Winter is dawning and rankings for the 2012 NHL entry draft are emerging as scouts start making decisions about their valuations of players.
A lot will change between now and when selections are made, but this is the most important time for draft hopefuls seeking to make good early impressions on scouts and general managers alike.
The 50th annual draft will take place on the 22nd and 23rd of June 2012 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Those are the two days when NHL dreams will be made or be broken.
Teams on the prowl for future superstars and the first round will see the world's 30 best teenagers drafted. Some of them will become those players. Most won't.
This is a prediction of how the first round of the 2012 draft will pan out. Standings are based on those in the NHL on the morning of the 11th of November, 2011.
RW - Sarnia Sting (OHL)
5'10" - 170 Pounds
Not since the drafts in 2004 and 2005—where Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were taken first overall, respectively—has there been as much of a runaway leader in the race to be picked first as Nail Yakupov.
The dynamic Russian winger has been on the radar of NHL scouts for quite a while. Over last season, Yakupov only extended the already mile-wide gap between himself and other draft-eligible players.
Yakupov shattered Steven Stamkos' rookie numbers for the Sting. He appeared in just 65 games, but putting up 49 goals and 101 points.
He is off to a roaring start to the 2011/12 season: He kicked off the year with 34 points (12 goals) in his opening 16 games—en route to being named the OHL's player for the month of October. All of that despite playing without linemate Alex Galchenyuk.
Yakupov is a player with an outrageously high skill level, but is not afraid to mix it up. The Columbus Blue Jackets have taken an early lead in what has become known as the "Fail for Nail" sweepstakes, and they would be delighted to have him.
A line of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Nail Yakupov would put the team right up at the top of the league. We could see that combination as soon as next season.
D - Everett Silvertips (WHL)
6'0" - 185 Pounds
Ryan Murray is without a doubt the best all-round defenseman available in the draft.
One of the better two-way defenders to come out of the WHL in recent seasons, Murray provides both offensive flair and solid defensive ability. While he isn't the biggest guy, he can be a physical force. He is strong in all facets of the game, and has Norris Trophy potential at the NHL-level.
Nail Yakupov is the runaway top pick, but Murray is a phenomenal player in his own right and a bright prospect. He was very close to being eligible for selection in the 2011 NHL draft, where he would almost certainly have been a top five pick.
The Islanders have drafted heavily in the forward positions in recent seasons, but now they finally get a top-quality defenseman with the capability to turn their franchise around.
Murray is the last step of the long rebuild, and is the man who will eventually captain this side back to their glory days.
LW - Leksand (Elitserien)
6'1" - 176 Pounds
Filip Forsberg has seen his draft stock rise immensely over the past season—and rightfully so.
His dominance on both his team's youth ranks and the Swedish junior national team has made him a force on the world scene. Now he finds himself on the full Leksands team, where he is already turning heads with his unique combination of size, skill and sniper-like ability.
Nobody has as high of a ceiling in this draft as Filip Forsberg.
The sky is the limit for the Östervåla-native. He has the tools to be one of the best players in the league. His late emergence has scouts asking questions, but he is arguably the most talented player available.
He could be really, really great.
The Winnipeg Jets have done a great job in recent seasons to address their center and defensive corps, but—with the exception of Evander Kane—lack elite players on the wings. Forsberg could come in and fix that.
Alex Burmistrov's future winger will need a year or two to develop in the Swedish Elitserien, but he has the star potential to eventually make the move to the NHL.
D - Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
6'0" - 160 Pounds
Despite not being the biggest guy, Mathew Dumba could well be the most physically intimidating defenseman in the NHL draft.
He'll need to pile on the pounds for that to carry over to the NHL, and will likely need to play out his junior eligibility. He has made his name as a guy who loves to bang, but also brings a good offensive game to the table.
Dumba has a big shot and has good leadership skills, and comes into the draft as a relatively low-risk, high-reward player.
The 17-year-old is the perfect pick for the Ducks. Their prospect pool is forward-heavy and the few defensive players lack size.
Dumba is the future partner for youngster Cam Fowler, and should be alongside him sooner rather than later. The two will create what will arguably be the league's best defensive partnership and will make the Ducks a complete team.
C - Sarnia Sting (OHL)
6'1" - 185 Pounds
When news broke that Alexander Galchenyuk had torn an anterior cruciate ligament—and would require draft-season-ending surgery—speculation was that it would be a devastating blow to the 17-year-old's fledgling career.
While it may still have been a blow, an outrageous 68-game, 83-point rookie season should convince someone to take a chance on Nail Yakupov's center.
