NHL teams will add 210 players to their organizational depth charts during the entry draft in Los Angeles Friday and Saturday.
Some of the players selected will be major contributors far into the next decade; others are just a few years from doing all of their skating in a beer league.
Projecting how 17- and 18-year-old players will develop is, at best, imprecise. Some promising prospects plateau not long after being drafted, while others who seem to have modest potential elevate their games dramatically as they get older.
Consequently, the quality of a draft class generally cannot be assessed accurately for four or five years. Nonetheless, a lot of the people who make a living evaluating young hockey talent regard the draft class of 2010 as a reasonably solid one.
"I actually think it's a pretty strong draft," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting. "The top 40 or so names are pretty good names.
"I don't think it's unbalanced, with more forwards or defensemen or whatever. I think that one-to-forty, there are quality guys."
The undisputed headliners are forwards Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, although defensemen such as Erik Gudbranson and Cam Fowler are highly regarded by most scouts.
Precisely when those four will be selected remains uncertain; it is safe to assume, though, that all will be off the board long before the Penguins make their first-round choice, the 20th overall.
While the Penguins do not -- and should not -- expect to get anyone who could have an impact in 2010-11, E.J. McGuire, director of NHL Central Scouting, said, "I wouldn't be surprised if there are eight [2010 draftees] in NHL uniforms next year." And one or two of them could be defensemen.
Just a few years ago, that was almost unthinkable, because teenage defensemen simply were not ready, physically or mentally, to compete effectively at the NHL level.
Lately, though, defensemen such as Drew Doughty of Los Angeles and Atlanta's Zach Bogosian have stepped directly into the league and acquitted themselves well.
Scouts tend to wince when it is suggested that Doughty and Bogosian are prototypes -- "Those guys are exceptional," said Jarmo Kekalainen, director of amateur scouting for St. Louis. "Bogosian was a man already" -- but most agree that defensemen are more ready to step into the NHL sooner than they used to be.
New Jersey scouting director David Conte suggested that might be because the post-lockout NHL places more of an emphasis on speed, quickness and mobility, traits often associated with younger players. McGuire theorized that improved coaching is a key factor, while Heinbuck offered that improved conditioning and training might be making the difference.
"With the emphasis on fitness at such a young age now, some of these kids are pretty well developed at 19 years old, or 18 years old, when they go to that first [NHL] training camp," Heinbuck said.
"Zach Bogosian sticks out in my mind. He was a specimen. It's almost like, in years past, it took a guy time to be able to compete, strength-wise, with the NHL players. But some of these kids already have that at 18 or 19 years old."
Position aside, however, projecting how a prospect will develop remains a hit-or-miss proposition.
Detroit, for example, is widely praised, and rightly so, for turning up elite talents like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datysuk in the later rounds of the draft. What generally goes unmentioned is that before claiming Datsyuk with the 171st choice in 1998, the Red Wings invested picks in the long-forgotten likes of Ryan Barnes, Tomek Valtonen, Jake McCracken, Brent Hobday, Carl Steen and Adam DeLeeuw.
"You do your homework, you get the information, you make as informed a decision as you can and you hope you're right," Conte said. "To survive in this business, you'd better shear the rear-view mirrors off the car and go forward with the next pick.
"We're all good about saying who won last year's Kentucky Derby. We're not good about saying who's going to win the next one."
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org .