If there was one definite from the opening game at the NHL’s Research and Development Camp on Wednesday, it’s that Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can pretty much score at will. To be sure, he’s a candidate to go first overall in the 2011 draft. But he’s also got company. Unlike in past years when Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Taylor Hall pretty much held the No. 1 contender belt from post to post, 2011 provides some intrigue. Along with ‘The Nuge,’ there is also Swedish defender Adam Larsson and Drummondville center Sean Couturier to consider.
So in the spirit of competition, here’s some homework for the Big Three this season: A rundown of what I believe each player needs to do to become the top pick in ’11.
Vision and offense are The Nuge’s biggest assets and the fact he was a playmaker with Red Deer last season (41 assists vs. 24 goals in 67 games) and a goal-scorer at the Ivan Hlinka (hat trick vs. Swiss, only goal in gold medal victory) this summer speaks to his varied arsenal. With that established, RNH needs to win the Western League scoring crown or at least stay near the top. Tampa 2010 first-rounder Brett Connolly and Los Angeles pick Jordan Weal look to be the main competition right now, but let’s give RNH a target of 100 points. At least three players have hit that mark the past two seasons. The Nuge also needs a playoff run – not a deep one, but at least a round or two – to prove his 6-foot, 155-pound frame can withstand the rigors of intense hockey.
Goal No. 1 is obvious right now: recover from mononucleosis. It’s the reason Couturier missed the R&D camp, thus missing a chance to show off his stuff in front of a bleacher full of NHL GMs. Getting mono now is probably the best time Couturier could have had the misfortune to do so, since the season hasn’t even started yet, but getting healthy from the energy-sapping affliction is key. After that, a repeat of last year’s scoring title season in the Quebec League will do for the 6-foot-4, 193-pound center, who obviously has a frame advantage over RNH. So 100 points-plus is also a must.
For a Swedish defenseman, Victor Hedman is the obvious measuring stick. In Hedman’s final year with Modo, he posted 21 points in 43 games with a plus-21 rating to boot. Hedman, of course, went second to Tavares in 2009, but Johnny T also broke some pretty impressive offensive records in the Ontario League, so it’s understandable. Last season, Larsson put up 17 points in 49 games for Skelleftea, with a minus-7 rating on a team also featuring teen defenders Tim Erixon and David Rundblad (Skelleftea finished the regular season with only five more goals for than against). If the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Larsson can flip the plus-minus and outscore Hedman, he’ll look pretty hot. Larsson also needs a team in dire need of a strong blueliner to hold the No. 1 pick.
As Tyler Seguin proved in 2010, you don’t need to be a favorite heading into the year to make noise at the end, even if Hall did take the top spot. So who else has a shot at No. 1 in ’11? I’d say the best dark horses are Seth Ambroz and Matt Puempel. Ambroz, who plays for Omaha in the United States League, is a burly 6-foot-3, 202 pounds already and demonstrated a very nice shot and scoring touch at the R&D camp. Ambroz had 49 points in 56 games last year, with 118 penalty minutes for good measure. If he can put up 80-plus, consider him a contender for the crown. Puempel will be the most offensively dangerous ’11 prospect in the OHL this season and a scoring title would certainly vault him into the equation. The Peterborough Petes left winger is 6-foot, 190 pounds right now, so size isn’t an issue either.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday.
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