|There is certainly no shortage of top-tier centers eligible for the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.
The list is not only lengthy, but exceptionally impressive. That's not to say grabbing one of the top centers in the early rounds will bring you an NHL-ready pivot in 2011-12, but let's just say whichever NHL franchise opts for a middle man will be reaping the benefits some three years down the road.
"The consensus with everyone I've talked to, as well as coaches, is that this draft is deeper but it doesn't have five or six guys right off the top that you can say are going to jump right in and play right away," NHL Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com.
Red Deer's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was Central Scouting's No. 1-rated North American skater in April, headlines the list of top centers invited to the NHL Scouting Combine next week. But another player who will attract plenty of attention is Niagara's Ryan Strome, who jumped 11 spots to No. 8 on the final list. There's no doubt Strome's high-octane attack on offense, complemented by his well-rounded instincts, enabled him to make the leap in the ratings.
"He's one of those guys who needs some time to physically mature and that will come," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told "NHL on the Fly." "He's a guy who's smart, instinctive and can skate and handle the puck. It looks like he has all the ability to take those skills and be a real productive offensive player in the NHL."
Niagara IceDogs coach Marty Williamson said the biggest difference in Strome, who was acquired as the focal point of the Alex Pietrangelo trade with Barrie in 2009, was his determined effort to bulk up in the offseason.
"Ryan is one of those guys that initiates contact and makes a great play," Williamson said. "He plays in those traffic areas and he wins battles and then he makes great passes. He's got great vision. As weak as he was in his first year, it was difficult for him to play that kind of game. Now he's playing the game he played in midgets when he was a dominant midget player. He's very confident. He can go into traffic and know he's not going to get knocked on his rear end. He's confident, he feels good on the ice."
According to Central Scouting, here's a look at the top 11 centers prepared for the rigors of the NHL Combine from May 30 through June 4 in Toronto.
1. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Red Deer (WHL): What more can be said that hasn't been explained already about the multi-talented pivot out of the Western Hockey League? The 18-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., led the team and finished tied for third in the WHL scoring race with 106 points, including 32 multi-point performances, in 69 games during the 2010-11 regular season. His 75 assists led all WHL players. He had 4 goals and 11 points in nine playoff games.
"He makes everyone around him better," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "I say this in the most complimentary way, and not as a comparison to make unrealistic or unfair expectations on this young man, but he reminds me of Joe Sakic in his thinking and ability.
"Sakic was one of those guys where it didn't matter what type of game you were playing. You always knew you could count on Joe Sakic and you knew he'd made a play and make a difference, and I feel exactly the same way about Nugent-Hopkins. If the Edmonton Oilers want a player who can make Taylor Hall an even better player, then Nugent-Hopkins is that guy. It will take an enormous effort by another prospect to unseat Nugent-Hopkins, in my mind, because I think he's a star in the making."
2. Jonathan Huberdeau, Saint John (QMJHL): The native of Saint-Jerome, Quebec, is rated the first (No. 3 overall) of nine Sea Dogs on NHL Central Scouting's list of the top draft-eligible North American skaters.
Huberdeau led the team with 43 goals, 62 assists, 105 points and a plus-59 rating in 67 regular-season games. His point total was not only the third-highest in the QMJHL this season, but set a new franchise standard for points in a season, surpassing the former mark of 95 set by Chris DiDomenico in 2007-08.
"He has a chance to wind up being the best player in this draft and that's saying a lot," Button said. "Huberdeau, to me, has it all. He has the determination, he has the skill and I'm going to go back to physical maturity; when he physically matures and is able to carry his weight with confidence and strength, he is going to be a force because he has the combination of skill and will. There has never been a great player in the League who didn't possess that combination."
Teammate Zack Phillips knows first-hand how dominate a player Huberdeau can be.
"His vision on the ice is the best I've seen," Phillips said. "He's unbelievable with getting the puck off the boards and up to me at center. We work off each other really well with nice passes, and he's rated very high and deserves to be there."