The emergence of Jeff Skinner as a winger over last season means the Carolina Hurricanes could look to pick up another elite center to add to their corps.
The 'Canes have for the most part drafted strong, character guys in recent seasons. Now it is their chance to spoil themselves by picking up a pure offensive talent.
The injury likely means Galchenyuk will be forced to return to the OHL; GM Jim Rutherford won't mind. Galchenyuk brings some much needed offensive firepower to the Hurricanes forward group, and should complement their more physical players.
Alex Galchenyuk will likely find himself next to Jeff Skinner soon and will be in that position for many years to come.
LW - Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
6'3" - 183 Pounds
Russian Mikhail Grigorenko is the best all-round player available in the draft, bar none.
No player brings as much of an expertise in every area of the game as Grigorenko. He has great NHL size, is extremely versatile and can play in all positions and situations. He is arguably the best playmaker you'll find in the draft and has good leadership qualities.
If nurtured well, he has the potential to be a carbon-copy of superstar Evgeni Malkin at the NHL level.
This is a no-brainer choice for the Flames. They will be looking for a long-term replacement for Jarome Iginla, and the opportunity to pick up a player like Grigorenko this low is simply too great to pass up.
The chance to create an elite All-European first line of Mikhail Grigorenko, Mikael Bäcklund and Sven Bäertschi should be pretty alluring, too.
C - Belleville Bulls (OHL)
6'2" - 205 Pounds
If you're looking for a physically imposing forward (which the Habs should be), then Brendan Gaunce is absolutely your man.
The size says it all for the stockily-built center, who is heavy-hitting, but smart in doing it. Beyond that, Gaunce is a solid two-way forward and can be a contributor on the special teams. He projects as an energy-generating, third-line center at the NHL level.
The Canadiens should look to add significant size at the draft. Their lack of it seems to finally have caught up with them.
Many will put Gaunce down as a stretch pick here, but they shouldn't. It's a smart pick for the Canadiens, who not only add that much-needed, physically intimidating player (who is NHL-ready right away), but also have a great complement to the highly-skilled young centers Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc.
D - USNTDP (USHL)
6'1" - 176 Pounds
You will have a hard time finding a smarter player than Jacob Trouba. Watching him on the ice, you can see that his hockey IQ is off the charts.
Trouba excels all over the ice, with terrific offensive potential to go along with the Bruins' top-tier defensive awareness. The shark-like defenseman has the potential to be the best defensive player to come out of this draft.
The Bruins will get a partner for 2011 first-rounder Dougie Hamilton by picking up Jacob Trouba. Two very smart defensemen, they will create a shutdown pairing that will give the Bruins a line to match against their opponents firepower.
The Bruins would love to get a forward here, but have some great youngsters in the system ready to push through. Trouba is a steal this late, and is a must-get for the Stanley Cup champions.
C - Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL)
6'1" - 185 Pounds
If you were shocked to see Latvian forward Zemgus Girgensons drop this far, no-one would blame you.
The truth is, with Girgensons' skill set, he could very well develop into the best player from this draft. The center is strong, fast, smart and loves the game more than anyone else; it wouldn't at all be surprising to see him go much higher in this draft.
He is committed to the University of Vermont for 2012-13, and there is a good chance he will complete his education there before making the jump to the big leagues.
Girgensons is a very Ottawa Senators-esque player: skillful, hard-working, European. They are deep in youth in every position—with the exception of their right flank, where, despite being a natural center player, Girgensons could easily play.
If he adds some extra weight, the young Latvian could find himself on Mika Zibanejad's wing very soon, creating a phenomenal first line.
D - Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
6'4" - 190 Pounds
Whoever picks up Griffin Reinhart will be very, very happy.
He is quite possibly the best defensive defenseman in the draft and brings a significant offensive upside to go along with his size. The fact that Reinhart is already entering his third WHL season shows just how mature he is. Without a shadow of a doubt, he is a future NHL captain.
The St. Louis Blues have a very well-rounded prospect pool, which is a huge luxury because it means they can go out and pluck whoever they deem to be the best player available.
At this point, that is Griffin Reinhart. He adds tremendous talent to their defensive corps. This late in the draft, Reinhart is a huge pickup for the Blues.
RW - Frölunda (Elitserien)
5'11" - 174 Pounds
If you had to sum up Sebastian Collberg in one word, it would be dynamic.
Fast, skilled, bullseye-shooting and incredibly intelligent and aware on the ice, Collberg is a player with tremendous offensive instincts. He has the talent and potential to be a high-end goalscorer at the NHL level.
