NEWARK, N.J. — It seems like just yesterday that arguably the NHL’s greatest draft class was assembled on a humid weekend in Nashville. The draft that sealed the NHL futures for the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton also featured one of college hockey’s highest ever picks in former Minnesota forward Thomas Vanek (drafted No. 5) as well as former Wisconsin defenseman Ryan Suter (No. 7).
This year marks the 10th anniversary of that draft class and Sunday, when the 2013 NHL Entry Draft kicks off at the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils, the talent level may rival that of 2003. The one major difference will be the number of first-round selections with college ties and how high these college-bound players are selected.
While it’s likely that the No. 1 overall selection, which belongs to the Colorado Avalanche, will be American Seth Jones, his ties are to major junior. Jones chose to bypass the college route to play for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
In fact, to find the highest-ranked prospect with college ties on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American-born skaters, you have to look all the way down to No. 24, where you find Boston College-bound Ian McCoshen, who last year played for Waterloo of the USHL.
If rankings hold true and you combine the other three lists of potential draftees — North American-born goaltenders as well as international skaters and international goaltenders — there is a distinct possibility that the first round could be absent a player with college ties entirely.
That isn’t to say that college hockey won’t have a strong presence Sunday in New Jersey, when all seven rounds of the draft will be conducted on the same day for the first time since the summer following the last lockout, 2005.
After 6-foot-2 defenseman McCoshen come multiple players ranked high enough to be potential late-first-/early-second-round selections. That said, the next ranked college player, Yale incoming freshman John Hayden, ranked 29th among North American skaters, may slip in the rankings. Ranked 59th in the mid-year rankings, he soared to 29th when the final list was distributed. Multiple lists, including the well-respected Hockey News, place his as a mid-to-late third round selection.
As for players who could be considered jumpers — players selected in a draft position ahead of their final ranking — include Western Michigan commit forward Michael McCarron, Minnesota recruit Thomas Vannelli and New Hampshire sophomore-to-be Brett Pesce.
McCarron, who played for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and was ranked 35th in the final CSS rankings, is considered to have late-first-round potential. Vannelli, an offensive defenseman, isn’t likely to crack the top round but is a serious threat to be an early-second-round pick.
Pesce, a two-way defenseman, is likely to be the top current college player selected. But his offensive totals in his freshman year on the blue line for New Hampshire weren’t breathtaking (just a goal and four assists in 36 games) and could hurt his stock value.
One of the most interesting players to watch may be Michigan commit J.T. Compher. Though pegged 34th among North American skaters by CSS, Compher was ranked 21st overall by the International Scouting Service, a well-respected independent ranking. Last year at the Under-18 World Championship, Compher potted eight goals and 13 points in 18 games. Considered a two-way forward by many scouts, he has a significant amount of upside including a 6-foot, 184-pound frame.
Don’t expect too much from the college game when it comes to goaltenders. This year isn’t considered a strong year for goaltenders in general and Notre Dame recruit Cal Petersen (fourth among North American goalies) and Penn State commit Eamon McAdam (sixth) may be the only two goaltenders with college ties selected.
There will be seven rounds and 211 selections made in this year’s draft. The complete draft can be seen on NBC Sports Network and NHL Network in the U.S. and on TSN in Canada beginning at 3 p.m. EDT Sunday.