NHL Draft 2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the 15 Best Forwards Available

Franklin Steele@FranklinSteeleAnalyst IIJune 21, 2011

NHL Draft 2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the 15 Best Forwards Available

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    We're just a few days away from the 2011 NHL Draft, and one thing seems clear:  there is a little bit of everything available in this draft class.

    The depth in the top 50 players is already being compared to the 2003 draft, and while that isn't fair quite yet, there are enough high-end players to have fans of every team excited.

    While there appears to be a consensus on the first overall pick in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the field is wide open after that.  There are several defensemen and forwards all tightly packed, and a team should be able to get pretty specific with their needs without going too far off the board.

    Looking for a power forward?  Mika Zibanejad may be your guy.  Big bodied, and a talented but raw winger?  Joel Armia would be a lock.

    So who are the best among the centers and wingers available?

    Look no further—these are the top 15 forwards available, and what to expect from each of them moving forward.

    This slideshow wouldn't be possible without the outstanding scouting services presented by thescoutingreport.org, thn.com, and redlinereport.com.

Stefan Noesen

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    Stefan Noesen quickly became an important part of the attack in Plymouth of the OHL this season, as he improved greatly upon his totals from a year ago.

    He finished this season with an impressive 34 goals and 43 assists in 68 games played.

    According to THN, the Texas native works out in the summer with Dallas Star players such as Brenden Morrow, who he says he has modeled his game after.  Standing at 6'1'' and pushing 200 pounds, Noesen plays with a bit of an edge.  He accumulated 80 PIMs to go along with his gaudy totals.

    He has shown that he can play more than one role on a team, possessing enough sandpaper to be effective in a checking role to go along with the offensive skills to do his fair share on a top line.  It's the physical aspect to his game that is most likely to transfer to the NHL, where he should be a valuable gritty player in the future.

    Noesen is a player who continuously works on aspects of his game, and strides to improve on a yearly basis.  That he can hang in professional level workouts with the likes of Morrow should speak volumes of both his character and his physical state.

Brandon Saad

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    Brandon Saad was projected inside of the top 10 at the beginning of the season.  His stock fell considerably after he failed to make the U.S. team for the WJCs, and his production took a significant dip through the second half of the year.

    An untimely groin injury could have more to do with the latter, and a team in the back half of the first round could end up with one of the bigger steals if Saad pans out.  He has the potential to be a power forward given his size and skill set, but as he plays now he leaves much to be desired on the physical front.

    He put up 55 points in 59 games, and admitted to the Detroit Free Press that he rushed back from his injury and that it lingered until close to playoff time, where he put up 12 points in 12 games, showing flashes of the player that had been thought so highly of previously.

    Rushing back from an injury is no joking matter, but according to Saad this is what you do when you love something as much as he loves hockey.  Players that are willing to lay it all on the line like that and play through pain (especially groin pulls) in times outside of the playoffs are special.

    Even though he leaves more to be desired in the physical aspect of the game, there is reason to believe that the intensity needed to engage is brewing below the surface.  With the right coaching, or linemate, this is a guy who could turn into a power forward and reward the team who takes a chance on him.

Nicklas Jensen

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    Thescoutingreport.org calls Nicklas Jensen the highest ranked "boom or bust" player in their top 25, as a guy who can create scoring chances where there didn't appear to be any.

    He possesses the wheels and stick handling to go coast-to-coast, and added some much needed consistency to his game as the season progressed, becoming more accustomed to the North American game.

    Jensen is knocked off the puck easily at times, and plays a bit soft for a guy his size (6'3'').  More muscle on his frame would go a long way towards putting this kid in an NHL sweater.

    When he is on, Jensen has the offensive capabilities to make defenders look silly and out of place, and doesn't seem to have hit a ceiling yet.  If everything translates to the NHL level he could turn into an elite winger, but he'll need to find a way to bring it nightly if he is going to be a top line player.

    Skaters like Jensen don't come along all too often, and when they do they are just as likely to fade into mediocrity.  The fears surrounding him are the same—that he will either be a first wing offensive dynamo or a guy who can't fit into a lower line role because of his skill set.

