2006 Draft Preview: Centers of Attention
If the rumor mill is to be believed, defenseman Erik Johnson will be the first player selected when the St. Louis Blues take the stage a week from Saturday at the 2006 Entry Draft in Vancouver, BC. The 6-4, 222 pound American blueliner is the top-ranked prospect by virtually every scouting service, including the NHL's Central Scouting.
Assuming things play out the way they should, Johnson obviously won't be around when Dale Tallon and the Blackhawks make their selection at #3. But don't expect the Hawks general manager to be too disappointed. The good news for Tallon is that he is determined to boost his club's depth at the center position in a draft front-loaded with center talent.
"We want to have depth and balance at every position," Tallon told chicagoblackhawks.com. "We feel good about our future in goal and defense, and also at wing with the recent signings of prospects like Mike Blunden, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, and [2005 1st round pick] Jack Skille coming.
"The goal now is to add skill and speed and improve our depth at center."
Tallon will have plenty of talent to choose from. After Johnson, the next nine players on Central Scouting's North American skaters list are forwards. Eight of those nine are centers, and that's not counting Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom, Central Scouting's top-ranked European skater.
The general consensus is that centers Phil Kessel (Minnesota, WCHA), Jordan Staal (Peterborough, OHL) and Jonathan Toews (North Dakota, WCHA) will round out the top four on almost every club's draft list. But in what order? According to Blackhawks amateur scout Ron Anderson, it's too close to call.
"It is a bit odd to have this many centers ranked so high," Anderson said. "But at most levels, if you're one of the best players on your team, you're usually a center.
"We've got to share some more information [internally] and meet with the players again. And I'm not so sure that some of the other guys are out of the picture too. [Derick] Brassard is a heck of a player; Backstrom is a heck of a player. A team could certainly upset the apple cart a little bit and take one of those guys in the top four.
"If Johnson does go first, regardless of what happens at #2, we're going to get a heck of a player."
As the 2006 Draft approaches, chicagoblackhawks.com will profile 'the big three' (in alphabetical order) -- Kessel, Staal and Toews. But now let's take a look at the best candidates to 'upset the apple cart' ...
Nicklas Backstrom, Brynas (Sweden)
Backstrom led Brynas of the Swedish Elite league in points and ranked second on the team in goals and assists. He tied for third in the league in shorthanded tallies with three and tallied game-winning goals on three occasions. He also won 53 percent of his faceoffs this past season.
"He's a tremendous skater with tremendous skill," says Ron Anderson. "There's a little bit of a trade-off in his defensive accountability, but that's not to say that he ignores defensive play. He's still pretty good in that end of the rink as well."
Derick Brassard, Drummondville (QMJHL)
Brassard was a member of Team QMJHL in the 2005 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge and turned heads with an impressive, gritty performance in the showcase tournament. The challenge was otherwise uneventful as the Russian club did not bring a competitive team because the games came in the middle of club season. But Brassard may have given the event its lone bright spot. He played with a soft cast on a damaged wrist/forearm against Russia and turned the heads of several scouts in attendance.
That effort may have single-handedly earned him an invite to Canada's World Juniors camp. While he was not selected for Canada's final roster, Brassard was named QMJHL Offensive Player of the Week three times after the Canada/Russia Challenge and was a recipient of the Michael Bossy Trophy, which is given to the player deemed the best professional prospect in the league. He was a first-team selection on the all-QMJHL team, scoring 40 more points than he produced in 2004-05 despite playing in 11 fewer contests. He added nine points (5-4) in seven playoff games for Drummondville.
Peter Mueller, Everett (WHL)
Mueller was a teammate of Blackhawk prospect Karel Hromas this season with the Everett Silvertips. The Bloomington, Minnesota native will become the first-ever NHL draft pick to come out of the Silvertips organization after originally being slated to skate at the University of Minnesota. When he had a change of heart, he opted to join the Silvertips, who drafted him in the third round of the 2003 WHL Bantam Draft. Mueller cited the 72-game, pro-style schedule and the opportunity to play for coach Kevin Constantine as two crucial factors in opting to play in the major junior ranks. Mueller is described by many scouts as having the total package: size, physicality, strong skating and great puck skills, along with a finesse on the ice. His big frame and the fact that he is a natural goal-scorer have many scouts pegging him as perhaps a top five selection.
After his stint as a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program and a gold medal victory with Team USA at the 2005 U-18 World Junior Championship, he debuted this season with Everett and was named Silvertips Rookie Of The Year.. He notched four assists in a game against Tri-City and recorded his first career hat trick in the WHL and also added an assist on November 22, 2005 against Regina en route to being named first star of the game. He tallied an assist to go along with his second hat trick of the season on January 13 against Portland and recorded four points (three goals and an assist) against Spokane on February 17.
Mueller was voted as the rookie of the year in a WHL poll this past February and was also tabbed as the best pro prospect not-yet-drafted. In addition, he received votes for top faceoff man. He was the captain of Team Cherry in the 2006 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and was a member of Team USA for the 2006 World Junior Championship.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.
Email Blackhawks web producer Adam Kempenaar at firstname.lastname@example.org