(Finland's Joel Armia is a cool character both on the ice and off it.)
The first full month of the NHL season is winding to a close. However, despite some surprise slow starts, the bottom of the standings shows that some things never change- or at least don't in one season.
1. Edmonton Oilers (6 GP 2-4-0)- D Adam Larsson (Skellefteå/Elitserien)
For Edmonton, the first stage of the 2010-11 season couldn’t be any more different than the year before. 5-1-1 on October 23rd of 2010, it’s obvious that how a team begins the year can mean very little to do with how they finish it. Pundits will, of course, point to the myriad of injuries the team faced. However, for all their woes last year, the team still lapped the league for 30th place.
The New York Islanders are an important barometer of how good an excuse injuries are; despite missing most of their most battle-trusted skaters, the Isles currently sit six points up on the fully healthy Oilers. However, if Edmonton’s losing ways persist, Head scout Stu MacGregor will have yet another difficult decision to make. Though he has just two points in thirteen games and isn’t the big center the Oilers “need”, Adam Larsson is, for us, the best player available- and, as with Taylor Hall last year, that should be the player MacGregor finally decides to take.
2. New Jersey Devils (8 GP, 2-5-1)- D Ryan Murphy (Kitchener/OHL)
Although Martin Brodeur is “finally showing his age” and Ily Kovalchuk “is sulking and a waste of money”, the Devils consistently have a way of righting the ship and proving people wrong. However, it’s especially regrettable that much of the blame for New Jersey’s poor start falls on the shoulders of the very player who is the reason the team does not own their third round selection in the 2011 Draft, in addition to an upcoming first rounder.
Thankfully, the Devils have the option of keeping their pick- a no-brainer should they finish in the bottom half of the league at season’s end. What may not be a no-brainer is who the team may choose. Lacking an elite puck-mover who has the skills to change a game, the Devils could easily eschew the “easy choice” by trying to fill a need with a home-run shot. Although Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy has fallen off his torrid start, he is still sixth in OHL scoring and is a difference maker every shift. The Devils made a similar choice in 1991 when they used the third overall pick on slick-skating offensive defenseman Scott Niedermayer; few would complain about that choice today.
3. Ottawa Senators (8 GP, 2-5-1)- C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer/WHL)
Again, while the Ottawa Senators possess a mostly veteran forward group that owns the tools to quickly dig themselves out of their none-too-formidable hole, there is a chance the Sens cannot and ultimately pay for what has so far been a combination of weak goaltending and soft, atrocious own-zone play.
While neither a franchise goalie nor a strapping defensive defenseman, center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has the all-around game and creativity to finally fill the #2 spot behind superstar Jason Spezza. Blessed with tremendous speed and skill in addition to his tireless work ethic, ‘RNH’ has the ability to deliver what captain Daniel Alfredsson does every night on the top line: leadership, defensive awareness and game-changing offense.
4. Phoenix Coyotes (6 GP, 2-2-2)- C Sean Couturier (Drummondville/QMJHL)
Okay, guilty as charged: slotting Murphy into the top three is a necessary evil to allow QMJHL phenom Sean Couturier an opportunity to slide down to his hometown Phoenix Coyotes. But it’s possible the opposite occurs; although capable of playing a tight, systems-oriented game that tests even the best clubs in the league, the Coyotes lost a key part in Zbynek Michalek and have suffered for it. Not only is the defensive group absent a veteran body, but only a fool would deny that Michalek’s shot-blocking prowess made goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s job easier. And while Bryzgalov has been sensational- see: 2.21 GAA and 0.940 Sv%- the Coyotes could see their lottery ticket punched and a shot at Couturier secured.
5. Florida Panthers (6 GP, 3-3-0)- RW Brandon Saad (Saginaw/OHL)
Well, at least they’re, uh, fun to watch? The Florida Panthers have not enjoyed an immediate resurgence under GM Dale Tallon’s hand, but then one likely wasn’t expected. Content to build through the draft- despite, well, the Panthers basically trying to do so every year- Florida is in position to welcome yet another elite young talent into the organization come June.