    The ability to simultaneously out-think and outmaneuver three or four players at once, all while keeping the puck on a string is what sets some of the best players in the world apart from the others.  He isn't smallish like a lot of the superb puck magicians seem to be, and this combination should be too good for a team who doesn't need a home run in the first round.

    Jensen is a unique talent, and could very well end up being one of the best players taken in this draft.  Or he could one day find himself on a biggest bust slideshow on the Bleacher Report.

JT Miller

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    JT Miller is a reliable two way forward that has top notch skills to boot.  He is a strong skater that is difficult to knock off the puck, and uses his speed in all three zones.  Miller consistently wins races for lose pucks, showing plenty of determination and will in the process.

    While he has taken over games with his talent, there are questions about his hockey sense as he has struggled to find consistency in his game.  Miller sometimes makes bad choices with the puck when pressured, and his offensive numbers don't seem to match the skill he displays on the ice.

    In short, the guy has the skill set to be better than he is.  Miller just hasn't figured out how to tie it all together at this point.

    Due to these question marks some consider him a stretch for the first round, but he could end up going in the latter stages to a team that could use his puck possession skills.

    Guys who can protect the puck well are important in the offensive zone, but players who already have developed a keen awareness of the defensive side of the game should garner a little more attention.

Tyler Biggs

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    A hockey player from my home state Ohio—now there is something I can get excited about.

    Tyler Biggs is a 6'2'', 210 pound right winger who carries intangibles to the point where it may be holding his offensive game back.

    Per Jack Barzee of the CSS:

    "Biggs is another young player who has taken on the job as leader of his team, and does most of their fighting when they have to fight, if not all of it. I think the responsibility for standing up for teammates has taken a little away from his offensive finish...wearing that ‘C’ and doing those things. My gut feeling is that he’s on an uphill path”.

    He is tough to a fault, but still has a surprising amount of speed to his game.  He gets to the corners quickly, and uses his size to out-muscle defenders for the puck.  Not surprisingly, Biggs doesn't mind paying the price for the goal, and won't hesitate to drop the gloves.

    While he may not have top end talent, it's clear that he has top end guts, which can go a long way in the big league.  Biggs has all the makings of a fan favorite, and a second or third line staple that could sneak into the first round.

    He is the kind of player that spearheads Stanley Cup runs from the second of third lines, inspiring better play with his grit down low and snarl and leadership.  When the playoffs roll around and blocking a shot or killing 25 seconds on the penalty kill brings a crowd to their feet, it is usually a player like Biggs doing it.

Rocco Grimaldi

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    Calling Rocco Grimaldi diminutive would be an understatement.  But counting him out for that reason would be a mistake.  It's unfortunate, but if you put his skill set, production levels, and brain into a 6'1" player then you may have a unanimous pick at number one overall.

    Grimaldi is very dedicated to his craft, and as such has developed a well rounded, and rather outstanding set of skills.  He has produced good numbers at every level, and the only reason to think that he won't continue to do so is his size.

    After all, there aren't a lot of 5'6'' NHL players.  There also few players in the draft as skilled as Grimaldi.

    He doesn't plan on allowing his size and detractors to slow him down one bit though.  In an interview with unitedstatesofhockey.com, when asked what he thought about those who doubted him because of his size, Grimaldi had this to say:

    "...I’ve been playing  against bigger and stronger guys my whole life and I haven’t really changed. I know it’s not going to change, I’m going to have to keep doing it and keep proving people wrong. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far. Everyone’s always thought that I’d fall at the next level..."

    While it is far from the norm, players such as Grimaldi have been known to make huge contributions at the NHL level.  You know players with this kind of stature have a strong heart and a lot of determination because they've been fighting for every inch of ice since they were 13 or 14 years old. 

    Guts plus skill is a package more essential than size plus skill at the NHL level.

Mark McNeill

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    One of the more versatile forwards available, Mark McNeill is trusted by both Raider coaches and Team Canada coaches in a variety of situations.  He's been used as a penalty killer, a goal scorer, and is a solid faceoff guy that can be relied on in late game draws.

