ST. PAUL -- Friday night was supposed to be the most unpredictable opening round of the NHL Entry Draft in recent years.
In the end, six familiar names accounted for the top six picks at Xcel Energy Center -- the first surprise came at No. 7 when the Winnipeg Jets selected center Mark Scheifele of the Barrie Colts.
"I definitely anticipate there's going to be a lot of pressure, but I like a little pressure," said Scheifele, Central Scouting's No. 16-rated North American skater. "It makes me play a little better. I remember back in the old days if my coach would tell me there is a scout here to watch me, I'd pull off a big game."
Not surprisingly, Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was tabbed No. 1 overall by the Edmonton Oilers. There was no mistaking Oilers GM Steve Tambellini's desire to draft Nugent-Hopkins -- he stepped to the podium almost immediately after being told his organization was on the clock.
"That was a little bit surprising (how quickly Edmonton drafted)," Nugent-Hopkins told NHL.com. "I thought they'd talk a little bit more first, but I mean it still seems so surreal, but I'm loving the moment right now."
Nugent-Hopkins, the 18-year-old kid from Burnaby, B.C., with superb vision, becomes the first player from the Western Hockey League to go No. 1 since defenseman Chris Phillips of the Prince Albert Raiders went to the Ottawa Senators in 1996. He's also the first player born in British Columbia to be selected first overall at the draft.
After Nugent-Hopkins, the Colorado Avalanche announced Kitchener Rangers left wing Gabriel Landeskog with the second choice, followed by Saint John Sea Dogs center Jonathan Huberdeau to the Florida Panthers with the third pick. Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson of Skelleftea went to the New Jersey Devils with the fourth choice, Niagara IceDogs center Ryan Strome was taken by the New York Islanders at No. 5 and Djurgarden center Mika Zibanejad was drafted sixth by the Ottawa Senators.
Six Swedish-born players were picked in the first round -- Landeskog, Larsson, Zibanejad, Farjestad defensive mates Jonas Brodin (No. 10, Minnesota Wild) and Oscar Klefbom (No. 18, Chicago Blackhawks) and Plymouth Whalers right wing Rickard Rakell (No. 30, Anaheim Ducks).
The Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs, who have nine players rated among the top 124 North American skaters, had a team-high three players selected in the first round.
Huberdeau became the highest-ever draft pick in Sea Dogs history, defenseman Nathan Beaulieu went 17th to the Montreal Canadiens and forward Zack Phillips was chosen No. 28 by the hometown Minnesota Wild. The total was just one short of the league record of four first-round picks from a single team. The only previous first-round pick from the Sea Dogs was defenseman Simon Despres, who went 30th to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.
In Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers acquired a star in the making and, perhaps, the future first-line pivot for 2010 No. 1 overall choice Taylor Hall. He led Red Deer and finished tied for third in the WHL scoring race with 106 points, including 32 multi-point performances, in 69 games. His 75 assists led all WHL players. He had 4 goals and 11 points in nine playoff games.
"When I went up to Mr. Tambellini, he told me to enjoy it and welcomed me to the squad," Nugent-Hopkins said. "He told me to relax a little bit -- but that's tough right now. It's an amazing feeling."
Nugent-Hopkins totaled 57 goals, 120 assists and 177 points in 141 career games spanning two-plus seasons with the Rebels.
"He makes everyone around him better," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "He reminds me of Joe Sakic in his thinking and ability. Sakic was one of those guys where it didn't matter what type of game you were playing; you always knew you could count on Joe Sakic and you knew he'd made a play and make a difference. I feel exactly the same way about Nugent-Hopkins."
Landeskog, whose maturity and physical ability are unrivaled in this draft class, was the second European-born and -trained player to captain an OHL team; New York Islanders prospect Tomas Marcinko, a native of Slovakia, captained the Barrie Colts in 2007-08. He produced 36 goals, 30 assists, a plus-27 rating and 61 penalty minutes. In Kitchener's seven-game setback to the Plymouth Whalers in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, Landeskog had 6 goals, 10 points and a plus-1 rating.
"Landeskog 's game is developed for up and down the wing, disciplined and doing the little things right," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He'll fit in nicely because he does his job and I think that's the difference between Gabriel and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- Hopkins will be more prolific down the road while Landeskog will be more steady, tough, the grind it out type, at the next level."
Huberdeau, the prospect possessing Patrick Kane-like hands, led the Memorial Cup-winning Sea Dogs with 43 goals, 62 assists, 105 points and a plus-59 rating in 67 regular-season games. He certainly elevated his draft status with a fabulous showing in the QMJHL playoffs, leading Saint John in scoring with 16 goals, 6 power-play goals, and 30 points to garner the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP. He had 3 goals and 6 points in the Memorial Cup, becoming the first Quebec-born player in nine years to win the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP.
"I really played on a great team my two years," Huberdeau said. "This year was better because we won everything, and last year we lost. But I mean all the team, we have a couple of guys that are going to get drafted right now so it's very good to have a lot of players on the draft list."
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Larsson has drawn comparisons to a young Nicklas Lidstrom with his poise and patience along the blue line. He battled minor groin and shoulder ailments this season, but returned to the ice each time to exhibit his wide range of skills. He also represented his country at the 2010 and 2011 World Junior Championships, finishing as the team's highest scoring defender at the tournament this past season in Buffalo, N.Y., with 1 goal and 4 points.
"Adam has everything you need to be a professional in the NHL," Swedish National Team coach Roger Ronnberg said. "The smartness and skills that this kid has makes him one of the top players in the world. He plays really mature. Sometimes you feel he's 35 years old. (Tampa Bay defenseman) Victor (Hedman) is strong in his own end; Larsson is more skilled with the puck."
The right-handed Strome finished with 33 goals and a team-high 73 assists and 106 points, both third in the OHL. He also had 12 points in 14 playoff games in helping Niagara reach the OHL East Conference Finals. The Mississauga, Ont., native said Islanders center and 2009 No. 1 overall choice John Tavares called him as soon as GM Garth Snow made the selection.
"I work out with John, and now I have a guy to mentor me through the summer," Strome said. "I see him every day. I think I'm in a very good situation. My mindset for the summer is to be ready for training camp and that's the way I have to approach it. If I don't approach it like that, I'll never be successful."
Djurgarden assistant coach Tomas Monten, who finished his fourth season with the team, compared Zibanejad with another Swedish standout he helped mold a few seasons ago in the Swedish Elite League -- New Jersey Devils center Jacob Josefson.
"It's hard for me to compare since I haven't had a chance to see other players, but Jacob Josefson went to the Devils (at No. 20 in the 2009 Entry Draft), and while Jacob will be a good fit in New Jersey, I can tell you that Mika is a better player," Monten said.
Zibanejad, whose mother is Finnish and father is Iranian, actually speaks Swedish, Finnish and English.
Said Landeskog: "I wasn't really surprised Mika got picked No. 6 (by Ottawa). He really shot up the last half of the year, so I'm really happy for him."
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