NHL Draft: Ranking the Top 15 Eligible Americans — Part I (1-8)

It’s that time of year when everyone puts out their rankings and we get a feel for where some of these players will land. Only this year, it’s a little different. Outside of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being the consensus number one pick, there’s uncertainty throughout the draft. The order is going to be unpredictable.

Since this blog focuses on the American side of the game, I decided to put together a quick American-only ranking.

This year isn’t thought to be as strong for Americans as year’s past. To be honest, it’s just that kind of draft. From top to bottom, there’s a lot more question marks than sure things. Scouting staffs had their work cut out for them this year, as it will be quite a challenge to make the right calls as the draft wears on.

The good news about this draft, however, is that there are a lot of kids with a ton of upside that are only beginning to realize their potential. There aren’t a lot of players that have proven to be NHL-ready, which for most teams should be just fine. After all, the NHL Draft has always been more about what’s to come a few years down the line, than the here and now, unless you own the first few picks.

So moving right along, here is Part I of my Top 15 Americans available in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

DISCLAIMER: This is not the order in which I think these players will be or even should be drafted. I can’t get in the minds of NHL GMs or make their decisions for them. It is merely my personal ranking based on what I know of the players. So relax… then go ahead and tell me why I’m wrong in the comments if you must.

1. F Rocco Grimaldi — Rossmoor, Calif. — U.S. Nat’l U18 Team

Despite his small stature, I’ve not seen a more dynamic American player in the four draft classes I’ve had a chance to watch closely. His speed and puck skills are jaw dropping. He’s tough to catch and even harder to out work. Grimaldi knows he has to do more because of his size, so he does it. Dedicated in the weight room, meticulous in his preparation and competitive to a fault.

At the end of the day, Grimaldi has excelled at whichever level he’s been at. Each of his last four seasons have ended with a championship (two national titles with Little Caesars and two gold medals at the World Under-18 Championship). He’s on just about every offensive top 10 list at the National Team Development Program. Whether it was against the tough competition of the USHL, the older opponents in NCAA Division I or his international peers, Grimaldi produced. Can he continue it at the next level? There’s no evidence to indicate he can’t.

2010-11 Stat Line: 58 GP, 39-34–73, 65 PIM, 16 PPG, 2 SHG, 6 GWG, 1.26 pts/gm

2. F Brandon Saad — Gibsonia, Pa. — Saginaw Spirit

Scouting services seem to be down on Saad because of a seemingly lackluster performance during his first OHL season with the Saginaw Spirit. Saad has been a well known prospect since he was 16 years old, playing in the North American Hockey League as an under-ager with the former Mahoning Valley Phantoms. He spent the following season at the National Team Development Program and was a force.

Unfortunately for Saad, his reputation preceded him when he went to Saginaw and everyone expected a huge statistical output from him in the O. To me, his only crime is not living up to the hype, because the kid can play and I have no doubt he’ll be a solid top-six forward in the NHL.

Saad suffered through a groin injury and may have come back a bit early from it. His biggest asset is his powerful legs. A groin injury may have nullified some of that drive that Saad gets. He skates with power and explosiveness and possesses a keen ability to finish. He’s got a terrific north and south game, and uses his legs instead of his hands to beat defenders. Having seen Saad at his very best, I believe he can make it to the NHL by 2012-13 with a healthy season under his belt in Saginaw next year.

To me, last season, while not as bad as people make it sound, was a minor speed bump on the way to a solid hockey career.

2010-11 (w/playoffs): 71 GP, 30-37–67, 47 PIM, 12 PPG, 2 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.94 pts/gm

3. D Jamie Oleksiak – Toronto, Ont. — Northeastern University

Despite his Canadian birthplace, Oleksiak is a dual citizen and likely will be skating for the U.S. in an IIHF tournament to make it official in the not so distant future.

When you look at Oleksiak, the first thing you notice is the size (6-7, 240). How could you not? However, the biggest thing I’ve seen in Oleksiak is his improvement from his last USHL season.

The big defenseman was raw, and wasn’t much more than a big defenseman with bad feet. His skating is by no means perfect, but his feet have vastly improved over a one-year period, leading me to believe he can continue to get better.

But come on… let’s get back the size right? I mean… he’s HUGE! Oleksiak is still learning how to use that big frame to his advantage, but once all the pieces are put in place, he looks like he could have substantial NHL career.

The fact that he has room to improve and an NHL-ready frame is what puts me over the top.

2010-11: 38 GP, 4-9–13, 57 PIM, 1 PPG, 0 SHG, 1 GWG, 0.34 pts/gm

4. G John Gibson — Pittsburgh, Pa. — U.S. Nat’l U18 Team

Whaaa? A goalie, you say? Remember, this isn’t where I think they’ll be drafted or even where they should be drafted… so settle down. The reason I have Gibson so high on this list is that I believe he’s the goalie prospect any team would want.

He has tremendous size, terrific positioning, great rebound control and composure that makes these guys look nervous in comparison. Combine all that with terrific strength and conditioning and he’s almost pro-ready.

