When scouts and talent evaluators look at this draft, the recurring theme is that of clusters. Scouts are generally of an opinion that there's a cluster of six elite prospects at the top of the draft, headed by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and then a drop to another tier of 6-8 solid prospects. Those appear to be the obvious difference-makers in this year's crop.
Below that grouping, at least 30 prospects -- and maybe as many 50 -- are at least in the conversation for slots in the first round.
"It might look like a team at 13 or 14 might feel cheated, but there are a couple of wild cards," one scouting director said this week.
The biggest curveball would be if a team takes a stab at one of the top three goalie prospects -- John Gibson, Christopher Gibson and Samu Perhonen -- early in the draft. As of now, that's unexpected since this is generally thought to be a weaker crop of netminders than last year, when Jack Campbell cracked the top tier (No. 11). Still, it could happen if a team feels it has a glaring weakness in the crease.
The second twist would be if a team goes way off the board. The scouting director pointed to the Los Angeles Kings' selecting Thomas Hickey No. 4 overall in 2007 as a textbook example. But with the talent at the upper reaches of this draft, that doesn't seem too likely. "It's hard to see that first group breaking up, unless a team feels strongly about a kid who's not already ranked No. 7 to 14 on most lists," the director adds. "What I can tell you is that teams from outside the top 10 are out there trying to figure out a way to trade up ... trying to turn multiple picks into one higher pick."
There's already rumor of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke trying to package his two picks in the late first round to move up. The Phoenix Coyotes may be trying to do the same. Such moves could change the shape of the first round, but for now, with one week remaining until the 2011 NHL draft, here's how it figures to shake out.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Red Deer (WHL)
The playmaking center who could service Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and the rest. Some scouts say he's not physically ready to play at the next level -- though athletic, he's truly scrawny. Then again, so was Patrick Kane. Hockey sense and anticipation will keep him out of harm's way.