He'll need another couple of seasons in the Swedish Elite League to grow and mature, but with his skill he could become an impact player as soon as he reaches the NHL.
The Devils will pick a Swede with their first pick for the fourth time in the past five drafts. They got a steal with Adam Larsson in the 2011 draft—with Collberg they may well pick up another. He'll find himself alongside Zach Parise before long. The two players will create a powerful first line, regardless of who is placed between them.
There is a lack of top-flight goaltenders expected to go this early in the first round; the Devils need to make sure they work hard to pick up Martin Brodeur's replacement either in the middle rounds or through a trade.
D - London Knights (OHL)
6'1" - 183 Pounds
Perhaps no-one has seen his stock rise as much as Olli Määttä has over the past season. He tore his way onto the elite prospect scene and was picked first overall by the London Knights in the CHL import draft. With the Knights, he has had an immediate impact.
Määttä truly is a complete player. Though better defensively, he excels in all areas of the game and has excellent hockey skills.
As much as Detroit fans will hate to admit it, it is time to start preparing for life after Nicklas Lidström. That starts with super-talented defenseman like Määttä.
Though no player the Wings could possibly draft will ever be able to fill the shoes of the greatest defenseman to every play the game, Määttä has a similar style and will help carry the burden.
The Finnish defenseman has the potential to be really great; there is no better place for him to achieve greatness than Detroit.
RW - Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
6'0" - 203 Pounds
To put it simply, Martin Frk is the kind of player every coach wants on his team. Big and strong, Frk is a workhorse, all-round player who excels in all facets of the game.
Powerful, smart and very skillful, the Czech forward brings heart to every shift and has top-line potential at the NHL level.
With the first of two first-rounders, the Caps' priority will likely be to add size up front. They would be so, so lucky to see Martin Frk drop this far.
With Mike Knuble in the twilight of his career, the Capitals will be looking for a similar style player up front—Frk is the perfect candidate. It's a no-brainer for George McPhee and his team.
LW - Djurgården (Elitserien)
5'11" - 187 Pounds
Another dynamic, skilled, Swedish winger comes in the form of Djurgården's Pontus Åberg. The forward plays a fast, high-octane game and is off to a roaring start to the 2011-12 Elitserien season.
In typical Swedish fashion, Åberg excels on the special teams. With his powerful, accurate shot, he has sniper potential at the NHL level.
The Los Angeles Kings finally fill a much needed hole by picking up a goal-scoring winger for Anze Kopitar. With the physical presence of Dustin Brown on the right, the two can focus on pouring on the points.
A powerful first line could be the key to success for the Kings.
D - Ottawa 67's (OHL)
6'2" - 210 Pounds
One of the biggest (and arguably most NHL-ready) players eligible for the draft, Cody Ceci is a big rig on the backend.
He loves to throw his weight around and impose himself physically on a game. He also has skill, with strong special teams potential and a booming shot on the blue-line. Ceci tends to think defense first, but doesn't mind joining the rush, making him a good two-way, all-action defenseman.
A quick look at the Canucks' team and prospect pool tells you exactly where they need to draft next. With a rapidly aging defensive corps, the team is screaming out for a young defenseman.
Cody Ceci is the perfect pickup for the 'Nucks. He is big, strong and plays a similar game to veteran Sami Salo. It wouldn't be surprising to see a proverbial passing of the torch in Vancouver whenever Ceci steps in on the blue line.
C - London Knights (OHL)
6'0" - 165 Pounds
Andreas Athanasiou broke onto the hockey scene via a YouTube video of an outrageous shootout goal at the NHL RDO camp this summer. Since then he has been very much on the radar of league scouts.
The goal pretty much tells the story: He is an outrageously skilled, high-risk, high-reward player who has boom-or-bust potential at the NHL level.
The Phoenix Coyotes need to draft a center. They have to realize that Kyle Turris is not coming back, and that it is time to trade him and find a replacement. Athanasiou could be their future No. 1 center.
Unfortunately, he may never play in Phoenix; an organizational move elsewhere appears to be imminent.
D - Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
6'1" - 195 Pounds
Nick Ebert could so, so easily go much higher in the draft, but there are so many quality defensemen available that Ebert incredibly drops out of the top 15.
A primarily offensively-minded player, Ebert has a powerful shot and moves the puck very well, but also has a big body (with the potential to become bigger). If he can pile on a few pounds before he makes the jump to the NHL, he could develop into an effective, physical, two-way defenseman.