In addition to his composure, I think Gibson is the type of kid who doesn’t feel the need to rush his development. He’s so laid back, that he just kind of takes everything as it comes. He’ll be headed to the University of Michigan, where he can continue to grow.

Though he lacks the hype of Jack Campbell, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gibson is in Campbell’s league. These two guys are the future of American goaltending.

2010-11: 40 GP, 24-11-3 (W-L-OTL), 2.55 GAA, .921 SV%, 1 SO

5. D Scott Mayfield — St. Louis, Mo. — Youngstown Phantoms

The reason I’ve slotted Mayfield in this position is not based on what he has done, but what I feel he can do in the future. His ceiling is supremely high and he’ll have a chance to grow as a player at the University of Denver at a very steady pace.

As the Hockey Prospectus prospect guru Corey Pronman puts it, Mayfield might be the “toolsiest player” in this draft. I tend to agree with Corey.

His size is fantastic, but it is his skating that gets me excited. A guy at 6-4 that can move his feet like Mayfield is a rare breed. Though his hockey sense is in question, it’s something that he may be able to develop some more over time.  The thing about big guys that can skate, is that they can compensate for deficiencies in hockey sense with their feet and their length.

Additionally, Mayfield is a tough customer. Unafraid of the physical game, he is often the one engaging. Sure, he’ll drop the mitts, but its the other aspects of his game that allow him to play with an edge and not get beat.

It appears Mayfield is looking more like a late-first rounder, which is good news for the teams sitting down that way.  He has the upside to be a potential home run.

2010-11: 52 GP, 7-9–16, 159 PIM, 3 PPG, 0 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.31 pts/gm

6. F J.T. Miller — East Palestine, Ohio — U.S. Nat’l U18 Team

Miller might be, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest players in this draft. People have often cited inconsistency as a weakness for Miller, however I believe it’s more of an identity issue. There are games where Miller plays like an offensive dynamo and others where he’s an unhinged grinder, hellbent on eliminating an opponent.

Miller was at his best at the 2011 World Under-18 Championship in which he led Team USA in scoring with 13 points (4-9). That was the Miller I think everyone wants to see more. He played physical, without sacrificing his offensive game. More than anything, he played smart, unselfish hockey. If a team believes they can get J.T. Miller to play that way all the time, they won’t have a problem picking him in a high position.

2010-11: 56 GP, 15-35–50, 86 PIM, 3 PPG, 2 SHG, 3 GWG, 0.89 pts/gm

7. F Tyler Biggs – Cincinnati, Ohio — U.S. Nat’l U18 Team

Physically gifted and tough as nails, Tyler Biggs plays an NHL-style game. His north-south game is not flashy. The offensive upside many of us initially believed Biggs had may not be as high, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.

Regardless, he won’t be drafted because a team thinks he can be a 20-goal scorer. Teams are going to select Tyler Biggs because they believe he’s a guy that will bring an element of toughness, dare I say truculence. However, Biggs is another guy I feel suffers from an identity crisis at times.

Biggs is at his best when he keeps things simple. He’s not going to dangle any defensemen or fire a precise pass through traffic. When he forces it, his game gets a little sloppy. However, when he’s at his top gear, he’s an imposing force. He didn’t just dominate junior players physically, he was intimidating 24-year-old college players at the NTDP. Above all, he’s the type of kid teams want because he will do the hard things and will dive headfirst into the hard areas. He’ll be a late first-rounder, but a solid bottom-six forward at the NHL level.

2010-11: 55 GP, 19-12–31, 161 PIM, 5 PPG, 0 SHG, 4 GWG, 0.56 pts/gm

8. D Connor Murphy — Dublin, Ohio — U.S. Nat’l U18 Team

Late to the evaluation party due to two seasons spent mostly on the shelf due to a back injury, Murphy has come on strong. Like Mayfield, he’s another guy that is evaluated less on what he has done and more what he can do, as his sample size is incredibly small.

He performed above expectations at the Combine and also ended his season on the highest possible note with the OT game-winner for Team USA at the World Under-18 Championship.

Murphy has great size and an insane hockey IQ. He positions himself well almost automatically, it seems. While he’s not a very physical defenseman, he uses his body well and clogs lanes. I was extra impressed by his defensive stick and his anticipation in Germany. Not only that, he didn’t even flinch playing big minutes. Additionally, Murphy has pretty decent offensive upside. He’s got an accurate shot, has great vision and always makes smart, crisp passes.

As he continues to build strength and if he can stay healthy, he’s a good long-term prospect for an NHL team. His injury kept him off the ice a lot, but he’s been given the all-clear sign and has remained pain free. Imagine what he can do with a full season on the ice? He’s going to be a good one.

2010-11: 22 GP, 6-4–10, 1 PPG, 1 SHG, 2 GWG, 0.45 pts/gm

Coming soon: Part II, in which I unveil my 9-15 rankings and a few honorable mentions. Stay tuned.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL Draft, NTDP. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to NHL Draft: Ranking the Top 15 Eligible Americans — Part I (1-8)

  1. Anonymous says:

    3 guys from Ohio in the top 8….interesting.

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