The 2011 NHL Draft is considered to have one of the deepest talent pools in recent years, specifically at the center position.
In the top 10 picks alone, it's possible that as many as six centers will hear their names called by NHL General Managers, and four may be gone by the time the sixth pick rolls around.
Fittingly, the consensus top prospect for this year's draft is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a talented center from the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League. He's virtually a lock to be taken by Edmonton with the first pick in the draft, and there are a number of other talented pivots who could be tabbed soon after.
Though it's nearly impossible to predict what order they'll be drafted in, here's a look at the 10 best center available in the 2011 NHL Draft.
Though he's not even close to being the most offensively gifted player available in the draft, Boone Jenner is regarded as a first round-quality prospect by many scouts because of his versatility.
Jenner is a big, two-way centerman, who is very solid defensively, which is why many scouts have pegged him as a future third-line center at the NHL level. That's not to say that Jenner is any slouch offensively, as he posted 66 points in 63 games for Oshawa of the OHL, but clearly his value goes well beyond his contributions that can be measured on the scoreboard.
In addition to his strong play at both ends of the rink, Jenner is great on face-offs, which is another reason why he's a coveted prospect entering the draft. While he may end up slipping into the Second Round, Jenner stands a good shot to be a top-nine forward in the future.
Though he's extremely small by NHL standards for a center, Rocco Grimaldi's ability to put up points has forced scouts to flock to see the 5'6" pivot play.
Though short in stature, Grimaldi is long on grit and determination, and his low center of gravity makes him virtually impossible to knock off the puck. In 50 games with the U.S. Under-18 team, Grimaldi put up a mind-numbing 34 goals and 62 points, while playing a physical brand of hockey.
It's difficult to project where exactly Grimaldi will be selected, but if he slides out of the first round, expect him to be taken early in the second.
Like Grimaldi, Alexander Khokhlacev is considered an undersized center, though he's markedly taller at 5'10".
Despite his relatively small frame, Khokhlacev was able to produce 76 points in 67 games for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL in 2010-11, his first season in North America. He's got good hands and vision, and combines that with a determination that is rarely seen out of young Russians in Major Junior leagues.
In addition to his contributions at the offensive end of the rink, Khokhlacev is a strong center defensively, which suggests he'd fit nicely on many teams' second line. It's a virtual lock that Khokhlacev will be gone by the time the first round comes to an end, especially because he's proven he can produce at a high level in North America.
Mark McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders is one of the most intriguing centers available for draft this year, because he brings a combination of skill and strength that suggest he's close to being ready for NHL duty.
In his second full season in the Western Hockey League, McNeill put up 32 goals and 81 points in 70 games for the Raiders, a 57 point increase from the year before. McNeill has good size, as he's 6'1", but it's the strength he demonstrated last season that's got scouts projecting him as a top-20 pick.
He's already 204 pounds, so with another year of development, McNeill could have the size to assume a power forward type of role at the NHL level.
As a member of the 2011 Memorial Cup Champion Saint John Sea Dogs, Zach Phillips was one of the team's brightest offensively.
In 67 games in 2010-11, Phillips tallied 38 goals and 95 points, though he often didn't play on the team's top line, which was centered by fellow top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau. Phillips has a solid set of hands, and a knack for finding open areas in the offensive zone, which is why many scouts think he could turn out to be a first or second line center in the NHL.
Phillips is one of the more gifted offensive pivots available in the draft, and he'll surely be gone by the time the first round ends.
As a member of the Niagara IceDogs, Ryan Strome emerged as one of the top offensive forwards in Major Junior in 2010-11, by putting up mind-boggling numbers.
After a rookie campaign that saw Strome notch 13 points, he burst onto scouts' radars with a 106-point season for Niagara. He's one of the best playmakers in this year's talent pool, as he put up 73 assists in just 65 games. He's got decent size, but his vision and hands are what make him such an enticing prospect, as he has the ability to make plays that most others his age simply don't see.
Strome will likely be a top-10 pick, but if he drifts farther down the draft board, a team may have the steal of the draft if they're lucky enough to get him.
One of the best two-way centers available this year is Sweden's Mika Zibanejad, who spent last year playing in the Swedish Elite League.
He didn't look out of place in what is widely considered the fourth best professional league in the world, and Zibanejad projects to be one of the most complete centermen in this year's crop. While he didn't blow any scouts away with his offensive numbers, he has the size and skating abilities to play at the next level.
At 6'2", and nearly 200 pounds, Zibanejad may be one of the most NHL-ready pivots available, which is why he'll be a top-10 pick in the draft.
Sean Couturier may be the best all-around center in the draft, because he's not only an offensive dynamo, but he's among the best defensive forwards in Major Junior.
The only draft-eligible forward to make Canada's roster for the World Junior Championships, Couturier has torn apart the QMJHL for the last two seasons, posting back-to-back 96 point campaigns. He's got great poise and vision in the offensive zone, and at 6'4", he's got the reach to make plays that others aren't capable of.
He's very solid at both ends of the ice, and most scouts envision him being a top-two line forward in the NHL very soon.
Jonathan Huberdeau cemented his status as a top-10 pick in the 2011 Draft by leading the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Memorial Cup this Spring, winning the tournament's MVP award along the way.
During the regular season, Huberdeau improved upon a 35 point campaign in 2009-10 by tallying 105 points in 67 games. While he's probably not ready for the NHL at this point, as he's about 170 pounds, he projects to be a star forward at the next level.
Huberdeau has the height and talent to be a first line center in the NHL, which is why he'll be one of the first to hear his name called at the 2011 draft.
At this stage, it appears more than likely that the Edmonton Oilers will be calling Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' name when they announce who they've selected with the first pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.
Nugent-Hopkins simply has the highest upside of any player in the draft, which is why most scouts have him tabbed as the best prospect available in a talent pool deep with skilled centermen. In 2010-11, Nugent-Hopkins tallied 106 points as a 17-year-old, demonstrating vision and skill that are virtually unmatched by anyone else eligible for the Draft.
While he still needs to add weight to his 6'1" frame, Nugent-Hopkins' creativity and knack for creating space for himself suggest that his size is not an issue. At this point, the question appears to be not if, but when this talented Red Deer Rebel will be a star in the NHL.