Early look at 2012 NHL draft class, trends 

June, 29, 2011

Every draft has its own particular personality and themes, and the 2012 entry draft figures to be distinctly different than the one that wrapped up in Minneapolis over the weekend.

Before offering up our preliminary list of late-1993 and 1994 birthdays, please consider this advisory: If it's not obvious to you, keep in mind that it's very early to start drawing up lists and far too early to reach any conclusions. Some teams and scouts put no emphasis on underage lists, believing that the only useful scouting that can be done comes in a prospect's draft year. This time last year Sean Couturier would have been the first player selected from the late-1992 and 1993s, and Ryan Strome and Mark Scheifele wouldn't have been in the conversation for the top 30, never mind the top 10. It's not that things can change -- they will change.

As we said, it's too early to reach definitive conclusions, but there are a couple of trends that seem to be emerging and are at least worth tracking based on our preliminary list of 2012's top 10 prospects.

1. Return of the Blueliners The Class of 2012 (the late-1993 and 1994 birthdays) is deep in talent along the blueline in contrast to this year's and last year's drafts, which featured runs on centers and wingers in their upper reaches. It's possible that half the lottery picks next June will be defensemen. In fact, a few teams took into consideration the availability of superior blueline prospects next June in their decisions to select forwards in Minneapolis.

The frontrunner among the defensemen is Jordan Schmaltz who is destined for the University of North Dakota in the fall of '12. Schmaltz is a smooth-skating defenseman, a right-handed shot back at the point -- which is useful -- and he has excellent skills in puck retrieval and making the first pass. Of the blueliners, Jacob Trouba has the heaviest shot of the bunch -- it's one of the heaviest shots that you'll ever see in an underager. Ryan Murray played as a late-birthday on Canada's under-18 teams last season.

2. Americans on the Rise Last season's U.S. National Team Development Program was regarded by NHL scouts as having three elite prospects -- Tyler Biggs, Jonathan Miller and John Gibson -- and a bunch of players who made the most of modest skills through industry. Next June there's a good shot that three USNTDP players will be among the top 15 picks: Trouba, LW Stefan Matteau (son of former NHLer Stephane Matteau) and C Henrik Samuelsson.

<p.3. Russian Re-invigoration What will be the effect of the "Russian scare?" The numbers of Russians drafted has been very low for several years now. Some have suggested that the Russian hockey establishment isn't churning out talented players like it used to, but that's not the view from here. If you saw the world U-20 final in Buffalo this January or results from other international tournaments, you'd realize that they're still producing elite talents.

No, the lack of Russian draft choices is simple: When it comes to putting your top draft pick on the line, passports matter. Signability is an issue, and the perception is (and history shows) that many Eastern Europeans are flight risks -- that is, at the first sign of adversity, going back to Russia to play in the KHL is an option. (Look at the experiences that the Columbus Blue Jackets had with Nikolay Zherdev and Nikita Filatov.) Their attitude about coming to North America is the-NHL-or-nothing.

The list above is a read on talent, not a mock draft. Scouts believe that Nail Yakupov and Alex Galechenyuk are invested in coming into the NHL -- you don't really see either having an AHL apprenticeship and they're doing their immersion courses in North American hockey culture while playing in Sarnia. The others though, well, nothing's settled just yet. They might be keen to come over, but their clubs might lock them up for a few seasons in the next few months.

You really have to do your homework and have a good sense of the prospect's mindset, although teams are a little less scared when they're working with a young Russian kid who has come over to play in major junior and is developing language skills -- Galechenyuk's English is good and Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay's first-rounder from the weekend, probably won't have an accent in a year or two. But when you have a player who won't try to pick up the language, it can make a lot of things difficult in coaching and putting a team together.

There could well be several such talented players among Russian draft eligibles. But just like we said at the start of this post, everything is likely to change come next June.