NHL Draft: The Players I’ll be Watching Closely in St. Paul

The National Hockey League Entry Draft has gotten bigger every year in its coverage and fan interest. Nowadays, it seems like everyone wants to know everything about prospects. Which is great. It’s showing that hockey fans don’t just want to know about the NHL, they want to look beyond. They want to know more about the game’s development systems and Junior leagues. Mostly, they still just want to know which kid their NHL team should pick, but the draft at least expands a hockey fan’s horizons a bit.

Needless to say, it’s a great development in the evolution of hockey fans in the United States. Why do you think there are now approximately 10,051 a bunch of Draft guides on the market right now? It’s hot info.

If you’ve followed this blog for any extended period of time, you know I’ve tried to bring as much news about American prospects as possible to the forefront. As I will be attending the Draft in St. Paul Friday and Saturday, this entire week will be dedicated to Draft coverage.

To kick off this week’s Draft-centered content, I take a look at the players that I will be watching with the greatest interest this weekend. Check it out, after the jump.

The following are  players I’ll be keeping a close eye on come Friday and Saturday. It’s not because of the way that they play, but the circumstances that surround their draft status. Many of these players have been debated on blogs and message boards all season long. Some haven’t been talked about at all. So without further a do, here are the most intriguing prospects I’ll be keeping a close eye on this weekend:

Rocco Grimaldi

Discussed and debated to no end. The 5-foot-6 center out of the National Team Development Program could go as early as the Top 10, but some draft experts don’t even view him as a first-round pick. That’s where the intrigue begins.

Does size matter? In this case, should it? Grimaldi is undoubtedly a special player, but he’s still 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds. Despite impressing at the combine, in both the interview and physical portions, is there a team “brave” enough to take a chance?

Having been around Grimaldi at different periods of time and interviewing him a bunch over the past two years, the kid has that “it factor.” Undaunted by his height, or lack thereof, and unflinching in his belief that he will make it to the NHL one day gives me enough confidence to say he should be an early-to-mid first-rounder. Are there any NHL teams that see it that way? That’s what interests me most on Day 1.

Second Chance Draft-Eligibles

T.J. Tynan and Chase Balisy did not hear their names called in Los Angeles at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Seven rounds went by and no one took a flyer on either.

Fast forward to 2010-11 and the pair of college freshmen each made big statements over the course of the season.

Notre Dame’s Tynan led the nation’s first-year players with 54 points, while Balisy finished second on Western Michigan’s surprise team with 30 points. Both were integral parts of NCAA tournament squads.

Tynan will undoubtedly be selected, possibly as early as the late second round, but most likely in the early-to-mid third. Balisy also looks well positioned for a later round selection.

What makes these two intriguing is that they went completely unnoticed last season. Tynan had a standout year in the USHL with the Des Moines Buccaneers, while Balisy was a part of the U.S. Under-18 Team that won gold in Belarus at the World Under-18 Championships. So what do they do the next year? Outplay the vast majority of drafted college freshmen in the country. Not a bad way to answer. I’ll be incredibly interested in where each of these two previously discarded prospects land.

Kyle Rau

Rau’s draft standing has been about as conflicted as the Minnesota high school forward was himself at the beginning of the season about where he would play.

After a last-second determination that he would return to Eden Prairie for his senior year, Rau went on to a dream season. Scored the State Championship-winning goal. Put up a zillion points and was named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey.

Rau did close out his season with the Sioux Falls Stampede and led the USHL playoffs with 12 points. Still, he doesn’t have great size and is not what anyone would call a great skater. He can play though, and he plays hard. His game-winner at the X was indicative of his hustle and heart.

There are going to be teams that would have preferred to see him with a full USHL season under his belt to get a better idea of what he can do against tougher competition. Those teams will likely pass on him. However, Rau did enough to earn a selection, though it might not be as early as some of us initially thought. His draft position could be a real story in the prospect world.

Mario Lucia

At the mid-term, Mario Lucia was ranked by Central Scouting as a potential first-round pick. He’s got great size, pretty decent skill and a fair amount of upside. However, his stock has fallen a bit and he’s looking more an more like a second rounder, which at the end of the day isn’t a bad thing at all (How easy it is for us to forget that it’s not always about where you get drafted, but what you do afterwards that matters most).

As friend of the blog and all-around good chap, Chris Dilks mentioned on Western College Hockey Blog:

Many people listed Lucia as a first round draft pick, if only because it has become an assumption that the top high school player in Minnesota is a first round draft pick. That may not necessarily be the case this year though.

I think Chris kind of hit this one on the head. It’s always assumed that the best Minnesota high schooler is a first rounder, as if its automatic. However, in such a wacky draft year, it appears that won’t prove true.

The reason I’m most intrigued by that fact is that this draft, of all years, is IN MINNESOTA. It will be unfortunate for interesting story lines if the state’s top high school player can’t make the cut in the first round, but Drafts aren’t about the good stories for the teams making the picks.

Still, it is doubtful Lucia drops any further than the early second round, which is still a pretty good spot for a player of his stature. Unfortunately for Minnesota papers and local TV, this wasn’t a rich year for Minnesota high school players. I’ll still be keeping a close eye on Lucia, if only to see if perhaps he finds a way to sneak into the first round. It would make for interesting theater at least…

John Gaudreau

The diminutive goal scorer from the Clark Cup champion Dubuque Fighting Saints is dogged by his small stature. Unlike Grimaldi, he doesn’t have the strength or speed that will allow scouts to overlook the size.

That said, Gaudreau’s offensive tools are near elite. His puck skills are impeccable and his nose for the net is obvious. He brings so much to the table, despite the size.

There is still some doubt that Gaudreau’s name will be called on Saturday. However, there’s also the possibility a team sees something in him, like I do, and take a chance in the late rounds. What would intrigue me most is if a team reaches for Gaudreau.

The NHL isn’t all about size anymore, which benefits players like Gaudreau. Will someone see the skill and not the size? We’ll know for sure on Day 2 in St. Paul.

John Gibson

Goaltending prospects are always tough to figure out. Where will they go? Better yet, where should they go? They almost always take longer to get to the NHL and it almost seems like drafting goaltenders is simply an inexact science.

That said, like Jack Campbell before him, John Gibson appears to be a special goaltender. The only thing against Gibson being a first rounder is the position he plays. However, I feel he is one of the safest goaltending prospects you’ll get.

His size, athleticism and composure make him a cut above many previous goaltending prospects. I feel it would be a mistake to let him slip out of the first round. It wouldn’t even have to be a team that has a positional need. He’s that kind of prospect in my mind.

Lastly, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the U.S. numbers for this draft. How many Americans will go in the first round? How many will be taken overall? It seems like each year, there’s more and more Americans earning selections in the NHL Draft. Will the trend continue this year?

Those are going to be just a few of the things on my mind in St. Paul. What about you? Do you have a player you’ll be watching closely? Maybe there’s a kid you’re particularly rooting for to earn a high selection. Let me hear about it in the comments, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Don’t forget to stick to United States of Hockey all week long, as we’ll have new NHL Draft content daily.

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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.
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