3. Sean Couturier, Drummondville (QMJHL): The 6-foot-4, 197-pound Couturier was not only voted "Best Professional Prospect" but was also named Most Valuable Player in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season. He collected his second straight 96-point campaign, including 36 goals and 60 assists, despite playing 10 fewer games due to his participation in the World Junior Championship for Team Canada in Buffalo, N.Y., in January. He also won 54 percent of his face-offs during the regular season on 1,430 opportunities.
In Drummondville's four-game sweep over the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the opening round of the QMJHL playoffs, Couturier had 3 goals and 8 points. He'd finish with 6 goals, 11 points and a plus-3 rating in 10 playoffs games for the Voltigeurs.
"You don't take the puck off of him," said former Drummondville and current Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher. "He's a big center who wins the faceoffs and is extremely reliable defensively. When he was 16, I had to push him to go offense because he wanted to be so reliable defensively. He has great vision and is slowly building up his speed … he's going to be a terrific NHL player."
4. Ryan Strome, Niagara (OHL): The right-handed center finished with a team-high 73 assists and 106 points, both the third-best totals in the OHL. He also had 12 points in 14 playoff games in helping Niagara reach the OHL East Conference Finals.
Strome also had 33 goals during the regular season, but according to coach Marty Williamson, the spectacular crowd pleaser he scored against the Plymouth Whalers on Oct. 28 was most memorable.
On the play, Strome took a pass from teammate Steven Shipley in the neutral zone and accelerated down the left side and across the Plymouth blue line before faking going inside on a Whalers defender and then blowing around him to the outside, right to the net. When the goalie went butterfly, Strome started to go behind the net but instead used his reach to tuck the puck behind the goalie, just inside the left post.
"I feel I'm generally a playmaker but can also put the puck in the net," Strome said. "I'm a guy who'll put up a lot of points and contribute offensively, but I think I've worked on my two-way game as the season went on and have gotten better."
Strome, incidentally, finished with a career-best plus-28 rating.
5. Mika Zibanejad, Djurgarden (Sweden): Zibanejad played a vital role with and against men for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League this season. In 26 games with the Elitserien squad from the junior program since the start of December, the 6-foot-1 1/2, 191-pound Zibanejad posted 5 goals and 9 points. He had 12 goals and 21 points in 27 games with Djurgarden's junior team prior to his promotion.
Zibanejad is considered by many scouts to be the most improved European prospect available for the 2011 Entry Draft. He was the No. 2-rated European skater on NHL Central Scouting's final release in April.
"Mika's a real power forward but also has soft hands, good vision and fine skating skills," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He has tremendous balance and is hard to knock off the puck. He's very strong in the battles along the boards, finishes checks with authority and has a heavy shot that he gets off quickly."
Djurgarden assistant coach Tomas Monten, who is in his fourth season as assistant, compared Zibanejad with another Swedish standout he helped mold a few seasons ago in the Swedish Elite League -- New Jersey Devils center Jacob Josefson.
"It's hard for me to compare since I haven't had a chance to see other players, but Jacob Josefson went to the Devils (at No. 20 in the 2009 Entry Draft), and while Jacob will be a good fit in New Jersey, I can tell you that Mika is a better player," Monten said.
6. Vladislav Namestnikov, London (OHL): What Namestnikov might lack in size (5-foot-11 1/2, 166 pounds), he compensates for in straight-ahead speed.
"Vlad plays a high-energy, two-way game," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He's very aggressive on the forecheck and backcheck and has the ability to beat defenders outside and cut back to the net. He has an excellent wrist shot that he can release with accuracy on the rush."
Namestnikov was No. 11 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters in April. In 68 games with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, he produced 30 goals, including a team-high 11 power-play goals, 68 points, a plus-12 rating and 49 penalty minutes.
7. Mark McNeill, Prince Albert (WHL): Ranked 14th by NHL Central Scouting in its final rating of North American skaters, McNeill, a right-handed center, has impressed with his ability to make plays while powering his way to the net. The 6-1 1/2, 201-pound center finished second on the team with 81 points, including a team-high 49 assists, in 70 games.
