Each year the draft has tiers or cutoffs in terms of the talent level of players. This year those defining levels are more difficult to figure out than usual.
The 2012 NHL entry draft is a three-man race and many are suggesting Russian winger Nail Yakupov is running away with it. Fellow Russian center Mikhail Grigorenko could easily give Mother Russia its first 1-2 start to the draft since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in 2004, though Swedish center Filip Forsberg should garner serious consideration at No. 2.
After the third pick we'll see the first drop-off. If you recall our Top 50 prospects list, our Top 3 (Yakupov, Grigorenko and Forsberg) are the only prospects I graded in the "A" range. That's the cutoff for what I consider the elite prospects this season. We see the next drop at the No. 10 pick, and that drop appears to be a significant one, but that does not mean teams picking later in the draft will not get a quality prospect.
Take the 2004 draft I mentioned before. At the time, many considered it to be weak in quality, and yet you will find some excellent picks well outside the top 10 selections. Goaltender Cory Schneider was selected 26th overall by Vancouver and is considered the best backup in the league. Travis Zajac was not selected until No. 20 overall by New Jersey. All-Star Mike Green went 29th to Washington and David Booth was not selected until the 53rd pick by Florida.
There is always hope for nailing down a top prospect later in the draft, even more so in a year when the general consensus is the overall quality is down from other years. Another positive about this draft is there appears to be a clog of defensemen and centers, excellent building blocks for teams that may be facing long-term development and rebuilding plans.
While this draft may lack the superstar power that we should see in 2013, I believe it will ultimately be an important one in terms of teams finding important parts to future rosters.
Based on the standings from Monday, Feb. 13, here is a look at our first mock draft for 2012:
Nail Yakupov, RW, Sarnia (OHL)
Yakupov is the cream of the crop when it comes to talent and has the numbers to back it up both as an underage player last year and again this year in Sarnia. Should the Blue Jackets move Rick Nash and Jeff Carter, as the rumor mill has it, they would make room for him to play next year. He is an excellent playmaker who would be too good to go back to junior and could slide back to Russia if not on an NHL roster.