ETOBICOKE, Ont. -- Barely four days removed from the conclusion of the Ivan Hlinka summer tournament in Slovakia, a group of the game's most talented draft-eligible players gathered for the second NHL Research and Development camp in Etobicoke, Ont.
The R&D camp, held at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility, has become a high-profile event for draft prospects -- one that helped foster Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' rise to the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft -- partly because of the fleet of NHL GMs, coaches and talent evaluators on hand.
While the front-office folks are still forming opinions, one consensus seems to be shaping up quickly: The 2012 draft class will be stronger than 2011.
"It's not so much which players look good out there, because they all do," said one Eastern Conference exec. "What's surprising is how few of them don't look good."
"The talent level definitely seems higher than last season's camp," added an Eastern Conference coach who attended last season as well.
Though playing within the bizarre reality of a makeshift rulebook -- the league uses this camp to test out potential rule changes -- some of the top prospects were even more noticeable than the altered faceoff dots, 3-on-3 overtime format and the curved glass near the benches. Here are several players who turned heads outside Toronto.Nail Yakupov, RW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Yakupov entered the camp as the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in 2012 after a strong season in Sarnia (OHL) as an underager. With scouts already comparing his speed to Ilya Kovalchuk's, Yakupov may have further enhanced his image at the R&D camp.
While he flaunted an advanced offensive game that includes a lightning-quick release, and an ability to seemingly change direction without losing speed, Yakupov also showed off at the other end of the rink, demonstrating a commitment to the backcheck. And he wasn't too shabby on the forecheck either.
In one sequence, Yakupov stripped the puck carrier to set up a scoring chance with a behind-the-back pass, then, mere seconds after the missed shot, stripped the D-man again, earning another shot on net.
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