Who that player is will depend on a lot of things, but let’s take a moment to flash back. It was 2005, and Tallon’s first Draft as GM of the Hawks. Chicago owned the seventh overall pick and the team eventually decided to take a speedy 6’2 American power winger with a goal scorer’s instincts. Unfortunately, the player they got was Jack Skille. Tallon eventually learned from his and his scouting staff’s mistake, ushering in a new era of hockey in Chicago with the selections of two guys named Toews and Kane.
However, if tempted by speedy 6’2 American power winger Brandon Saad, can Tallon resist? While trading Nathan Horton was seen as a necessity, it’s tough to argue that the Panthers have not had the same degree of punch on the wings since the deal. Saad isn’t that true #1 center Tallon would likely wish to get, but at #5 in 2011 that player may simply not be there.
6. Anaheim Ducks (9 GP, 3-5-1)- D David Musil (Vancouver/WHL)
Following the dismantling of a defensive core that was so quick and ruthless that it was in some ways even more impressive that the series of transactions that brought it together, the Anaheim Ducks continue to look to add pieces via the Draft. Although the team lucked into a true top five talent in Cam Fowler when the beleaguered Windsor rearguard spiralled to outside the top ten, obtaining a hulking defensive presence to complement the likes of Fowler, Lubomir Visnovsky and Luca Sbisa will likely have to come through honest-and-goodness suckage.
At 6’3, David Musil represents everything the Ducks need in a rearguard; although not explosive on his feet, the gritty native of former NHLer Frank Musil has the smarts and no-nonsense puck movement required to survive the pro game immediately. He’d be another in a long line of fortuitous Anaheim selections and, with good fortune, a cornerstone for another Cup.
7. Buffalo Sabres (9 GP, 3-5-1)- RW Gabriel Landeskog (Kitchener/OHL)
What started as a stereotypical comment on the needs of the Sabres rather than BPA eventually turned to truth when the Buffalo Sabres selected lunch pailing winger Zack Kassian from Peterborough during the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. So let’s go there again; needing more size in their top six, conventional logic would see the Sabres select 6’2 Gabriel Landeskog. Continuing his strong start, the Swedish power forward currently sits at 9-7-16 after eleven games- not to mention an impressive 21 PIM and represents everything Buffalo lacks in their top six.
8. Atlanta Thrashers (8 GP, 3-4-1)- D Duncan Siemens (Saskatoon/WHL)
Eight years is a lifetime in the NHL when it comes to team turnover- both on the ice and in the front office. It’s been eight years since the Atlanta Thrashers selected hulking Western Canadian defender Braydon Coburn in the first round of the 2003 Entry Draft. Come June 2011, it’s possible the team repeats history- especially since the general manager who made that call then is the team’s president now.
While Don Waddell is not the be-all end-all when it comes to who the team will pick, it’s likely current GM Rick Dudley will share his enthusiasm for Siemens, a strapping throw-back to the kind of hockey Dudley himself played in during the rough-and-tumble 70s. During his tenure as Panthers GM from 2002 to 2004, Dudley oversaw the selections of Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton and Rostislav Olesz. Although possessing various levels of grit and skill, all three share one thing in common: size. At 6’3 and 192 lbs, Siemens has the frame to entice GMs, and the pugnacious attitude required to maximize its effectiveness. He’d be a solid future partner for fellow physical speciman Zach Bogosian.
9. Philadelphia Flyers (7 GP, 3-3-1)- RW Joel Armia (Ässät/SM-Liiga)
Likely a placeholder for the team that will really have a shot at selecting 6’3 Finnish power forward Joel Armia, instead of discussing Philly’s chances at finishing in the lottery- almost none- I’ll use the valuable column inches to discuss the enigma Armia presents. Although Finland is not a non-traditional hockey country, prior to Mikael Granlund being taken 9th in 2010, the country had seen its reputation as a consistent producer of talent seriously questioned.
Armia is certainly worth a top-ten pick, and he as plenty of time to build a solid portfolio worthy of a top prospect. But should he struggle to produce at the WJC- or find himself in an extended cold streak at the SM-Liiga level- it will be interesting to observe just how GMs react to a player few outside of the Ässät organization know very little about. In the age of Internet streams and Twitter, that a player like Armia has seemingly come out of nowhere to seriously be a factor in a European pro league is somewhat startling.
