(Peterborough's Matt Puempel. Photo Credit Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Ivan Hlinka and Team Canada U20 camps are over, and the CHL begins pre-season in two weeks. Who are the early names to watch for 2011?

1. D Adam Larsson (Skellefteå, Elitserien)

The 2010-11 season isn’t even underway yet and Adam Larsson is already piling up the points. A season removed from a year in which he chased the U18 points record in the Elitserien, the 6’3, rearguard potted four assists in four games at a recent U20 tournament hosted by USA Hockey in Lake Placid.

Simply put, the Swedish phenom was ready to be fed 15 minutes a night at the NHL level last year. But just what makes him so special?

Beyond his commanding hockey sense and pinpoint-accurate outlet passes, Larssons ‘recoverability’ may be the best ever in a prospect. A puck can get behind him, bounce- whatever- and Larsson will have gotten it 80 feet up the ice and onto a teammate's stick before anyone else on the ice can comprehend there’s a scoring chance.

Blessed also with a laser wristshot that is as accurate from the face-off dots as it is from the blueline, Larsson’s only rough spot is skating- particularly his acceleration. It’s possible that his legs are simply not strong enough to support the 220 lbs of bulk the youngster has already amassed. If he can fix that, Drew Doughty and Tyler Myers will no longer be the youngest folks on the Norris ballot.

2. LW/C Sean Couturier (Drummondville, QMJHL)

Quick, name the two players to lead the QMJHL in scoring a year before their draft year. And... go! Sidney Crosby is a given; he was the CHL’s Player of the Year at 16. Mario Lemieux? No; while his 184 points are unthinkable today, Pat LaFontaine nailed 234 during the 1982-83 season. Guy Lafleur? Close. He was just four points off the lead the year before his draft year of 1971, although the draft age was 20 then and not 18.

Despite the staggering number of offensive talents that rounded out their game in the Q, only other player to do it is Sean Couturier. Ineligible to play in the Ivan Hlinka- he turned 18 last December- Couturier instead took part in Hockey Canada’s U20 team camp in early August, the only 2011-eligible forward invited. He simply did not look out of place, tallying 1-2-3 in two intrasquad games.

Couturier is as close to the perfect big man forward as can be. Lacking the innate psychosis of a player like Eric Lindros, Couturier is a dominant one-on-one talent who has improved his skating mechanics to become an excellent skater for someone of any size, let alone one that is 6’4 and 191 lbs. A wicked wrist shot perfectly matches a fine sense for the playmaking game, and Couturier is able to thread needle-perfect passes both backhand and forehand. A close comparable at this point would be mercurial Tampa talent Vincent Lecavalier.

3. C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer, WHL)

TC’s top scorer both goal-wise and point-wise at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, with 5-2-7 in five games, it’s almost a sure thing speedster center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will earn an invite to the U20 December camp. A silky-smooth skater who reaches top speed in the blink of an eye, Hopkins is a scorer who amasses his goals through pure shot volume rather than accuracy. However, he may be even more effective at passing the puck- see a team second-best 41 assists with Red Deer last season.

While John Tavares and Victor Hedman had the top two spots in the 2009 Draft wrapped up from even before the start of the season, Matt Duchene was equally as entrenched in the top three. It will likely prove as tough for any player to knock Hopkins from the #3 pole position this year. Although extremely slight at 6’0 and somewhere under 180 lbs, few of the WHL’s elite rearguards have been able to contain him simply because they can’t catch him.

4. LW Matt Puempel (Peterborough Petes, OHL)

From his tremendous edge control and agility to an NHL-caliber release to his soft hands, Matt Puempel is the second-best overall offensive talent in the class behind Sean Couturier. A rookie sensation last season in the OHL with a team-best 33 goals, Puempel and Hopkins found immediate chemistry at the Hlinka thanks to the former’s pure control over the wing and the latter speedster’s dominance of the middle of the ice.

While not has physical as his idol Jarome Iginla, Puempel works the puck up the boards like a hot knife through butter, bulling the puck with his body when his speed or fine puck control can’t do the job. If there is a player who can unseat Hopkins, it will be Puempel- a potential 95-100 point player in the OHL this season.

5. LW/C Victor Rask (Leksand J20, SuperElit)

As snake-bitten a player as there ever was during the recent Ivan Hlinka, Victor Rask nevertheless hangs onto a top-five spot thanks to his refined overall game. A strong skater with deceptive acceleration, while Rask wasn’t scoring in Piestany, the gifted playmaker wasn’t a liability either. A refined faceoff man, the 6’2, 194 pivot nevertheless could still be a top-end NHL center even if he never becomes a 30-goal man; look no further than 6’2 Mikko Koivu, an extremely similar style of player who will be earning almost seven million dollars starting next year despite never having hit 25 goals.