The only area where the Tampa Bay Lightning are thin in terms of youth is on the backend. Ebert would be a terrific addition, especially this late.
They have drafted forwards with four of their past five first-rounders, and need to build on Victor Hedman on the backend. That starts with Nick Ebert, who adds a new, dynamic dimension to a defensive corps in desperate need of improvement.
RW - Jokerit (SM-Liiga)
5'10" - 161 Pounds
Highly-skilled Finnish winger Teuvo Teräväinen has lit it up at just about every level he has played at—whether it be internationally, with the Finland junior teams, or with Jokerit's youth teams.
He brings great versatility and defensive ability, but his biggest threat is his great playmaking ability. He has phenomenal passing ability, sound offensive instincts and has the potential to be a special teams leader in the NHL.
Teräväinen is the player who will turn the Preds' fortunes around. Their search for an elite, all-around forward ends. Though the unselfish Finn may not arrive right away, he will lead the team for a long time.
The Nashville Predators are coming together nicely; Teuvo Teräväinen could be the final piece of the puzzle.
LW - University of Michigan (NCAA)
6'0"- 200 Pounds
Born in late 1993, Phil Di Giuseppe is older than most of the other prospects. Indeed, he is already in college—compared to the majority of the others who are in high school.
His maturity shows on the ice, where Di Giuseppe plays a dominant, physical, drive-to-the-net and get-in-your-face game. He's great in the corners and against the boards and is willing to take a hit to make a play.
With his size and strength, Phil Di Giuseppe is just the kind of player the Buffalo Sabres are looking to draft. He has the potential to be a first- or second-line producer, which would make him very valuable to Terry Pegula and his team.
Though it may be considered a reach pick to some, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see the Sabres take a chance on him.
D - Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
6'0" - 170 Pounds
If everything turns out well for him, Derrick Pouliot could well be the best player to come out of this draft.
A great two-way defenseman, the Saskatchewan native is smart, quick and has great offensive instincts, but at the same time is solid and calm defensively. If treated right, the sky is the limit for him.
In picking up Pouliot, the Caps have come out of the first round with one forward and one defensive prospect. He will have a big advantage over other NHL hopefuls in being drafted to DC because it will buy him time.
With the Caps' strength in youth, Pouliot will be allowed to live out his junior eligibility and grow with the great AHL Hershey Bears program. He could then make the jump to the NHL, and he would find himself alongside Russian Dmitry Orlov as they embark on the road to stardom together.
G - Belleville Bulls (OHL)
6'0" - 178 Pounds
When the draft rolls around, Malcolm Subban will be, without a doubt, the best goaltender available. Athletic and quick, Subban has wowed scouts over the past few seasons in the OHL.
Having a great hockey lineage doesn't hurt; his brother, PK, has already broken through in the NHL.
Over the past summer, Minnesota amassed an outstanding prospect pool which now includes the likes of Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Zack Phillips.
The one area where they would like to improve is in the net; Niklas Bäckström is entering the twilight of his career. Subban would take a few years to get ready, but—with a couple of seasons in the OHL and a year of mentoring from the Finn—he could become a very, very good NHL goaltender.
D - Peterborough Petes (OHL)
6'2" - 183 Pounds
Slater Koekkoek is a player that loves to use every bit of his 6'2" frame to his advantage. He probably still has a long way to grow—something that many scouts find scary.
That said, Koekkoek has also surprised many with his impressive ability to join the rush and his strong breakout ability. If he continues to build on his foot speed, the Canadian could blossom into a productive two-way defenseman at the NHL level.
With Koekkoek, the Florida Panthers would continue to build on a strong, young defensive corps that includes the likes of Keaton Ellerby, Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov.
Koekkoek could find himself alongside Ellerby, a player with a very similar game, soon, in what could become an elite defensive pairing. Koekkoek could make a good Panthers defensive corps into a great one.
D - Green Bay (USHL)
6'2" - 174 Pounds
An offensive-minded blueliner, Jordan Schmaltz loves to join the rush. With his great outlet pass, booming shot and smooth skating, Schmaltz has the potential to develop into an elite blueliner in the NHL.
As he continues to grow and mature, the Wisconsin native could also become a physical force. His all-round potential should make him a coveted asset at the draft.
Three of the Flyers' defenseman are over the age of 36, and it is time to build the youth in that position. Picking a college-bound (Wisconsin) defenseman is the perfect move for them.
They could add some defense from the back end—which again makes Schmaltz a good option for them. If he drops this far, the Flyers will take him.
D - Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
6'0" - 170 Pounds
Morgan Rielly is another highly-touted young defenseman who will likely see his draft stock suffer due to the high number of top-end d-men available.
