2006 was the last time that the first player selected in the NHL Entry Draft did not step into the NHL 3 months later. Erik Johnson played a single season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers before moving up to St. Louis in the Fall of 2007. Might 2011 see a repeat of that story? I think that there's a pretty good chance of that happening and it isn't even dependent on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins going 1st overall.
2006 was interesting because not only did Erik Johnson not debut in the NHL right away, neither did Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Kyle Okposo, Derick Brassard, Peter Mueller, James Sheppard or Michal Frolik. Only two of the top 10 picks did - Jordan Staal who went second and fifth overall Phil Kessel. In fact, they were the only two players in the entire first round.
I'm not going to make a case for a repeat of that but the way the top end of 2011 is shaping up, there could be some similarities.
The case for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to return to Red Deer next season has been made by many people in various media outlets. It's one that I certainly subscribe to with the one caveat being that should he blow the doors off at training camp proving his readiness.
If Edmonton selects Nugent-Hopkins, as most expect they'll do, then I would send him back to Red Deer next September unless at training camp he is at least the second best center on the team. If not, then there is plenty of upside to returning him to the WHL for another year of development. Not the least of which is that it would help the Oilers space out the entry level contracts of their building block players a bit.
That said, Adam Larsson is now on record suggesting that he may not play in North America next season. Few doubt that the big blueliner could step right in and play but as he told NHL.com in that story, many Swedes feel like another season back home is better than immediately jumping into the top league in the world.
Memorial Cup MVP Jonathan Huberdeau, at 6'1 and 170 lbs, is basically the same size as Nugent-Hopkins and should therefore be cast in the same light - that he may be too immature physically right now for the NHL. How could anyone consider another go around with Saint John, already a 2012 Memorial Cup favorite like Windsor was in 2010, to be anything but beneficial? Can anyone truly try and make the case that Huberdeau has nothing left to learn at the CHL level? While he was an excellent player this past season, was he so dominant that he'd be unchallenged by the Q in 2011-12? I would suggest that would not be the case.
The two players from the Class of 2011's top end that I would suggest are most ready to advance to the NHL next season wold be Gabriel Landeskog and Sean Couturier. Physically, they've matured enough to be able to withstand punishment (or dish it out).
A number of blueliners have successfully pulled off the trick recently including Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Zach Bogosian, Dmitri Kulikov and Victor Hedman. Niagara's Dougie Hamilton is certainly big enough and might also be able to make the jump much like Tyler Myers did in 2008.
Can Nathan Beaulieu? Cam Fowler did it last year but Brandon Gormley didn't... perhaps it might depend on which organization selects him and how much opportunity might be there in the fall.
It's likely realistic to think expect that Ryan Murphy will follow a similar development pace as Ryan Ellis.
Ryan Strome? Doubtful.
And now we're no longer talking about sure-fire top-10 guys.
Fans have probably grown accustomed to 1st rounders making the immediate leap to the NHL after the draft but perhaps that should not be the expectation this year. With only a small number of the high-rated players physically ready or definitely set to even play in North America, fans should perhaps expect most of the key 2011 picks to be outside of the NHL again in 2011-12.
By the way, prior to 2006, the last year the 1st overall pick didn't step right into the NHL? 1996, Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators.