Two months ago, the Xcel Energy Center was the venue where all of Minnesota-Duluth’s dreams came true when the Bulldogs captured their first NCAA men’s hockey championship with an overtime victory over Michigan.
Friday, that same building will be the place where dreams will once again come true, this time for a group of 18-year-old hockey players, as the 2011 NHL Entry Draft heads to the Twin Cities (6 p.m. CDT Friday, Versus; 10 a.m. CDT Saturday, NHL Network).
Once again, college hockey is expected to have a major impact during Friday’s opening round. But if you’re looking to catch your favorite college players and freshmen-to-be, don’t worry about canceling dinner plans.
For the third straight year, the top third of the draft is likely to be comprised solely of Major Junior and European-born players. While a collegian cracking the top 10 isn’t out of the question, it’s much more likely that the bulk of the players with college ties will be picked in the bottom of the 30-player first round.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a large crop of talented players with college ties. Leading that list is Northeastern defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, who is ranked 13th among North American skaters, and incoming Michigan goaltender John Gibson, the top-rated North American goaltender according to NHL Central Scouting.
Oleksiak caught the eyes of scouts in his first season on Huntington Avenue, jumping from 27th in Central Scouting’s midterm rankings all the way to 13th. Much of that can be credited to Oleksiak’s 6-foot-7 frame and the towering blueliner proving his skating skills were solid.
While Oleksiak is the top-rated collegian skater, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the first player with college ties chosen. Once again, USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program has turned out a solid crop of skaters, many of whom will be first-round picks and some of whom could beat Oleksiak to the stage.
Among those players are two Miami-bound players — right wing Tyler Biggs, ranked 22nd, and defenseman Connor Murphy, who was unranked at midterm but ended the season ranked 25th. Other NTDP players with first-round potential include two North Dakota-bound players in center J.T. Miller, who was ranked 13th at midterm but slipped to 23rd, and center Rocco Grimaldi, who slipped from a midterm ranking of 25th to a final rank of 32nd.
A year ago, nine players with college ties were selected in the opening round of the NHL Entry Draft. That is two shy of the record of 11 collegians selected in 2007.
But long before any college player will hit the stage at Xcel Energy Center, the dream of one player will come true when Edmonton announces the No. 1 overall selection. A season ago, the Oilers chose Taylor Hall with the first overall selection in a move that was predicted by many but held close to the vest until draft day by Edmonton’s staff.
This year, there is much less consensus about which player will be the top overall pick. Edmonton has significant holes on its blue line that could be filled by Swedish standout Adam Larsson, the top rated European skater and a member of Team Sweden at the last two World Junior Championships. But most believe that top-rated North American skater Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Red Deer, WHL) is the best available player in the draft and thus will be the Oilers’ pick.
But Larsson and Nugent-Hopkins aren’t the only players being talked about having top-pick potential. Left wing Gabriel Landeskog (Kitchner, OHL) and defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Niagara, OHL) have also received much attention in what many pundits are considering one of the most wide-open drafts in years.
This year’s draft will be the second held in Minnesota. The 1989 edition was held at the Met Center, the former home of the Minnesota North Stars, in Bloomington, Minn. That year, the Quebec Nordiques selected Mats Sundin with the first overall pick. Bill Guerin, who went on to a successful college career at Boston College, was the top collegian selected, fifth overall by New Jersey.