Botta's NHL Notebook: 3 Jewels for the 2011 Draft, the League's Best D
There are some NHL seasons when it has been wise to be the very worst of the worst teams. There are others, like last season, when -- lottery be damned -- finishing 29th or 30th in the league had its benefits (Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin). In advance of the 2011 NHL Draft, it appears that if a struggling franchise wants to do itself and its fanbase a favor, ending up in the bottom three of the league standings is the way to go.
Ask almost any scout on makeshift press rows in European rinks and junior hockey barns across Canada, and there is a clear consensus. Teams in search of a top-shelf teenager to immediately improve their lineups will want to end up with one of the top three selections in the 2011 draft.
"I know it's early," a chief scout for a Western Conference team told NHL FanHouse. "But I really don't see the group changing. The top three now -- barring catastrophic injury -- will probably be the top three next June.
"It's been a while since we have a grouping like this. Even in the year with (John) Tavares and (Victor) Hedman, Matt Duchene didn't join the party until the final third of the season. I guess most scouts had Drew Doughty after (Steven) Stamkos in '08, but there was a pack of defensemen there. The three kids this year, it's a great group and right now I don't see anyone falling out or falling in."
In alphabetical order, because most bird-dogs agree they could go in any order, the projected top three in the 2011 draft are:
Sean Couturier, QMJHL: A 6-foot-4, 180-pound left wing, Couturier is 9-11-15 in 20 games this season with Drummondville of the Quebec League. He has the speed to be a force within two years of his first game in the NHL.
Adam Larsson, Sweden: Almost universally projected as a franchise defenseman, Larsson may grow tired of the Nicklas Lidstrom comparisons, but is mature enough to step directly into the NHL. He's 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and still growing, and has two assists in eleven games playing against men this season with Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, WHL: Small (6-foot, 165 pounds), but an exceptional playmaker with a deft touch and off-the-charts hockey sense. In eleven games this season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, Nugent-Hopkins has three goals and 14 assists.
Of the three, Larsson is the one youngster scouts are not hesitant to hang the "franchise player" tag on. "It's not hard to look at Larsson and envision him having a Lidstrom-like career," said the chief scout, knowing the praise could be considered sacrilege in Detroit. "But he is special. If a team feels it needs a cornerstone forward, I still could see Couturier or Nugent-Hopkins going No. 1. What I don't see happening is anyone other than these three kids going first overall."
Magnificent Seven: Defensemen
One man's view of the best defensemen in the NHL. The criteria: for 82 games, plus potentially four rounds of playoffs, who would you want on your team for the 2010-11 season? Not a corps of seven, but the best seven.
1. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: I remember one of Chara's former agents telling me ten years ago that the big man would be a game-changing defenseman, "like Chris Pronger and Scott Stevens." Plenty of hockey people laughed at that one.
2. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: A lesson in development and patience, Keith played two full seasons in the American Hockey League, followed by a pair of unspectacular years in the NHL. Last season he won the Norris Trophy and led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup before celebrating his 27th birthday.
3. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: Drafted 49th overall in the 2003 draft, the self-made, 6-foot-4, 235-pound Weber has transformed from very good to a defenseman every coach would kill to play 30 minutes a night.
4. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings: He doesn't turn 21 until December. Incredible talent, big heart. Doughty suffered an upper-body injury in a collision with Carolina's Erik Cole on Wednesday and did not return. Could be a big loss for the Kings.
5. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings: Turned 40 in April. An NHL icon who remains as valuable to the Red Wings as he was 15 years ago.
6. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers: Some people love him, a lot hate him. There's a reason.
7. Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres: Just 20 years old and coming off a brilliant rookie season, the 6-foot-8 Myers is only going to get better.
Hero of the Week
With "White's Heroes," Calgary defenseman Ian White is hosting guests from the Canadian Forces at all of Calgary's home games this season. White will meet his guests after each game. "This is something I feel strongly about supporting," said White. "I'm so appreciative of all that the Canadian Forces personnel sacrifice."
-- No matter what Gary Bettman and Colin Campbell decide in the Rick Rypien case, it will be tough to criticize. Among the NHL media, there has been a wide disparity of views. I still stand by my judgment that the Canucks forward deserves a 20-game suspension. Many long-time league observers believe the punishment will fall between 6-12 games.
-- Lou Lamoriello on Broadway? The Devils general manager will be the guest during a "talk-back" segment after the December 14 performance of the Broadway play "Lombardi." NHL and NFL fans won't be disappointed by the night out. Lamoriello is an insightful speaker, making a rare public appearance (on stage!) at the Circle in the Square Theatre in midtown Manhattan. The play is a rare Broadway drama that's also a crowd-pleaser, and Dan Lauria -- who played the father in the TV show "The Wonder Years" -- is giving a legendary performance as Vince Lombardi. No doubt, Lamoriello's ethics were inspired by the Packers head coach.
-- Condolences go out to Octagon Hockey agent Allan Walsh, whose dad Irving passed away last week. Walsh is a classy gentleman, smart agent and entertaining and informative presence on Twitter, so obviously Mr. Walsh did a fine job.
-- Game(s) of the Weekend: Is this the season the talented young Blues turn the corner? Sure, it's early, but David Backes and the boys will have a challenging test at home on Saturday when they get a rare visit from from the Penguins. The night before, the Blues only host the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
-- The Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders -- those gritty-gutties of the East -- should be applauded for their stirring starts to the season. These early season point-munching wins and overtime losses have plenty of value. However, it might be beneficial to wait until we get a 25-game sample before declaring them playoff teams. A year ago, the New York Rangers started 7-1 and missed the playoffs on the final day of the season.
-- Oh, look: there's another kinda-blindside hit to somewhere near the head no one will agree on the legality of. Seems we get at least one of those almost every night. Fun.
-- The revival of Tim Thomas so far this season (a .980 save percentage) is almost as remarkable as the Bruins goalie's late-career rise to the NHL after years in Europe.
-- Looks like we're going to be spending another season wondering whether Joe Sacco's young Colorado Avalanche are really this good.
-- Once again proving that no NHL franchise does more with the least, and quietly, the Nashville Predators (3-0-2) join the Maple Leafs as the only teams in the league without a loss in regulation.
-- NHL Elite Four -- 1. Chicago 2. Boston 3. Nashville 4. Washington
-- NHL Bottom Four -- 27. Rangers 28. Edmonton 29. Anaheim 30. Ottawa.
-- Today's Three Stars -- 1. Craig Hartsburg (get well, Coach) 2. Carol Vadnais 3. Paul McDermid.