    McNeill is big and uses his size to his advantage, and is hard to stop once he gets rolling towards the net.  He prefers to play a bang and crash style, but seems capable of polishing up his game when that style is more effective or appropriate.

    He's more at home along the boards and making things happen with his quick passing down low though.

    The main drawback for McNeill is the same as his strength.  While he is good at everything, he isn't over the top in any one particular area either.  Whoever drafts him knows what they are getting—a passionate, physical player that is comfortable in numerous facets of the game.

    A Swiss Army knife of a guy, McNeil can make an impact in every aspect of the game and will make a nice addition to a team towards the bottom of the first round. 

Vladislav Namestnikov

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    Vladislav Namestnikov is already drawing comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk because of his skill set, and understanding of some of the finer points of the game.

    He has tremendous skating abilities, and this speed and agility places him in prime scoring position often.  Puckhandling is also top notch, and this guy can dangle with the best of them—a major plus here is that Namestnikov is able to dust defenders with these moves at his considerable top speed.

    Creative, and with great vision, he is the kind of player that youtube editors can have a field day with.

    The biggest thing hurting Namestnikov at this point is his strength, or lack thereof.  He is consistently overtaken in battles for the puck at the Junior level, and that makes scouts and teams nervous.  He'll need to pack on some series muscle before being able to make an impact on the NHL level.

    I personally like players like Namestnikov—especially the European guys—who gain steam as the season progresses as apposed to trailing off.  It shows that they are taking to the different style of play well, and should really go a long way in this case, as this is a player who was roughed up on a nightly basis, but still continued to battle.

Joel Armia

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    Joel Armia  could very well be a beast at some point in the NHL.  The only thing holding him back is his mental approach to the game.

    Armia is at his best when he controls the puck and is able to create chances across several shifts.  If he is able to do this, he can take over a game with his ridiculous skill set.  He's very creative with the puck, and is a capable passer.

    Consider him a shoot first type finisher however.

    He's good at using his sizable frame (6'3'') to protect the puck when along the boards or making hard cuts towards the net, but he will need to bulk up a bit before the same moves will work on NHL caliber and size blueliners.

    Armia also needs to find a way to prevent himself from checking out of games early because things aren't going his way in the offensive zone.  There are several NHL forwards who aggravate coaches and fan bases alike due to their inability to keep at it when things aren't coming easy on offense.

    He's a 10 to 20 project type player, and if a team can manage to engage him on offense and allow him to use his creativity, Armia is a player who could make some noise despite not being a top five or ten selection.

Ryan Strome

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    Ryan Strome is about as silky smooth and shifty as they come, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better set of hands in the draft this year.  Oodles of skill, he is just as good at scoring goals as he is at passing the puck.

    Strome is the kind of player that will bring fans out of the seats, and is capable of finding offense where there doesn't seem to be any.

    106 points in 65 games is nothing short of phenomenal.

    He is generally a passer, and uses his outstanding vision and ability to read the play and hit his linemates in full stride with pinpoint passes.  That same vision comes in handy during penalty kills as well, where he has taken a regular shift and netted a few shorties by anticipating plays and picking them apart on the fly.

    While he is a supreme talent, Strome is easily out-muscled for the puck when contact is made, and has a hard time fighting off checkers who manage to get in close and use their bodies to separate him from the puck. 

    That doesn't mean he is a pushover though.

    Strome has shown that he is more than willing to stick up for himself when he feels he has been pushed to far, dropping the gloves from time to time and holding his own against bigger opponents.

    While there are more NHL ready talents in the draft this year, Strome will need another year or two to bulk up a bit and learn the more physical aspects of the game.  Heading to a team who can give him that time is key to him becoming the dominate offensive force that he could be.

Sven Bartschi

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    Sven Bartschi is another player in the draft who is a bit on the small side, standing at 5'10'', but doesn't shy away from high traffic areas to create space and time for his teammates while he makes the play.

