Larsson, defence, Skelleftea AIK (SEL)

Most of the draft's top prospects are forwards who could make a GM look like a genius or put them on the path to a TV career. Larsson is probably the surest thing, given that he's a big defenceman at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds who seems to be smooth and self-assured in all facets of the game. He carries himself with that stereotypical Scandinavian reticence often taken for shyness, but he must be confident, since he wears the No. 5 of Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedish equivalent of a defenceman in Canada taking Bobby Orr's No. 4.

Ryan Strome, centre, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)

Strome's skill is living proof that people who take the Toronto Maple Leafs' underwhelming ways as evidence the Greater Toronto Area is a hockey graveyard are missing the point. The GTA has been pumping out prodigious puck talents with safecracker hands for years. Strome, a Mississauga native who came two points shy of matching Tyler Seguin's 2009-10 feat of leading the OHL in scoring in his draft season, might approach Nugent-Hopkins' skills as a playmaker. The two Ryans are virtually neck and neck in how their stats project to the NHL, but it's what inside that counts.

Sean Couturier, centre, Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL)

The Bathurst, N.B., native has brawn and brains in spades — he's known for having what's called a high hockey IQ. Couturier is the classic big centre at 6-foot-4; the only nit to pick with his game is that many feel he doesn't have that getaway speed. He was the only undrafted player to play on Team Canada at the world junior championship and he piled up 96 points this season on a Drummondville team that was largely bereft of potential future NHLers.

Ryan Murphy, defence, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

There aren't that many juniors who are worth the price of admission; Murphy has been one for the past two years in Kitchener. He will only face more doubters due to his size (5-foot-11, 176 pounds) as he gets closer to the NHL, but he did enough this past season to suggest it won't be a huge issue for him. Murphy, and keep in mind, not many offensive defencemen do this in their second junior hockey season, had 26 goals and 79 points in Kitchener. He followed that up by putting on a command performance for Canada during the IIHF world under-18 championship, which was a nice way to make his point after he was cut from that team on his first attempt in August 2009.

Mika Zibanejad, centre, Djurgårdens IF (SEL)

He looks like a young Javier Bardem and is as tough as the characters he portrays. There are questions about his scoring touch, but Zibanejad is a human perpetual-motion machine whom people invariably describe as playing like the Energizer bunny. He was advanced enough physically and mentally to hack it in the tough Swedish Elite League this season and also helped the Swedes nearly break Team USA's hold on the world under-18 gold medal, counting eight points in six games at that very underrated spring championship. He'll make some team a nice No. 2 centre.

Gabriel Landeskog, centre, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

The Ottawa Senators, who at this writing hold the apparently cursed No. 6 overall choice, apparently have a serious jonesing to make Landeskog a heir apparent to his Swedish compatriot, the declining Daniel Alfredsson. Landeskog was captain of the junior Rangers, a rarity for a European player in Canadian major junior hockey, and by all accounts he oozes character. No one denies this, although it's fair to wonder if he'll be a NHL star or just a core player.

(Language possibly NSFW.)

Dougie Hamilton, defence, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)

Hamilton, the son of two Canadian Olympians, is a breed apart from most 6-foot-5 teenaged defenceman since he skates so well. He has a boarding-house reach on the blue line and can pitch in on the offensive end, as evidenced by the 58 points he posted during his junior season with Niagara. Hamilton is a bit of a project, but his size and smarts will make him tempting to teams who have a high pick. Hamilton's brother, Freddie, has been signed by the San Jose Sharks; father Doug was an Olympic medal-winning rower and mother Lynn was a basketball point guard for Canada's national team.

It was a tough call whether to include Hamilton or another junior defenceman, Nathan Beaulieu of the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Alexander Khokhlachev, centre, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

Indulge BTN its one wild card. A year ago, that element was provided by current Carolina Hurricanes centre Jeff Skinner, who went No. 7 overall after NHL Central Scouting ranked him 34th among defencemen and forwards in North America. Granted, that ranking was released was before Skinner went off for 20 goals in 20 playoff games in Kitchener, but he had also scored 50 in the regular season.

Khokhlachev did not put up such gaudy numbers this season, but he had 34 goals and 76 points in 67 games with Windsor despite (a) being in his first season in North America and (b) turning 17 just two weeks before the junior season opened. The fact he could do that shows he projects very favourably to the big league. He won't be a Top 10 choice, but picks 11-20 always have a few surprises.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photos: CHL Images, The Canadian Press).

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