"He's one of those kids that has the ability to do so many different things," Raiders coach/GM Bruno Campese told NHL.com. "He's got so much upside to him. He's a powerful skater and has great hockey sense. He's got very good basic skills and he's got the ability to be a real tough person to play against. He's got the mental capabilities to understand the game as well."
Ranked 22nd by NHL Central Scouting in its mid-term rating of North American skaters, McNeill has been wowing scouts across North America with his impressive ability to make plays and power his way to the net. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound center leads his team with 30 assists and is second with 50 points in 45 games.
Another part of McNeill's game that has scouts salivating is his willingness and success rate when dropping the gloves.
8. Zack Phillips, Saint John (QMJHL): The third of four Sea Dogs projected to be selected in the opening round of the Entry Draft, Phillips finished second on the team behind Huberdeau in goals (38), assists (57), points (95) and plus-minus rating (plus-48) in 67 games. His 15 power-play goals led the team and he won 45 percent of his faceoffs on team-leading 969 attempts.
"Zack has had an excellent season," Saint John coach Gerard Gallant said. "I've always said he's going to be a great playmaker and passer, but he had 38 goals … some of the nicest goals this year. He really shoots the puck well and has great vision. People keep asking me can if he can skate well enough to play well in the NHL, and I don't see it being an issue. You don't see him at top speed very often, but you see him reading the play and making the right plays; he's a competitive kid and good on faceoffs."
9. Mark Scheifele, Barrie (OHL): The 6-foot-1 3/4, 182-pound pivot put up 22 goals and 75 points in his first OHL season while playing against the best defensemen and checking-line forwards in the league. He led all first-year players in the league with 53 assists.
NHL Central Scouting placed Scheifele at No. 16 on its final list of the top North American skaters available for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"Mark protects the puck very well and will take it to the net while fighting through checks," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He's got a great work ethic. His Barrie Colts struggled this season and he was relied upon to provide offense. He sees the ice very well and his playmaking ability is very good. He gets back quickly and works hard defensively."
10. Boone Jenner, Oshawa (OHL): Jenner, whose family owns and operates a cattle farm in Dorchester, Ont., caught the eye of scouts as a nimble playmaker who scores more than his share of game-winning goals, blocks shots and delivers crunching hits along the boards for the Generals.
In his second season with the team, the 6-foot-1 1/4, 204-pound Jenner had 25 goals, 66 points and a plus-10 rating through 63 games.
"The phrase, 'I want 20 of those guys on my team,' gets overused, but it not only applies to Boone, he can be the poster boy for it," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com.
Jenner was named to the OHL All-Rookie Team and was runner-up for the OHL's Rookie of the Year in 2009-10 after totaling 19 goals (8 power-play goals) and 49 points. The resume Jenner has built during his OHL time has made him a highly regarded prospect. He'll enter the draft as the No. 18-rated skater on Central Scouting's final release of North American players.
11. Jonathan Miller, USA U18 (USHL): Miller might be considered a sleeper to some, but not to National Team Development Program coach Ron Rolston. With exceptional speed, playmaking ability and creativity, Miller played a pretty significant role in his first full season with the Under-18 National Team this season, finishing third on the club with 50 points while registering a team-leading 35 assists in 56 games.
In 16 international games, he produced 7 goals, including 2 game-winners, and 22 points.
"He hit everything in sight when I watched him play," Barzee said.
The University of North Dakota-bound Miller was named one of Team USA's top three players at the Under-18 World Championship in Germany last month after helping lead the team to its third consecutive gold medal. He finished the tournament with 4 goals, 13 points and a plus-8 rating.
"I like how he uses his size and strength," Central Scouting's David Gregory told NHL.com. "He is a power forward that can dominate on the boards and possesses a great shot. He moves very well, has the ability to impose his will on the game. He just needs to improve his consistency, especially using his strength, game in and game out. He'll be a better overall player when his puck-handling and confidence with the puck improves."