    Coming virtually out of nowhere, the Swiss born Bartschi racked up 24 points in his first 15 games as a Winterhawk as he took virtually zero time to grow accustomed to the North American style of play.  He never faded down the stretch, and put up a stellar showing in the playoffs, keeping pace with highly regarded prospect Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets center of the future) through the post season.

    Bartschi has no issue skating into traffic, turning defenders into pylons, and hitting a streaking teammate with a pass when there doesn't seem to be any time to spare.  He draws the opposition to him with his puckhandling in traffic,  and then sets up his linemates with accurate, deft passing.

    He also seems to have a knack for keeping track of all players on the ice even if they aren't directly in his line of site.

    Possessing a quick and accurate shot, and such passing prowess, some defenders are surprised when he shows flashes of a physical edge and sandpaper that don't always come in such a small sized, talented package.

    And he's fast, too.

    The question mark for Bartschi is his defensive game, but that tends to be the case with such highly developed offensive talents.  There is a lot to like about this player, and not many draw backs.  Despite his size he is still very difficult to push off the puck, and will be a steal for whichever team calls his name at the podium.

    His offensive game is close to being NHL ready, and a squad looking for a little help up front should be comfortable taking Bartschi.  He may benefit more from big minutes in the WHL, but the possibility is there to see him lacing up the skates as a pro come next season.

Mika Zibanejad

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    For a team looking for the most complete, well rounded forward up to this point then Mika Zibanejad is their guy.

    This is a power forward type player who isn't easy to knock off the puck.  He uses his body well, and constantly battles for position even away from the puck.  Zibanejad doesn't shy away from high traffic areas, and thrives in the environments some players can't.

    His battle first nature has been a boon at times, and a negative at others.  While he is kicking and mauling away at the puck or opposing player he loses track of the puck along the boards and loses battles that he otherwise should have won, bases on size.

    He wants it bad.

    Zibanejad has a heavy shot and a quick release and knows when to utilize it.  He sees the ice fairly well, and has an in depth understanding of his role on defense.  He rarely loses track of his man on the backcheck—it is this two-way accumen and tenacious nature that could guide the Swede to a top pick with a bright future ahead of him.

    There is something about this combination of ferocity and skill that I find alluring, and I find Zibanejad one of the most interesting forwards available in the Draft.  He doesn't have the speed that some of the other top prospects posses, but he can always increase foot speed.

    The things he does right as a player are tough to teach.

Sean Couturier

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    Before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins overtook the No. 1 spot in prospect rankings, and players like Jonathan Huberdeau skated out and had outstanding seasons, Sean Couturier was thought to be the headliner in this draft.

    After impressing in his QMJHL rookie season, much was expected of the two-way center moving forward.

    And Couturier didn't disappoint, winning the Michel Briere trophy as the League's most valuable player.

    His slide down the rankings have more to do with increased expectations due to him being older than a lot of players in the draft (he was a late '92 birth).  As such, scouts hoped to see him take his game to new heights during his second year of competition to blow away any and all comers.

    That wasn't the case, and Couturier struggled to elevate his game to an elite level, giving way to questions of his ability to be a truly dominate offensive No. 1 center in the NHL.

    One thing is for certain:  the guy plays in every situation, and while he may not be the offensive whirlwind center some people were hoping for, he is a guy who can play on the penalty kill, power play, even strength, in late game situations, on checking lines and win big faceoffs.

    Couturier is responsible with the puck, has above average decision making skills, and is ready to make the jump to the NHL next season.  He'll need to increase his foot speed in order to continue to play the two-way game that sets him apart from other prospects, but his mind and heart are both in the right place.

    Considering he may end up being a consolation prize to one of the teams later on in the top 10, he still has plenty to bring to the table, and is at worst a checking line center with offensive upside.  That's about as sure fire as these kids get.

Jonathan Huberdeau

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    Dominating the QMJHL is not common for 17 year old players.  That is usually reserved for guys a few years older.

    Don't mention that to Jonathan Huberdeau, who could very well sneak into the top three after a tremendous season for his Sea Dogs.  He's already won a League championship, and wasn't taking a backseat throughout the title run.

    He was second overall in points during the postseason after finishing the regular season third.

