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Insider

A farewell to ESPN

Back in February 2010, ESPN Insider posted my first entry in the NHL Draft Blog, a look at Tyler Seguin's push to edge out Taylor Hall as the first overall pick of the draft that June. Seguin just fell short but he wound up with a pretty nice consolation prize: the engraving of his name on the Stanley Cup.

Stuff happens remarkably fast in the hockey business.

It's only 18 months ago and by my rough count, I've written 86 entries on Insider's hockey prospects blog. By another rough count, I'm up over 120 games across the last two seasons. Five players and moments stand out through that stretch:

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Saint John, 2011 third overall pick (Florida Panthers)

A lot of people saw Huberdeau take charge of the Memorial Cup tournament in Mississauga in May. I saw him do the same thing in a game in Rimouski in the stretch run of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season.

Despite those impressive showings, I'm not quite sure what kind of player he's going to be down the line. In terms of skating and dynamic skill in QMJHL, Claude Giroux comes to mind but that doesn't make Huberdeau any easier to categorize -- Giroux too is something of work in progress rather than a finished product.

Watching Huberdeau's skating mechanics was a real treat for fans and scouts. It seems unlikely that the Panthers will keep him around this autumn (though never say never). He could be the player of greatest interest with the Canadian team at the WJC in Calgary.

2. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Red Deer, 2011 first overall pick (Edmonton Oilers)

Scouts returned from last year's Ivan Hlinka tournament with breathless reports of this skinny center who was third on the projected list behind Sean Couturier and Adam Larsson.

Rare is it that you can see three or four dozen scouts react as a chorus in mid-game but that's exactly what happened in a scrimmage at the NHL's R & D gathering last August.

Nugent-Hopkins came away from the boards with a puck on a string and his hands a blur, mesmerizing defenders and draw oohs and aahs and headshakes from scouts in the stands.

Nugent-Hopkins was given the POG honors at the CHL Prospect's Game but scouts thought he was only okay in that contest --or at least they had seen him play better. Like Huberdeau, he might be served well by another season of junior, but I just don't see that happening.

3. Nick Bjugstad, University of Minnesota, 2010 first-rounder (Florida)

I saw Bjugstad, Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in his senior year of high school, in an early round of the 2010 state championships. He was a man among boys. He just had his way against overmatched opponents.

When I saw him next at the USA Hockey summer junior sessions in Lake Placid last August, I figured he'd be in for a reality check. Nope. He was a complete handful for the best American under-20s, a lot of them owning WJC gold medals.

His game wasn't sophisticated -- he didn't use his teammates as well as he might have and he didn't see the ice particularly well. Still, all the moving parts were there. I don't imagine that he'll be a playmaking center, but I can see him as a physically dominating winger (and maybe beside Huberdeau down the line).

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Russian under-20s, 2010 first-rounder (Washington Capitals)

Kuznetsov was no worse than one of the three best players at the WJC in Buffalo.

The two others who come to mind from that tournament: Canada's Brayden Schenn, Philly's pick-up in the Mike Richards trade with L.A.; and Kuznetsov's Russian teammate Vlad Tarasenko, St Louis' No. 16 overall in 2010.

It wasn't that Kuznetsov put the team on his back in the remarkable come-from-behind win against Canada in the final. He did exactly the same thing just to get Russia into the medal round.

5. Jeff Skinner, Kitchener, 2010 first-rounder (Carolina Hurricanes)

I'm still scratching my head about NHL Central Scouting projecting Skinner as a second-rounder. (For what it's worth I had him at No. 9.) Did anyone see him as NHL ROY? That would have been a stretch.

Still, I don't remember a kid breaking through the way he did for Kitchener in the spring of '10.

Skinner and linemates Jeremy Morin and Gabriel Landeskog had Windsor down three games to love in the OHL western final but couldn't finish the Spitfires off. It wouldn't be fair to call it a fold, not the way Windsor went on to dominate the Memorial Cup tournament. But, like Nugent-Hopkins's sleight-of-hand at the R & D game, what Skinner was able to do with the puck in traffic was magical.

Okay, why all the nostalgia? It's a personal proposition.

Back in the spring of 2003, I pitched ESPN The Magazine's hockey editor Mark Giles on the story of Patrick O'Sullivan, a top draft prospect who had endured and survived an abusive father who eventually was jailed for physically assaulting him.

That story started an eight-year relationship with ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com that will end with this final entry for Insider. There are a lot of bad endings in a rapidly changing business these days, but this isn't one of them.

All through the business honest writers are seeing their jobs shrink or disappear and established publications fold with alarming frequency. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to move on to a company, Rogers up in Toronto, that's a multi-platform sports outfit and I'll have a chance to work with younger writers. (Sigh, I've been the oldest writer in virtually every room I've walked into lately.) I have a lot of thank yous to roll out, so in advance I'll apologize to those whose names I have forgotten to include.

First, there's the late Mark Giles, who was everything you'd want in an editor and friend. ESPN The Magazine's hockey writer at the time, E.J. Hradek, introduced me to Mark and backed me when I was just the guy with a funny accent in the 34th Street offices in New York.

Sarah Turcotte worked with and then succeeded Mark as the hockey editor. As much as I ever tested Sarah's patience, she stayed in my corner.

I worked beside Lindsay Berra, who lapped me in the pool and would probably leave Diana Nyad in her wake. Recently I worked with Steve Wulf, Brendan O'Connor, Jenn Holmes and Sue Hovey, and I wish I had an opportunity to have written more with their direction.

Gary Belsky provided me with an education in the magazine biz.

And, at the risk of turning this into an Oscar acceptance speech, I have to mention Mike Hume and Dan Kaufman, the heart and soul of the Insider hockey blogs, along with Michael Knisley, Kevin Jackson and Jay Lovinger who were among those who backed me in feature endeavors elsewhere on the website.

Thanks all.