TORONTO — Though it may not receive the attention and the 24-hour media coverage of counterparts in football and basketball, the NHL Entry Draft is still a sports spectacle. Though broadcast in the U.S. as only a minor aside, it surprises no one that across the border in Canada, draft day is a major sports happening.
So as the NHL Draft returns across the border, this time to the Leafs capital of Toronto, no doubt all Canadian eyes will be watching.
At home, though, on the U.S. side, still plenty of eyes will glue to the televisions, particularly in the greater Boston area. That’s because Scituate, Mass., native and current Boston University Terrier Ryan Whitney is predicted to be the top American-born player in this year’s draft.
Whitney will lead a cast of collegiate players ear-marked for NHL greatness
– or at least a high pick in the draft.
Whitney’s high marks from the NHL Central Scouting Service (CSS) come just two years after Terrier goaltender Rick DePietro opted-in to the draft and was selected as the No. 1 draft choice overall by the New York Islanders. That year, because DePietro had opted-in (i.e. entered the draft as an 18-year old which forfeits your NCAA eligibility), his career at BU was over.
So in addition to keeping glued to the television this weekend, Terrier faithful will have to keep a close watch on Whitney as to what his future will be.
The trend in such cases has been a bit clearer over the past couple of years: Become a high draft selection, return to college for a year or two to mature, and then depart, still early, for the NHL. Players like Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley and Massachusetts-Lowell’s Ron Hainsey followed this blue print.
Yet there are others, such as Boston College’s Chuck Kobesew, who decide to do their maturing outside of the college arena. Kobesew departed then-defending national champion Boston College last year to return to junior hockey after being selected in the first round (14th overall) by the Calgary Flames).
Likely, though, Whitney won’t be the only collegian faced with the decision to take the step to the NHL. It’s quite possble that other U.S. college players will hear their names called in the first round. Nine (including incoming) college players rank in the top 25 among North American-born forwards and defensemen, up from six last season, making it likely that as many as four or five prospects may find first-round jubilation.
Taking a look at the ratings, Yale’s Chris Higgins follows Whitney, landing ninth among North American forwards and defensemen. Though a little small by NHL standards at 5 feet, 11 inches, Higgins is known by scouts for his excellent skating ability. In his freshman campaign with the Bulldogs, Higgins posted 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 25 games, and opened eyes with his standout performance in last year’s World Junior Championships.
Higgins might have been hurt a bit by his team’s inability to advance in the postseason, taking away the valuable opportunity to play in Lake Placid, N.Y., in front of a house of NHL scouts.
Following Higgins is Michigan State’s Jim Slater. Scouts like this 6-foot, 190-pound center for his tenacious physical play. Similar to Higgins, Slater, too, is known for his skating ability and speed.
In-state rival Eric Nystrom from Michigan follows Higgins in the No. 13 spot. Son of the legendary New York Islander Bob Nystrom, Eric will follow in his father’s footsteps on Saturday as a top NHL prospect. After Whtiney, Nystrom could be the next college player selected because scouts really like his physical game combined with his 6-1 frame. The Wolverines ability to advance in the post-season may help Nystrom’s stock value and could even bring him as high as a top-ten pick.
Staying in the CCHA, Notre Dame’s Rob Globke ranks in the next spot at No. 14. His stock dropped a bit from a mid-season ranking of eighth. But you can still expect this 6-2 forward to remain a first or early-second-round pick due to his natural scoring ability. This year for the Irish, Globke scored 11 goals and 11 assists in just 29 games.
Two players from the national champion Minnesota Golden Gophers appear next among collegians. Right wing Barry Tallackson and defenseman Keith Ballard are ranked 17 and 19 respectively by the CSS. Tallackson’s scoring touched might be the reason why his stock soared in the second half of the season. He moved 10 rungs on the CSS ladder between the mid-season and final rankings. Ballard is the second-ranked collegiate defenseman behind Whitney and is a scout favorite for his ability to move the puck to the forwards and score on the power play. In fact, one of Ballard’s most important career tallies came this year on the power play — the opening goal in the 4-3 overtime victory over Maine that captured the national championship.
Ranking No. 22 is the only incoming freshman in the top 25, Denver’s Brett Skinner. This 6-1, 170-pound defensman may need to bulk up to contend in the NHL, but his offensive skills have grabbed scouts’ attention to this point. Skinner has risen from 29th in the mid-season rankings to his current No. 22 slot. Last season in Des Moines, Skinner scored 47 points (9-38) in 44 games.
Rounding out college players in the top 25 is North Dakota’s Matt Jones occupying the 25th spot. The 6-0, 214-pound defensman caught the scouts’ eyes in 2000 when he was named best defenseman at the under-18 Four Nations Tournament. Jones is noted as a fluid skater, but what will really make the difference is his ability to play physical. Similar to Tallackson, Jones jumped 10 spots in the final rankings from the 35th spot in the mid-season report.
On a separate ranking is one more notable college player; Cornell’s David Leneveu is the top-rated college goaltender, checking in at No. 6 on the CSS list of North American goaltenders. Likely, his stock value won’t break him into the first round, but a second- or third-round prospect isn’t too far off.
HANDICAPPING THE FIELD
Now that we’ve told you “who” according to the CSS, it’s time to take our crack at the players we think are most likely to be top collegiate selections.
The CSS system certainly has its merit, but it’s the farthest thing from an exact science because there truly are four sets of rankings: two for North American-born forwards/defenseman and goaltenders, and two for the European equivalent.
And with the European dominance of early rounds in recent drafts, the North American rankings really have to be weighted a bit.
Of the nine players ranked in the top 25, four are likely to hear their names called in round one (and reap the reward of the first-round paycheck that accompanies): Whitney, Nystrom, Slater and Higgins. Minnesota’s Tallackson, whose stock is on a definite upswing, could squeak into the first round. But Ballard, Globke and Jones are all likely to be second-rounders.
If Higgins does crack the first round, he’ll be the first ECAC player to do so since Harvard’s Chris Biotti in 1986.
For the second year in a row, the NHL will host only the top three rounds on Saturday. That means players like BU’s Justin Maiser and Michigan’s Dwight Helminen (ranked 40 and 41, respectively) might wait until Sunday to get the call.
For all of you out there who like a dark horse — think Hockey East and, more specifically, Providence’s Eric Lundberg. He was extremely high on the NHL radar screen in mid-term rankings, finishing in the 45th spot. But slowly his stock fell, likely attributed to his lack of late offensive production coupled with his team’s inability to make a late-season charge. At 6-3, 200 pounds, Lundberg has the ideal frame for the NHL. Though it’s not totally likely, it wouldn’t be an ounce surprising to see him donning a jersey before the day ends on Saturday.
For those who want to catch the draft on television, ESPN2 in the United States and TSN in Canada will provide complete coverage of the opening round from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto beginning Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.