Finally, an interesting bit of history: during the 1996-97 season, another 6’3 Fin went from a virtual unknown (2 points in 15 games) to breaking the league records for points by a U20 talent. Eventually selected third overall by the LA Kings, Olli Jokinen took a long while to finally find his game, but can be the kind of player every team wants should he so choose to play like it. While Armia has a long way to go to challenge the top three, it certainly would not be without precedent.
10. Minnesota Wild (7 GP, 3-3-1)- C Victor Rask (Leksands/Allsvenskan)
While it’s maybe too soon for the Minnesota Wild to risk another top ten pick on a big, rangy power forward with raw ability, pivot Victor Rask belongs more to the Mikko Koivu category of player than the James Sheppard (re: bust) one. Having doubled his number of goals on the year since our last update- one to two- Rask is still not an offensive dynamo at the second-highest level of hockey in Sweden, but it’s hard to be when you’re on the fourth line. Rask is nevertheless gaining priceless experience against men and would be a fit in every way for the Wild as they seek to retain a responsible two-way identity while integrating a tad more skill.
11. New York Rangers (6 GP, 3-2-1)- RW Ty Rattie (Portland/WHL)
Boasting an offense cobbled together from the likes of Thrashers cast-offs, waiver wire fodder and second round picks, the New York Rangers have actually fared quite well since losing superstar winger Marian Gaborik to another long-term injury.
Featuring prominently in the team’s never-say-die attitude has been Brandon Dubinsky, a second round selection of the Rangers in 2004. If their draft position holds, it’s possible New York will have a crack at yet another unique Portland product. That rare phenom who has seen his offensive translate to the next level, dynamic scorer Ty Rattie sits third in WHL scoring and first in points among all CHLers eligible for the 2011 Draft. A tremendous one-on-one talent who owns a goal-scorer’s instincts around the net, Rattie’s constant hustle is what separates him from other, similar talents that fade as the games get faster and more physical. Oh, and he’s also rather durable- another plus.
12. San Jose Sharks (6 GP, 3-2-1)- LW Matt Puempel (Peterborough/OHL)
On Saturday night, San Jose convincingly tooled an upstart and enthusiastic young Edmonton Oilers in a game that had all the makings of a TSN Turning Point for the mercurial Sharks. As such, like Philly, it appears San Jose will use its remaining 76 games of the regular season to continue terrorizing opponents, only to mentally check out by the time the first round is well underway.
Peterborough’s leading scorer through ten games with fifteen points, Matt Puempel has the misfortune of being a member of one of the OHL’s deepest classes in recent memory, and may simply end up a victim of the numbers game. As such, while he possesses the skill to be a top ten selection and the upside to ultimately be one of the top five forwards from the entire class, it’s no sure thing Puempel is selected before the 20s.
13. Colorado Avalanche (8 GP 4-4-0)- D Dougie Hamilton (Niagara/OHL)
Every Edmonton Oilers fan should be watching the Colorado Avalanche with great interest. Build through both tremendous drafting and keen asset management (see Quincey, Kyle and Anderson, Craig) the Avs appeared to be ready to join Chicago as a fast, exciting team capable of great things with experience. However, the beginning of the 2010-11 season hasn’t exactly been all sunshine and rainbows. Call it Duchene’s Law: The more rookies you dress, the more have the potential to go through sophomore slumps.
Should the Avs fall out of the playoff race, it’s likely the team will focus on adding another bluechip body on defense. To that end, don’t be surprised if the team reaches once again in order to secure the services of 6’3, 185 lbs Dougie Hamilton. With ten points in twelve games, Hamilton is off to a fast start, but it’s his intelligence and mobility that will draw NHL teams to him. Although Hamilton could stand to improve his acceleration, his top-end speed is something else for a player of his size and he owns such a fine sense of offensive zone positioning that he is often used as a screen on the powerplay.
14. Vancouver Canucks (8 GP, 3-3-2)- LW Seth Ambroz (Omaha/USHL)
Another potential case of right team, wrong pick, 6’3 195 lbs power forward Seth Ambroz is slowly starting to lose his grip on a top fifteen spot just as the Canucks are finding their game. With just two points in five games, pundits will point to Ambroz’s advanced physique as a possible explanation for his inability to translate his game. However, that holds no water once one realizes Ambroz had no trouble producing in the USHL last year- see 22 goals, 49 points and a staggering 118 PIM.
