High school players were in high demand at the 2010 Entry Draft in Los Angeles, with three of the record 22 scholastic players taken in the first round.
There's no question players are beginning to mature at a faster pace than ever before, largely due to the fact coaching, training and diet have become so valued.
More and more NHL general managers are willing to take a risk on a scholastic standout and have him mature and strengthen his position at a U.S. college, in the United States Hockey League or one of Canada's junior leagues, before making the jump to the pro ranks.
Since the 2003 draft, 135 high-school players have been taken by NHL teams. In 2008, 15 were taken, and in 2009, 19 were selected. In June, Nick Bjugstad of Blaine (Minn.) High School was the first of 22 high-school standouts chosen when the Florida Panthers took him with the 19th pick. Bjugstad currently is a freshman at the University of Minnesota.
Other high-school players taken in the first round were Kevin Hayes of Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts, taken at No. 24 by the Chicago Blackhawks, and Brock Nelson of Warroad (Minn.) High, chosen by the New York Islanders at No. 30.
Now inquiring minds want to know which prospects from the scholastic ranks and Canadian provincial leagues are ready to make that jump this spring when the 2011 Entry Draft is held at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
NHL Central Scouting provided an early glimpse Tuesday with the release of their "Players to Watch" list for U.S. scholastic and Canadian provincial leagues.
The top-rated scholastic player available in June might be Philippe Hudon, 17, of Choate-Rosemary Hall in Connecticut.
Hudon, a 6-foot-1/4, 190-pound forward, is committed to Cornell University starting in the fall of 2011 -- he is accelerating his workload this season with the hope of graduating in the spring. He had 9 goals and 20 points in 21 games last season to help lead Choate to the New England Large Prep Championship. He was the only sophomore named to the All-New England Division West All-Star Team even though he missed six games playing for Team Quebec at the 2010 World Under-17 Challenge. As a freshman in 2008-09, the Hudson, Que., native had 8 goals and 20 points.
"I think prep school was challenging at first since I was the youngest freshman in the whole league, but I took it well," Hudon said. "I was someone big and I used my physique and I've matured. I'm expecting my third year to be a dominating year for me."
Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston likes what he sees in Hudon.
"He is a classic power forward who takes a straight line to the net or to the puck in the corners," Eggleston said. "He has good size and strength, hits hard, plays the body in all zones and is an aggressive forechecker. He has some grit to his game and plays with an edge. He has very good hands and possesses a hard and heavy shot with a quick release."
The top player from the Minnesota scholastic ranks at this stage appears to be Mario Lucia of Wayzata High. Lucia is being compared to Nelson.
"He has the hands, head, size (6-2, 183) and reach that coaches love," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee said. "He's unselfish and smart, has good vision and a wicked release. He's actually been on loan to the United States Under-18 national team and has done well there."
In four games with the NTDP, Lucia has 2 power-play goals.
Another top-level prospect is Delbarton (N.J.) defenseman Matt Killian, who also currently is on loan to the USNTDP Under-18 team. The 6-1, 191-pound defenseman has 1 assist and a plus-1 rating in four games.
Among the players in Canadian provincial leagues -- players outside the big three of the Ontario Hockey League, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- the name to watch is Destry Straight of the of the Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia Hockey League. The 6-1, 170-pound center leads the league's rookie scorers with 22 points in 15 games. Playing in a provincial league allows him to maintain his NCAA eligibility, if he chooses that route.