6. LW Brandon Saad (Saginaw Spirit, OHL)

Winger Brandon Saad will make his OHL debut two years after being taken in the first round of that league’s Bantam Draft, an eternity in major junior time. What took so long? The Pennsylvania product had numerous competing offers from NCAA schools, but was waiting to see how fast he developed. After all, if you believe you’re only going to need to remain in an amateur setting for two years, why not spend them in the CHL playing a pro-like schedule?

And that’s exactly the conclusion Saad came to. The NTDP’s leading scorer with 29 goals and 58 points in 63 games, the power winger possesses excellent top-end speed for a big man- and even better hands. However, Saad isn’t the kind of player to just rely on victimizing junior/college defenses with slick moves; while not a physical terror, the 6’2, 200 lbs winger understand how to use his body to shield the puck and win battles along the wall.

Despite a crackling shot, Saad’s had difficulty being a consistent goal scorer. However,  take a look at this quote from LegendsofHockey.net:

“With his size and grit, left winger John LeClair was made for the modern NHL game. He had the ability to win the battles in the corners and the speed to be dangerous on the rush. Though a slow starter in terms of goal scoring, LeClair made up ground fast, becoming the first American-born player in the history of the league to score more than 50 goals in a season three times.”

Just sayin’.

7. D Nathan Beaulieu (Saint John, QMJHL)

Playing with the likes of smooth-skating, responsible rearguard like Simon Despres can have its advantages, and so can lining up behind one of the top offenses in the Q. For 18-year-old Nathan Beaulieu, the advantage was an excellent learning experience combined with the ability to rack up points.

12th in the QMJHL among defensemen with 45 points, Beaulieu’s most impressive statistic was his +43 rating. Beaulieu is extraordinarily mature in almost every aspect of his game. He possesses a slick, accurate outlet pass and uses his hockey sense and above-average mobility to pinch into openings while manning the point. Defensively, he is close to error-free in the way he can knock down either lateral or vertical passes, and he is technically refined in angling a player away from dangerous scoring areas. Although 6’2, Beaulieu is just 175 lbs and will improve in that area as he gains mass.

Along with Couturier, Beaulieu was one of just two 2011-eligible skaters invited to the Team Canada WJC summer camp.

8. D David Musil (Vancouver Giants, WHL)

The WHL’s biggest surprise in 2009-10, Czech import David Musil managed to not only match the hype built up about him in his home country, but somehow exceed it. On the radar of scouts ever since debuting at the men’s level at the age of 15, Musil was so highly sought-after that the WHL had to hold a special lottery just for his rights. The son of former NHLer Frank Musil, David posted a stunning +33 rating along with an equally impressive 32 points.

Based on that, how could he possibly not be in our top five? The 6’3, 191 lbs rearguard is an excellent prospect, don’t get us wrong; he compares favorably to the likes of Luke Schenn and Karl Alzner. However, the 2011 class is much deeper than expected.

While he looks like Bambi at times on the ice with his long, awkward skating style, Musil can generate a reasonable amount of speed. In addition, his body is almost always in the right place and he quietly, reliably does an excellent job of clearing out the puck.

However, one needs to look at the context of his team to understand where his points came from. No fewer than three players on the Giants potted over a point a game. In addition, regardless of whether Musil was on the first or second pairing, he was inevitably paired with a very strong offensive defenseman- either Kevin Connauton, who posted 72 points, or Neil Manning, a 59-point player.

Generally shy about engaging much in the offensive side of the game and perhaps not blessed with anything more than average offensive acumen, Musil will be strongly tested this upcoming season; Connauton (VAN) and leading scorer Craig Cunningham (BOS) may opt to jump to the AHL this year, meaning he will be relied up on to not only play in his own zone but move the puck. If he succeeds, there’s a possibility a team will like him as much as Florida liked Erik Gudbranson.

9. D Duncan Siemens (Saskatoon Blades, WHL)

One of the WHL’s top rookies in 2009-10, 6’3 Duncan Siemens is a player we’re bound to hear more about as the season progresses. Dylan McIlrath, after all, heralded the return of the big, mean western boy to the top half of the Draft’s first round, and Siemens is a similar player. Racking up 89 PIM in addition to 20 points and a +11 for the Blades, Siemens is a better player at the same age than McIlrath; while not as physically imposing either in stature or snarl, the third overall pick in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft  is a technically sound skater. In addition, Siemens is a stronger puckhandler, although his shot is somewhat lacking.

