The most coveted player in the 2011 NHL draft, which gets under way Friday in St. Paul, Minn., is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, an 18-year-old center from Burnaby, B.C., who last season scored 31 goals and had 75 assists for the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League. A gifted passer with exceptional vision on the ice, Nugent-Hopkins is also a willing forechecker and defender. It's widely assumed that the Oilers, who desperately need a playmaker alongside precocious winger Taylor Hall—last year's first overall pick led the club with 22 goals as a rookie—will take him No. 1.
But earlier this month at a meeting of NHL general managers, Oilers G.M. Steve Tambellini, who also owns the 19th pick, said he was taking calls from clubs looking to deal for the top spot. The reason he's willing to listen: his belief that as many as five players are worthy of going first. "[Nugent-Hopkins] is obviously a very gifted player," says Tambellini, "not unlike Justin Huberdeau, Sean Couturier, Adam Larsson."
That a club which averaged just 2.33 goals per game could consider passing on such an offensive talent as Nugent-Hopkins—either by trading down or taking another player—is a sign that the 2011 draft is shaping up to be unlike almost any other. This year's class has the potential to be one of the deepest in years, possibly since '03, when the first round produced a raft of NHL stars, including reigning scoring champ Corey Perry, of the Ducks, and Canucks center Ryan Kesler, the likely winner of the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward. "[This draft] lacks a Crosby or Ovechkin," says Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke, "but we feel, with the 25th pick, we might get the same player [at 15 as] we're going to get at 25 or 40."
For evidence, look no further than 18-year-old Boone Jenner, a 6'3", 197-pound two-way center for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. He's a top 20 pick according to many scouts, but his average skating turns off others, and he doesn't even crack the top 30 in some mock drafts. The Blackhawks, holding the 18th pick and lacking depth up the middle, will probably be thrilled if he falls to them. "When you have an 18-year-old draft [pick], a lot of those kids might not become good players until they're 22 or 23," Florida G.M. Dale Tallon says.
All the depth means the Oilers likely aren't the only club open to a deal—the Avalanche, Maple Leafs and Senators all have multiple first-round picks. Phones on the draft floor should be ringing off the hook with teams looking to move up or down. "I'm looking forward to those conversations when I get to the draft," says Tambellini.
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LEON T. SWITZER/ICON SMI
MOST WANTED The versatile Nugent-Hopkins, a gifted passer, could help the punchless Oilers right away.