    Huberdeau has ridiculous numbers to be sure, but as thescoutingreport.com points out, it is when he scores these points that matters the most.  While the Sea Dogs didn't play from behind very often, when they did is was commonly this guy who was netting or setting up the game tying or winning goal.

    These weren't game 34 instances either.  On the biggest of stages Huberdeau has found a way to put his name on the score sheet with big time goals and plays.  It's no wonder teams are salivating.  Talent to this degree with a knack for the clutch goal is uncanny.

    This is a supremely talented kid that has a nose for drama.

    In shootouts through the last two seasons he has gone 11 for 13 (!) showcasing his sick hands and vision.  There really isn't a lot to dislike about this player.  Like most other prospects he needs to increase his speed, but that pales in comparison to what he brings to the table on a nightly basis.

    Huberdeau may be a season or two away from the NHL level, but fans should save his name in their memory banks.  He could be lighting it up in big ways soon.

Gabriel Landeskog

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    Rounding out the top of the Swede contingent at this year's draft is Gabriel Landeskog who, if you have listened to him speak, sounds more Canadian than European—and he plays that way too.

    After coming over to the OHL two seasons ago to embrace the North American style of hockey he would need to play in the NHL, Landeskog has shot up the pre-Draft rankings as he more than warmed to the task.  After a slow start during his rookie campaign, a switch went off during the playoffs that carried over into this passed season.

    He's a complete player that is believed to be very ready for the NHL.  Landeskog works very hard to hone every aspect of his already well rounded game.  Outside of his deep skill set, he is very aware of all the intangibles that make a player a complete package.

    Wearing the C for the Kitchener Rangers shows that.

    He has plenty of grit to go along with his talent, and isn't afraid to make a hit on a defender or harass a puck carrier up ice on the back check.  Landeskog's willingness to learn and adapt is evident when you hear him carry on interviews, having learned English at a young age when he knew making the NHL was his dream.

    He has a long, powerful stride and knows how to use his outside leg to shield the puck in close.  When he gets towards the net he possesses a great backhander, but is always keeping an eye out for open teammates.

    He also isn't afraid to make contact or land a hit, and embraces the physical aspect of the game.

    Landeskog has all the tools to be a top flight NHL player, and perhaps even sport the C in the NHL sometime down the road.  His developed talent, rolled in with his leadership, poise, and maturity all make for a stellar top-three pick.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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    By now most in the hockey world are familiar with the arguments against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

    Namely that he puts up too many of his points on the power play, and that he is too small (6'1'') to be considered a cornerstone center.

    Hogwash I say. Total hogwash.

    It honestly blows my mind to see a player called on the carpet for being too good with the extra man—that this is his biggest fault as a player is staggering.  He scores timely goals, and is primarily a set up pivot.  To truly utilize his full talent range, he'll need to start shooting more and scoring more.

    But we've heard that before.  Players like Sidney Crosby, and Pavel Datsyuk have overcome the assist heavy stat line and started to put more pucks in the net as they realized that it would be a benefit to their overall game.  After all, guarding a pass-first player is easier than handling a 60/40 guy.

    (And I'll jump your gun here and say that no, I am not insinuating that Hopkins is going to be a Sid or Pav.  All I am saying is that an assist heavy stat line can be altered in time.)

    What's important here is the vision.  The hockey sense.  Hopkins is an outstanding skater, and the slickest player available in the draft.

    On top of an elite offensive skill set, he is underrated defensively, and has learned to use his sneakiness on the other side of the puck as well.  Hopkins has a knack for stick checking and turning the play the other way in a hurry, setting up teammates with passes as the other team scrambles for position.

    Hopkins possess boatloads of patience, and holds onto the puck until he sees a play that he likes.

    He may not end up going first overall, as the Oilers could use a defensemen and have several players like Hopkins, but if they are taking the best player available Edmonton will be adding another slick forward to their growing core.

    For more 2011 NHL draft coverage, stay tuned to Bleacher Report for updated NHL mock drafts, NHL draft rumors, NHL draft results and draft grades.