Nail Yakupov of the OHL\'s Sarnia Sting was a big player for Russia at the under-18s. (OHL Images)
With the World Under-18 Championship wrapped up, the long waiting game begins for the NHL draft. Over the next two months, there will be countless debates within scouting staffs, between fans and through the media, all focused on who the best prospects will be for each team.
The under-18s is always a big tournament for these prospects and some players have really grabbed the spotlight and run with it over the years. This time, however, the limelight was hogged by a small group of players who just don't seem to want to wait their turn. I’m talking about the 2012 draft class. While most teams are too busy keeping an eye on this year's draft crop and making sure they are prepared for June's draft, the underage players performing at this tournament made that very difficult.
Scouts going to see Connor Murphy and Robbie Russo with the U.S. team got heavy doses of Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones (the latter not eligible until 2013)…and loved it. Nikita Kucherov lit up opposition goalies, but his two linemates, Mikhail Grigorenko and Nail Yakupov, stole the show. Sweden's Mika Zibanejad and Victor Rask had to share a bit of their spotlight with Filip Forsberg. Underagers Olli Maatta and Ville Pokka logged most of the power play minutes for Finland and the Czech Republic's Martin Frk made scouts downright giddy.
The way these players performed and showcased their skills has a lot of people thinking the 2012 draft is quickly shaping up to be one for the ages.
At this point, Grigorenko has to be the odds-on favorite to be the top dog, posting 18 points in seven games at the under-18s. Along with his linemate Yakupov, they completely transformed a Russian squad that in February looked like it might have to fight relegation at this event. In the end, they swiped bronze away from the Canadians.
Add to the mix a strong crop of Western Canadian defensemen (such as Morgan Rielly) and it almost makes you want to fast-forward right to June 2012. But we aren't there yet and as exciting as these players have been, there are still some strong reasons to stay focused on the 2011 crop - like finding a player to complement next year's pick.
Ross MacLean is the head scout for International Scouting Services and is considered one of the rising stars of the business. A young, diverse and versatile hockey mind, MacLean leads ISS' network of scouts and puts his domestic and international hockey experience and knowledge towards ranking and providing industry-leading profiles and information on draft eligible players around the world.