NHL Draft 2011: Power Ranking the Best Five Forwards Available

Ryan DavenportContributor IJune 8, 2011

NHL Draft 2011: Power Ranking the Best Five Forwards Available

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    For the first time in the post-lockout era, we are less than a month away from the NHL draft, and no player has been dubbed the undisputed top prospect in the draft.  For the Edmonton Oilers, who hold the top pick in the draft, this could be a good thing, as they could potentially trade down two or three spots and still select the player they rank the highest.  

    Ranking prospects is never an easy task, especially because where each player is selected in the draft depends as much on the needs of the team doing the selecting as it does the quality of the players available.  

    With that being said, the highest picks in the NHL draft are usually reserved for forwards, simply because they develop more quickly than goaltenders and defensemen.  It's much harder to project where a rearguard or a goalie will be in three years, while forwards are a little bit easier to gauge based on the numbers they put up in juniors or college.  

    In addition, since 2004, a forward has been selected first overall each year except for 2006, when Erik Johnson was selected by the Blues, and even that year, he was the only non-forward taken in the top ten.  For this reason, I've decided to rank the top five forwards in the draft, though it's likely at least one defenseman will be taken in the top five, as the Devils and Islanders need help on the blueline more than in the offensive zone.  

    Without further ado, here are the top five forwards eligible for the 2011 NHL entry draft.  

5. Ryan Strome

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    Going into the 2010-11 season, Ryan Strome was not considered a top 10 prospect for the upcoming NHL entry draft, as he tallied just 27 points in his first OHL season in 2009-10.  

    Fast forward nine months and Strome has become one of the most highly touted prospects entering the draft, after an outstanding offensive season for Niagara of the OHL.  In just 65 games, Strome tallied 106 points, tying him for the league lead in scoring.  

    Strome isn't big by NHL standards for a center, but he's a gifted playmaker who makes his linemates all the more dangerous in the offensive zone.  He may take longer to develop than some of the other top forward prospects in the draft, but thankfully, none of the teams selecting in the top five are close to playoff contention.  

    He made a huge jump this year, going from a role player to an offensive dynamo at the Major Junior level, so now it's time to see whether he can take the next step in his development as a player.  

4. Sean Couturier

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    Among the top forward prospects for the 2011 NHL draft, Sean Couturier is the most imposing physically.  Standing 6'4" and weighing in at just under 200 pounds, Couturier has the frame of a powerful NHL center and has the skill to go along with it.  

    Couturier was the lone draft eligible player to be selected for Team Canada's World Junior team and did not look out of place, posting three points in seven games.  During the season with Drummondville of the QMJHL, Couturier picked up right where he left off in 2009-10, matching his point total of 96 points.  However, he did go from leading the league in points in 2010 to finishing fourth in 2011, which may indicate that he needs a new challenge for next season.  

    The son of a former Los Angeles King, Couturier has all the tools to be an offensive star in the National Hockey League but may fall out of the top five because others have progressed more in the last year than the super-sized center.  

    However, seeing as the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders and Florida Panthers  are all in need of help down the middle, Couturier could be a darkhorse going forward.  

3. Jonathan Huberdeau

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    Teams picking in the top five that are in search of a franchise centerman will have a difficult time choosing between Jonathan Huberdeau and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Like fellow top prospect Ryan Strome, Huberdeau elevated his game to new levels during his second season of Major Junior.

    This year as a member of the Saint John Sea Dogs, Huberdeau tore apart the QMJHL, tallying 43 goals and 105 points to finish third in league scoring.  While Huberdeau's regular season was impressive, his performance in the postseason was even better.  

    Huberdeau helped the Sea Dogs capture the QMJHL championship, earning them a berth in the Memorial Cup tournament.  At the Memorial Cup, Huberdeau was unstoppable, posting six points in four games.  In the championship game, Huberdeau tallied a goal and an assist as Saint John won 3-1 over Mississauga en route to being named tournament MVP.  