Despite a respectable 3-2-0 record, the Lancers have simply been anemic offensively; the team’s leading scorer has three points for heaven’s sake! However, the Canucks would gladly welcome yet another American college-bound player in the organization; although lanky, Ambroz has the home-run ability the Canucks prefer as they seek to adopt a similar “NHL skill in any package” mantra as the Red Wings.
15. Carolina Hurricanes (7 GP 4-3-0)- C Ryan Strome (Niagara/OHL)
A team very much built to look good on paper rather than on the ice, it's going to take more of the kind of scouting that led the beleaguered Carolina Hurricanes to NHL-ready Jeff Skinner at seventh overall. However, the Canes have shown a talent for picking the best OHL talents, and they'll have a crack at another one if they remain in the mid-to-early part of the round. With 22 points in 13 games, Niagara’s Ryan Strome is looking very much like a player who has the goods to continue holding steady in the top fifteen. In addition to his high skill level and vision, Strome's physical game sets him apart from similar junior talents and would help a Canes team that has simply remained too soft since the powerplay-heavy days of the early post-lockout period.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets (7 GP, 4-3-0)- C Alexander Khokhlachev (Windsor/OHL)
One of those teams that stands a very good chance of exchanging places with the Sharks or even Flyers by the fifteen-game mark, the Blue Jackets are a team that has been in constant disarray since their very inception. However, fan discontent can do little to improve a team that is still very much flawed, and the team’s best course of action is to simply try to continue adding premier young talent.
Although the opposite of what the Blue Jackets might need- that being another big, talented center and a franchise rearguard- Russian import Alexander Khokhlachev has the kind of game-breaking skill the team lacks outside of Rick Nash. Second in Spits scoring as a CHL rookie, Khokhlachev is showing that speed, hockey sense and a soft touch can translate in any league if one works hard enough for space and time.
17. Calgary Flames (7 GP, 4-3-0)- C Boone Jenner (Oshawa/OHL)
Currently 25th in the league in goals-for, it’s clear that a draft strategy built around taking the best grinders is not exactly a solid action plan when it comes to fixing a meager offense. That’s why Boone Jenner makes a great deal of sense for the Calgary Flames. Although a poor skater who lacks any semblance of explosiveness, Jenner owns the best hands in the Ontario League and the ability to turn pro-sized defensemen inside-out on a whim. In addition to his skating issues, Jenner can be especially temperamental- good, if you value grit and emotion like the Sutters- but bad when it takes precedence over actually playing smart. Still, Jenner has the raw tools to be a star and in the right hands could develop into something special.
18. Boston Bruins (6 GP, 4-2-0)- LW Matt Nieto (Boston University/NCAA)
Now full-up at center and featuring a deep group of prospects on defense that fit the team’s preferred mold of size, intelligence and mobility, the Bruins can start to focus on adding more punch to the left and right sides. A game-breaking forward with an NHL-caliber separation gear and the hands to handle the puck fluidly at top speed, Nieto would be both BPA and, as a Terrier, a ‘hometown’ pick for Boston.
19. Montreal Canadiens (7 GP, 4-2-1)- LW Nicklas D. Jensen (Oshawa/OHL)
Although the Montreal Canadiens made a valiant run to the Eastern Conference Finals, what ultimately led to their undoing was what got them there in the first place: small, skilled forwards. The Habs have focused their recent draft efforts on bringing in bigger players at every position, and will likely continue to do so in 2011. 6’2 Danish winger Nicklas D. Jensen has the top-end speed, hand-eye coordination and instincts to be a Johan Franzen-esque beast with some fortuitous development.
20. Boston Bruins (From Toronto)- LW/C Sahir Gill (Boston University/NCAA)
With two first round selections, the Bruins have the room to gamble. One of the most intriguing talents sure to enter the top thirty conversation is BU’s Sahir Gill. With a team-leading four assists and six points in five games as a freshman, the 5’10, 180 lbs forward has picked up where he left off since finishing an enigmatic Junior A career. An April-born ‘92, Gill was eligible for the 2009 Draft but played just 39 games due to a combination injury changing leagues mid-season. Comparable to Paul Stastny in the way he can anticipate the play and make a deft, no-telegraph pass to the precise spot a teammate appears seconds later, Gill is an excellent skater and stickhandler that possesses the kind of natural elusiveness often mistaken for perimeter play.
