NEW YORK -- This is one of those years in the National Hockey League where the amateur draft is truly top-loaded at one position.
And it ain’t forwards. It’s defense.
Sunday’s draft at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. could see as many as 10 defensemen taken in the first round and a fair number in the second round, as well.
“Looking at all the mock drafts, there are a lot of defensemen around,” said Chris Pryor, the Flyers’ director of hockey operations. “It’s a pretty good year for defense.
“Whether you look early or you look late, there are a lot of defensemen. It’s a pretty good year from a defenseman’s standpoint.”
NHL Central Scouting ranked Portland defenseman Seth Jones as the top North American prospect, even though he may not be the No. 1 overall pick by the Colorado Avalanche.
The guy pushing him for that honor is Halifax center Nathan Mackinnon. Jones could easily end up as the No. 2 pick by Florida.
The Calgary Flames (No. 6) are so hot to get the No. 1 overall pick. They’ve offered all three of their first-round selections to the Avs so they can pluck Jones. They have also tried to work a deal with the Flyers but it hasn’t succeeded (see story).
Five of Central Scouting’s top-12 ranked players are defensemen.
“People like to throw out 2003 draft, and since I’ve been scouting, that is really the only one I have to compare it to,” Pryor said. “That was so good because of the depth. It’s probably not fair to compare them, but it is a deep draft. It will be fun to look at this draft five years from now.”
That 2003 draft produced Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Marc Stuart on defense.
The forwards? Eric Staal, Thomas Vanek, Nathan Horton, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, and of course, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The Flyers would love to get into the top five but they’re picking at No. 11, which is a bit far down, and they don’t have a lot of assets or even picks to work with. Overall, they have six picks through seven rounds.
There is talk the Flyers could also trade their pick, although a number of scouts in the organization believe this is one year when the Flyers need to utilize their top pick and select a defenseman, given how thin they are at that position.
“I think we will get a good player with the first pick,” general manager Paul Holmgren said. “Whether he can make an impact right away, I don’t know.”
The Flyers are always good for a surprise at the draft. Here’s one out-of-left-field option that sources say the Flyers are considering: goalie Zach Fucale, a guy the Devils are seriously considering with their No. 9 pick.
Doesn’t matter that the last goalie drafted by the Flyers who played any minutes was Roman Cechmanek. Or that Anthony Stolarz, last summer’s excellent pick, is slated to be their guy of the future.
“You have a lot of scenarios that you run through in mock drafts, so you generally have a pretty good idea,” Holmgren said.
“But I guarantee you there will be at least one player that's taken before we pick that we didn't think would go there and that all of a sudden throws things into a little bit of a change of dynamic.”
Holmgren said earlier in the week that the team would be stockpiling some goalies, so don’t be blindsided if the Flyers ignore a logical at defense and take a goalie with their highest pick.
How many impact players does Holmgren see in that first round?
“I don’t know what number would be a crop, but I would say there are at least a half dozen or more,” Holmgren said.
Given how far down the Flyers are, it’s tough to say who might be on the board. One defenseman, Brandon’s Ryan Pulock, is a guy the Flyers projected to still be around when they choose, and they have great interest in him. His stock, however, has been rising, and he has a cannon of a shot -- easily the best of any defenseman in the draft -- which means he could be gone. Some tab him as the best overall defenseman behind Jones.
Jones, incidentally, is simply amazing to watch. To see how he controls the game, how he skates, how he is all over the ice, is almost like watching clips of a young Bobby Orr with the Oshawa Generals.
The Flyers also like Sault Ste. Marie’s Darnell Nurse, whose uncle is Donovan McNabb.
Rasmus Ristolainen, who plays for TPS in Finland, is considered the top European defenseman, and another player the Flyers have interest in.
One player to keep an eye on is London, Ont., defenseman Nikita Zadorov. He’s a little rough around the edges, but the Flyers genuinely lilke him.
The top forward who has caught the Flyers' attention is Russian right wing Valeri Nichushkin who plays for Chelyabinsk.
“There’s a lot of good players out there,” Pryor said. “Early in the first round, a lot of good players and many of them all over that first round.
“It’s a different thing than it once was about guys coming in to play right away. Different circumstances now. Young guys are coming in right now and playing. I think there are a few guys in that first round who teams are going to give an opportunity to play right away.”
The Flyers always seem to make noise at the draft with a trade. Holmgren predicted “a lot of crazy things” might go down because of the impact coming with players bought out.
People expect the Flyers will do something. They almost always do.
“Ah ... pressure! There's potential for lots of things to happen because of the potential buyouts, which might be coming down the pike,” Holmgren said. “It's a very competitive league and we're all trying to do what the Blackhawks just did.”