A graceful skater, Rielly thinks through the game well. If he adds some size to his six-foot frame, he'll have all the tools necessary to be an effective two-way defenseman at the NHL level.
The New York Rangers are in very much the same situation as the St. Louis Blues—they have the luxury of picking the best player available because of their well-rounded prospect pool. To pick up Morgan Rielly (easily a Top 20 talent) this late could turn out to be the steal of the draft.
He joins a young group full of promising defenders, and will have to work hard to make a place for himself. That should bring out the best in him. Rielly is a potential future partner for superprospect Tim Erixon.
RW - Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
6'4" - 200 Pounds
In terms of forwards, Thomas Wilson may well be the safest possible pick at the draft.
Wilson plays your typical hard-hitting, get-in-your-face, drive-the-net game; with his size and smarts, he is bound to be successful in the NHL. The Toronto native projects as a physical second- or third-liner with a nose for the net, making him a very valuable option for a team looking for help quickly.
The San Jose Sharks are one of those teams. They have only made one first-round selection in the past four years, and that prospect (Charlie Coyle) has since been traded.
As a result, they find themselves with by far the worst prospect pool in the league and an alarming lack of elite youngsters coming through. Wilson could be a fantastic addition for them—a future running mate for Logan Couture.
C - Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
6'2" - 170 Pounds
A future third-line anchor, Jarrod "Iron" Maidens plays a high-speed, high-energy game.
A player who loves to hit and get in hard on the forecheck, Maidens will inevitably become an invaluable player at the NHL level. He has that aforementioned desire to get in the dirty areas. A solid two-way player, Maidens is also effective on the special teams and can contribute offensively.
With a trade—to send Sam Gagner out of Edmonton—appearing to be imminent, the Oilers could well look to pick up another center in the draft.
Maidens is a great option for them because he will offer such a great complement to the more skilled youngsters higher up the order. A center corps of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander and Jarrod Maidens would be phenomenal—regardless of who rounds it out.
D - Guelph Storm (OHL)
6'0" - 197 Pounds
You won't find a much better defensive defenseman in this draft than Matthew Finn.
He is steady and safe on the backend, and is the kind of guy you would feel comfortable throwing out in any situation. Finn is also strong moving forward with a solid shot and two-way potential, making him a very rangy and efficient defensive prospect.
One of Chicago's biggest problems in the past few seasons has been the lack of a good, stay-at-home defenseman to go along with the offensive arsenal.
Finn isn't your prototypical stay-at-home guy, but he would be a great complement on the backend to the likes of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. He could also be a future partner for Nick Leddy.
LW - USNTDP (USHL)
6'1" - 196 Pounds
Nicolas Kerdiles plays a very offensive game—that is what is likely to attract teams to him at the draft.
The versatile Californian has a good shot, is strong on the puck and is a great passer. The talented forward is committed to the University of Wisconsin for next season, where his game will continue to grow.
The Maple Leafs have done a great job of addressing needs in every position except down the left flank. Kerdiles is the kind of player Burke would love to have, and it wouldn't at all be surprising to see the him pick him up.
Kerdiles would join a very strong group of left wingers, including Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. He could be the final piece of the puzzle in an organization that is finally turning its fortunes around.
RW - Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
5'10" - 165 Pounds
Denis Kamaev is the most recent in a long line of highly-skilled goalscoring wingers to come out of Russia.
He's not the biggest hockey player, but his all-round offensive game more than makes up for it. His arrival in North America last season shows his commitment to playing in the NHL. The only place his draft stock will go from here is up.
The Penguins have long been searching for a permanent winger to put alongside Sidney Crosby; Kamaev would end that search. Together, they would create a dynamic, first-line duo that could quite literally tear defenses apart.
The Penguins could try to rush him into the NHL, but with a player like Crosby by their side, anyone can put up big numbers.
LW - Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
5'8" - 165 Pounds
At just 5'8", Charles Simard-Hudon is not the biggest player, but he more than makes up for lack of size by playing with heart.
The diminutive forward is very creative in the offensive zone. His speed and shiftiness are his biggest assets—a solid shot and clever playmaking ability round out of the Quebec native's attacking arsenal.
Dallas will look to draft up front and, with their large number of physical forwards, drafting Simard-Hudon becomes less of a risk. He has top-six potential, and could create a nice one-two punch down the left wing behind Brenden Morrow.
Look for the Stars to take a chance on this high-risk, high-reward winger.
Follow Jake Ware on Twitter at @JacobWare95.