21. New York Islanders (8 GP, 4-2-2)- D Oscar Klefbom (Skåre BK/Allsvenskan)
As they’ve proven since Garth Snow’s first days as General Manager, the New York Islanders are willing to do whatever it takes- from trading up to reaching down- in order to secure their man. And, incredibly enough, time is proving them right. That’s why it’s not a stretch to believe the Isles likely covet smooth-skating 6’3 offensive defenseman Oscar Klefbom. Although playing in a non-traditional league, Klefbom has shown plenty against his peers and has the elite skillset to be a top puck-mover at the NHL level.
22. Washington Capitals (8 GP, 5-3-0)- RW Vladislav Namestnikov (London/OHL)
Despite boasting two of the best Russian hockey players on the planet, the Washington Capitals have been reticent to capitalize on this appeal by drafting fellow countrymen. Part of it is risk; however, after watching a former first round pick Anton Gustafsson bolt North America and pro hockey all together, the Caps have likely come to realize no league is safe. That’s why it’s plausible the team builds on the 2010 first round selection of sniper Evgeny Kuznetosov with London import Vladislav Namestnikov. In addition to boasting NHL-level skill, the speedy playmaker also happens to play the position weakest in the Washington organization. It’s a match made in heaven.
23. Dallas Stars (7 GP, 5-2-0)- LW Sven Bärtschi (Portland/WHL)
Although the Fabian Brunnstrom ‘Sweepstakes’ led to a dud rather than a winner, it’ll be Dallas’ consistency in trying any and every available route and nationality that will help them stay competitive every year. Sven Bärtschi would be yet another example of that; although scoring at a similar pace to 2010 fifth overall pick and fellow Swiss native Nino Niederreiter, it’s almost impossible to confuse the two; measuring in at at just 5’10 and 185 lbs, Bärtschi may not be a rugged power goal-scorer, but he’s a darn good player in his own right. An elite skater who possesses above-average agility and balance, Bärtschi is known for his dazzling cross-ice passes but has managed to find the net nine times thanks to his creativity and a quick snapshot.
24. Los Angeles Kings (7 GP, 5-2-0)- RW Shane McColgan (Kelowna/WHL)
While the LA Kings were upstaged in their home rink by the Penguins (Beau Bennett) and Ducks (Emerson Etem) when it came to taking California products in the first round of the 2010 Draft, the Kings may get the last laugh yet. Manhattan Beach native Shane McColgan is an enigmatic player; although he owns a non-stop motor and a high compete level, the 5’11 170 lbs winger may not have the elite vision required to be a top-six forward at the NHL level. However, as the proud owners of one of the deepest pipelines in the league, the Kings have enough depth to take a shot on a player that could one day feature prominently in their top six.
25. St. Louis Blues (7 GP, 4-2-1)- LW Lucas Lessio (Oshawa/OHL)
Although the St. Louis Blues have been flawless as of late in their ability to draft and quickly develop young offensive talents, the results- and consistency- have yet to materialize four years after taking Erik Johnson first overall in 2006. What they’re missing isn’t skill, but passion. Enter Lucas Lessio. A solid 6’1 and 190 lbs, although Lessio isn’t short on the ability to pull fancy moves, the former OJHL star is quietly helping stabilize a young Generals line-up with his hustle and puck retrieval. Such a player would infinitely help the Blues.
26. Chicago Blackhawks (10 GP, 5-4-1)- C Mark McNeill (Prince Albert/WHL)
27. Pittsburgh Penguins (9 GP, 5-3-1)- D Xavier Ouellet (Montreal/QMJHL)
28. Nashville Predators (7 GP, 4-0-3)- D Nathan Beaulieu (Saint John/QMJHL)
29. Tampa Bay Lightning (7 GP, 5-1-1)- LW Tomas Jurco (Saint John/QMJHL)
30. Detroit Red Wings (7 GP, 5-1-1)- D Myles Bell (Regina/WHL)