|Looking for a sleeper in the first round of the 2011 Entry Draft? Look no further than Plymouth Whalers right wing Rickard Rakell of the Ontario Hockey League.
While left wing Gabriel Landeskog might be the top Swedish-born forward participating at the NHL Scouting Combine next week in Toronto, Rakell might be the top Swedish-born right wing strutting his stuff at the six-day event. When Landeskog suffered an ankle injury in Sweden's first game of the World Junior Championship in Buffalo in January, Rakell finished with a respectable 3 assists in five games.
"I liked him a lot; he did a lot for his draft status at the (WJC)," one NHL scout from the Western Conference told NHL.com.
In his first season in North America, Rakell proved to be an energetic playmaker. He wasn't overly physical, but certainly didn't shy from the contact, either. He had 19 goals and 24 assists in 49 games.
"He's a good energy guy with a good work ethic and hustle," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He forechecks hard, he bangs and is very responsible defensively. I think in the NHL he could be a good second-line player. I really like his upside. He's one of those guys who the coach can throw out there and know what you're going to get. He has great balance and good skills and is physical. I can see him having an impact in the (NHL) two or three years down the road."
In addition to Rakell, there are several other quality right wings hoping to make an impression at the Scouting Combine, which will run May 30 to June 4 in Toronto. Here's the top 10, according to Central Scouting's final rankings.
1. Ty Rattie, Portland (WHL): An exceptional asset on the power-play, Rattie is not afraid to maneuver into the tough areas to score a goal. He'll need to add some weight and muscle to his 5-foot-11, 163-pound frame to transition to the pro game, but he finished with career highs across the board in his third season with the Winterhawks with 28 goals, 51 assists, 79 points and a plus-20 rating. He also chipped in with 9 goals, 22 points and a plus-11 rating in 21 WHL playoff games.
"Rattie is very opportunistic and a very good puck handler," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He's sneaky-good, to the point where you don't notice him and at the end of game he'll have four points. He's a good positional player, but also very creative and he can make something out of nothing. He has very smart puck sense."
2. Tomas Jurco, Saint John (QMJHL): Saint John coach Gerard Gallant has been privy to Jurco's phenomenal skill set since his arrival in North America at the start of last season. The 18-year-old right wing, taken with the fourth pick of the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, led HC Kosice of Slovnaft Extraliga in scoring with 24 goals and 54 points in 2008-09 before joining Saint John.
In addition to his 31 goals and 56 points in 60 games this season, Jurco led the QMJHL with 9 shootout goals on 11 chances as a rookie and was 5-for-6 this season. His shootout percentage in two years is an impressive .823 (14-for-17). He also happens to be one of four players on the talent-laden Sea Dogs roster rated among the top 20 North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings.
He is most noted for his tremendous stick-handling ability, which he showcased at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Toronto in January. He was the talk of the Showdown Breakaway Challenge during the skills portion of the event at Air Canada Centre on Jan. 18 following an amazing lacrosse-style scoop with his stick from between the circles, followed by a spin-o-rama backhand whip to score a goal that received the highest score among the 12 participants.
"Back home in Slovakia, I used to practice those style of moves and there were a lot of marks on the walls," Jurco told NHL.com. "My mom was pretty mad, but it was funny."
3. Nicklas Jensen, Oshawa (OHL): Jensen left Herning in the top Danish professional league -- where he had 26 points in 34 games to win the league's rookie of the year award in 2009-10 -- for the Generals in the Ontario Hockey League this season. In his first season in North America, Jensen finished fourth on the team with 58 points, including 29 goals and a plus-14 rating, in 61 regular-season games. He also contributed 7 goals and 4 assists in 10 playoff games.
"It's the best junior league in the world," Jensen told NHL.com regarding the OHL. "It's just to give the scouts a better look at me. In Denmark there's not that many scouts. Over here, there's scouts at every game. It's better for me, especially in my draft year, to be seen a little more."
The scouts have liked what they've seen.
"Nicklas has adjusted very well to the OHL," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "His puck-handling and play-making ability are excellent. He has an excellent wrist shot that he gets off quickly."
4. Tyler Biggs, USA U18 (USHL): In his first full season with the Under-18 Team, Biggs had 19 goals, 31 points and a team-leading 161 penalty minutes in 55 games. In 15 international games, he had 6 goals and 10 points. The Miami (Ohio) University-bound Biggs, No. 22 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, dropped 17 spots from his No. 5 position in the mid-term rankings in January.
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Biggs rarely is intimidated. He skates well, is physical, tough and can effectively attack the net with or without the puck. Biggs, who compares his style of play to that of Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, considers his size and strength two of his strongest assets.