    At just 171 pounds, scouts would like to see Huberdeau add more weight to his 6'1" frame, so he may take a year or two of seasoning before he's ready for top-six minutes in the NHL.  However, there is no questioning Huberdeau's abilities with the puck, and he may be the best offensive prospect the QMJHL has produced in the last five years.  If he's still on the board after the first five picks, he won't be available for long. 

2. Gabriel Landeskog

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    If a team holding one of the top five selections in the 2011 NHL entry draft is looking for the most complete forward available, they'll need to look no further than Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog. 

    Landeskog is unlike many other top Swedish-born prospects because he elected to leave his homeland in order to play Major Junior in Canada, as most scouts believe it's the better prepares young players for the more physical NHL brand of hockey.  The move paid off, as Landeskog has become one of the most highly sought after European forwards in recent memory—and not just for his exceptional skill and talent level.  

    While it's uncommon for a second-year player to be named the captain of a North American junior team, it's almost unheard of for a European to be given the "C" at the Major Junior level. However, Landeskog broke that trend as he was named the captain of the Kitchener Rangers before the 2010-11 season.  

    In fact, Landeskog's style of play reminds scouts of another recent Kitchener captain, Mike Richards.  Landeskog possesses many of the same characteristics that Richards does, as he combines a high level of skill with a willingness to sacrifice his body to make plays.  

    He's unlike most young Europeans in the sense that he enjoys physical play and is even willing to drop the gloves when the right opportunity arises.  While his offensive numbers weren't as mind-boggling as some of the other top forwards to the draft, Landeskog is probably the most NHL-ready offensive player available in the draft.  At 6'1" and 205 pounds, Landeskog looks to be physically capable of competing in the best league in the world, which is something each team must take into consideration.  

    While he has an outside shot at being selected first overall in the draft, it's more likely that Edmonton will opt to take Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  That being said, whichever team ends up selecting the talented Scandinavian may well be welcoming the second coming of Henrik Zetterberg to their franchise.  

1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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    While it's not yet completely clear who the Edmonton Oilers will select first overall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to be the front runner going into the final weeks before the 2011 NHL draft.  

    From the time that Nugent-Hopkins made his WHL debut during the 2008-09 season, it became apparent that the Red Deer Rebels had a star in the making, as he tallied six points in five games as a 16-year-old.  The following year, he posted 65 points in 67 games en route to winning the league's rookie of the year award.  

    At the midway point of the 2010-11 season, Nugent-Hopkins was ranked third among all North American skaters in the NHL's Central Scouting rankings, but he quickly changed that with his play down the stretch.  Some scouts were reluctant to rank Nugent-Hopkins first because he has a ways to go physically before he'll be ready for the NHL, as he weighs in at around 170 pounds.  

    That being said, Nugent-Hopkins possesses the most upside of any forward in the draft, and his exceptional puck control, quickness and vision have helped compensate for his small stature. His league, the WHL, is widely considered the most physical of the three Major Junior leagues, and Nugent-Hopkins had no problem slicing defenses apart with his soft hands and deadly release, which suggests he'll be able to do the same at the next level.  

    While he clearly needs to add weight to his frame, Nugent-Hopkins reminds some scouts of Patrick Kane, another undersized forward with world-class skill who was selected first overall in 2007.  Nugent-Hopkins has the same game-breaking abilities that Kane did during his junior career, and demonstrates a willingness to go into high-traffic areas of the ice in order to create offensive chances.  

    Another encouraging sign in Nugent-Hopkins development is that he's improving drastically every year.  After 65 points as a rookie with the Rebels, he followed that up with a 106-point campaign in 2010-11.  

    He's got all the tools to be an offensive superstar, and Oilers fans are already drooling at the prospects of Nugent-Hopkins lining up between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle for years to come. Unless something drastic happens between now and June 24th, look for him to go first overall.