10. C/RW Matthew Nieto (USNTDP U18)

Committed to Boston University for this fall, offensive dynamo Matthew Nieto finished third on the USNTDP U18 squad with 54 points in 54 games. A flashy forward with the ability to slow the game down and dissect the offensive zone at will, Nieto is a excellent skater off the hop but lacks the top-end speed many elite forwards do. Like Shane McColgan (see below) there’s a possibility Nieto will simply be too vanilla to thrive at the next level. However, based on pure ability, he’s a top twelve selection.

11. RW Shane McColgan (Kelowna Rockets, WHL)

The latest in a recent wave of California talent to vie for a spot in the NHL Entry Draft’s first round, 5’10 winger Shane McColgan has the perfect game to thrive in the NHL- if only he was 6’2. Although a fun player to watch- in addition to a non-stop motor and a willingness to get involved physically, McColgan is defensively reliable- he may not have the pure skill and elite speed required to be more than a complimentary player.

Such worries dogged Zach Hamill (8th overall ‘07)and Zach Boychuk (14th overall ‘08), and neither has been able to establish themselves as NHL players. McColgan had an excellent rookie season in 09-01, posting 44 goals and 69 points in 71 games, but opposing defenses may be better prepared for him this season.

12. RW Tomas Jurco (Saint John, QMJHL)

The fourth overall pick in the 2009 CHL Import Draft, 6’1, 183 lbs Tomas Jurco enjoyed a seamless transition to North America in 2009-10, tallying 51 points as a QMJHL rookie. An extraordinarily slick puckhandler who uses every inch of an extremely long reach to his advantage, Jurco electrified fans from his very first month in a Sea Dogs uniform.

Beyond his staggering technical skill, Jurco enjoys partaking in the physical game and seemed to thrive with increased defensive assignments as the year went on. Jurco has a tendency to skate with a bow-legged stride, and needs a lot of tarmac to generate his maximum speed. However, he is a game-breaker in the offensive zone and should be a high pick.

13. D Ryan Murphy (Kitchener Rangers, OHL)

2011’s edition of Ryan Ellis, 5’11 160 lbs Ryan Murphy is in the right league for offensive defensemen- that much is clear. 18th in league scoring among rearguards and tops among those eligible for the 2011 Draft, Murphy differs from Ellis in the way that Phil Housley differed from Paul Coffey. An excellent skater who moves with fluid, long strides, Murphy prefers to fuel the attack end-to-end rather than through point control like Ellis.

Murphy is not strong defensively- mind the pun- and lacks Ellis’ blistering shot. However, thanks to advatnage in skating ability, the result is potentially a more effective offensive player both at even strength and on the powerplay.

14. C Vladislav Namestnikov (Khimik Voskresensk, KHL)

Tied with speedster Evgeny Kuznetsov for the Russian goal-scoring lead at last year’s U18s, Vladislav Namestnikov is the top player from that country in the 2011 Draft. Just one of two U18 players in the Russian Major League- the second-highest professional league in Russia- Namestnikov reminds one of Ily Kovalchuk in the way the 6’0, 165 lbs forward backs defenders off with his speed, creativity and puck control. A master at stickhandling at top speed, if defenders don’t give him space, they’ll quickly find their jocks somewhere in the second row.

Namestinkov’s lethal shot needs little time and space to find its target, and he rarely telegraphs his attentions- a deadly trifecta.

Namestnikov was selected by the London Knights in the first round of the 2010 CHL Import Draft and rumors run rampant that he and fellow Russian selection Igor Bobkov will report this year. If they don’t, however, Namestnikov will likely fall victim to the transfer agreement as Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgenky Kuznetsov did.

15. C Boone Jenner (Oshawa Generals, OHL)

A candidate to shoot up the draft board as the year progresses, 6’1 193 lbs Boone Jenner is a burgeoning power forward who may be the best one-on-one talent in the OHL. Although Jenner initially had trouble adjusting to the pace and speed of the major junior game, he finished the year with thirteen points over Oshawa’s last nineteen games.

Beyond his highlight-reel hands and a love for the tough stuff, Jenner possesses an extremely accurate snap and wrist shot. What will ultimately decide his future at the next level is his skating ability; both weak on his skates and fundamentally poor in style, he will need to improve either one or both of those categories to avoid the kind of rough ride Rob Schremp has endured so far.

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Canuckk said:

... Great, insightful article, Matt. Pleasure to read.

I was curious as to where you'd peg Seth Ambroz in your rankings right now though. I've read that he's considered a potential top-5 talent, so I was surprised that he didn't crack your top-15.
August 21, 2010
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