"He has that leadership quality … that desire, that passion, that competitiveness," NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "He just never quits. He's a young player who has taken the role as leader of his team. He does most of their fighting when they have to fight. He's kind of the guy that when someone starts picking on somebody, he's standing up for them. I think while wearing the 'C' may have taken a little away from his offensive finish, my gut feeling is that I can't think of anything else but an uphill path for Tyler."
5. Rickard Rakell, Plymouth (OHL): A lower-body injury limited him to 49 games in his first season in North America, but the native of Sollentuna, Sweden, who turned 18 on May 5, still managed 19 goals, 43 points and a plus-14 rating in the regular season. Rakell's style of play has been compared to that of Dallas Stars right wing and fellow Swede Loui Eriksson, a 2003 second-round pick of the Dallas Stars.
"He's a skilled forward and improving … it's a big adjustment to come over here and he's done that well," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said.
6. Joel Armia, Assat (Finland): Assat Pori coach Pekka Rautakallio needed just one month to determine that the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Armia was talented enough to play on his team's top line. Keep in mind, Assat plays in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league.
Armia, who turns 18 on May 31, had 18 goals, 29 points and 24 penalty minutes in 48 regular-season games this season. He also was the second-youngest player for Finland at the 2011 World Junior Championship. He had 1 assist in six games as Finland finished sixth.
"He's big and tall but surprisingly mobile for a player of his size," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a sniper with a good selection of shots. You might have to look for him during some shifts, but then, suddenly, he scores the winner."
7. Seth Ambroz, Omaha (USHL): When Ambroz joined Omaha from New Prague High School in Minnesota as a 15-year-old in 2008-09, he immediately turned heads, notching 14 goals, 17 assists and 88 penalty minutes in 60 games. It was at a time when Ambroz wouldn't admit much to reporters -- a combination of his reserved demeanor despite bursting upon the scene at such a young age.
The University of Minnesota-bound Ambroz was a changed man in 2010-11, however. The 6-2, 211-pounder finished with a career-high 24 goals on 222 shots on goal. He had 2 game-winning goals and 16 power-play points, and finished the season with 46 points and a plus-3 rating in 56 games. In three seasons with the Lancers, he has 60 goals, (25 power-play goals), 126 points, 295 penalty minutes and a plus-15 rating in 172 games.
"He's a John Tonelli-type player, very strong," said Central Scouting's Al Jensen. "I've seen him run over players along the boards to get by them. He competes very hard and has good hands and puck skills. He has a strong skating stride -- not lightning speed, but very effective and strong. He has a good, hard wrist shot and is responsible in his own end."
8. Dmitri Jaskin, Slavia (Czech Republic): The Russian-born power forward, who moved to the Czech Republic when he was 8 months old, competed with the big boys in the top Czech league this season. In 33 games with Slavia Praha, he had 3 goals and 10 points. He contributed a team-high 4 goals, including 2 power-play goals, and 5 points for the Czech Republic in six games at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Germany last month. Jaskin's Canadian Hockey League rights are owned by the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League -- a likely destination in 2011-12 for the 18-year-old, who is the No. 5-rated European skater on NHL Central Scouting's final list.
9. Stefan Noesen, Plymouth (OHL): Noesen tied for the team lead in the regular season with 77 points (34 goals, 43 assists) in 68 games. He doubled his playing time with the Whalers this season after playing just 33 games in 2009-10 for a team that boasted top-notch talents such as Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 pick of the 2010 Draft, and Tyler Brown, who signed an entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in March.
Noesen recorded a team-high 6 goals in 11 playoff games. He had 4 goals and 9 points in a seven-game series triumph against the Kitchener Rangers in the opening round, including 2 goals and 2 assists in a 6-5 win in Game 4. He jumped 12 spots to No. 35 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters.
"Stefan backchecks hard and is very responsible defensively," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He plays a high-energy, two-way game … he is smart and aggressive, makes good decisions."
10. Brett Ritchie, Sarnia (OHL): At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Ritchie is your prototypical power-forward; aggressive on the forecheck and a tremendous body checker.
"He's a big man who skates well … he has deceptive speed," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He'll protect the puck and fight through checks. I've seen him score a few goals while coming in off the wing and letting go a great wrist shot. He's most effective when he plays a physical game and is battling hard in front. He's scored some goals by banging in rebounds in the low slot."
Ritchie, rated No. 36 on Central Scouting's final list, finished with career highs across the board this season with 21 goals, 20 assists and 41 points in 49 games. In two seasons with Sarnia, he has 34 goals and 70 points in 114 games. If he'd compare himself to any player in the NHL, Ritchie would say Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks. The reason is simple, as he considers his strength, shot and tremendous size his greatest assets.