In NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters, Windsor Spitfires forward Taylor Hall currently leads the Plymouth Whalers' Tyler Seguin and Windsor defenseman Cam Fowler by a nose. And there's a lot more time before the stretch run, meaning a lot can change between now and April, when the final rankings are released, and it could last all the way to the draft in Los Angeles, to be held June 25-26 at Staples Center.
"We're splitting hairs," Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire told NHL.com. "What does a team need? That's how close it is. Does a team need a right-shot center (Seguin)? There's your answer. Does a team need a speedy left wing (Hall)? There's your answer. Does your team need a defenseman (Fowler)? There's your answer."
McGuire said it's the closest he's seen the race for the top spot be since 2006, when Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel competed for the top spot.
Hall, who was second to Seguin among Ontario Hockey League skaters in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings in November, took the top spot based in part on his sensational turn for Canada at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He was second on the team with 6 goals and 12 points, and the coaches voted him one of the team's best three players for the tournament.
The 6-foot, 186-pound forward has led the OHL in scoring for most of the season, but slipped to second while he was away for the WJC. He has 62 points in 38 games, and his 28 goals are tied for third in league.
Seguin, a 6-foot, 180-pound center -- who was a final cut from Canada's WJC team -- leads the OHL with 64 points, and also has 28 goals.
Fowler, a 6-2, 195-pound defenseman, had a strong turn for the gold medal-winning American squad with 2 assists and a plus-8 rating that was tied for second among U.S. defensemen.
While he wasn't a big scorer at the WJC, he's second in the OHL with 37 assists and tied for third among all defensemen with 40 points. He had led all OHL blueliners in scoring this season prior to leaving for the WJC.
Fowler was third in the OHL in the preliminary rankings.
"The bottom line is all three of them are outstanding hockey players," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards, who covers the OHL, told NHL.com. "It's just the way it works out. You get a gut feeling on guys. If I was picking that's the way I would pick them."
Rounding out the top five are Prince George Cougars left wing Brett Connolly and University of Notre Dame forward Riley Sheahan.
Connolly, who was the top-ranked WHL skater in the preliminary rankings, earned his high placing despite a hip injury that's limited him to just 12 games. He has 7 goals and 13 points in that time. Last season he was CHL Rookie of the Year after scoring 30 goals in 65 games.
"When he's playing healthy he's definitely a dominant player," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald, who covers the WHL, told NHL.com.
Sheahan, a 6-1 1/2, 202-pound center has 13 points in 21 games.
"Pretty exciting player because for his age he's equally as smart in all three zones," said Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who covers U.S.-based prospects. "He's an asset offensively, he's an asset defensively and in the neutral zone he's clever. Good positionally, understands the game. Big guy, uses his size well, poised, good hands. If he's guilty of anything he doesn't shoot the puck enough, but that's because he's a centerman."
The second half of the top 10 features Kingston Frontenacs defenseman Erik Gudbranson, Barrie Colts center Alexander Burmistrov, Moncton Wildcats defenseman Brandon Gormley, Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Mark Pysyk and Sudbury Wolves center John McFarland.
McGuire was particularly impressed by Burmistrov. A 5-11 1/2, 162-pound center, he has 41 points and a plus-21 rating in 32 games in his first year in North America. He also was third for Russia with 3 goals at the World Juniors.
"He exciting," McGuire said. "He's a smaller version, a halfback version, of (Alex) Ovechkin in terms of excitement. He's going to be good for the League."
"We're splitting hairs. What does a team need? That's how close it is. Does a team need a right-shot center (Seguin)? There's your answer. Does a team need a speedy left wing (Hall)? There's your answer. Does your team need a defenseman (Fowler)? There's your answer." -- NHL Central Scouting Director, E.J. McGuire
"What I like about Pickard is his all-round game," Al Jensen, Central Scouting's goaltending scout, told NHL.com. "His net coverage -- he's not as tall (as Campbell), but he plays big in the net. Very smart technically, very sound positionally calm, patient, reads the play, can make the big save."
Jensen said what separates the pair is the different styles they play. Where Pickard is more of a positional goalie, Campbell relies more on his athleticism.
"Campbell is a quick, athletic, reaction-type of goalie," Jensen said. "Campbell can make the athletic, desperate, big, huge save."
Halifax Mooseheads goalie Mathieu Corbeil-Theriault, who was No. 2 among QMJHL goalies in the preliminary rankings to Louis Domingue, jumped past the Quebec Remparts' goalie to take the No. 3 spot in North America.
"It's puck control," Jensen said. "I was so impressed with Corbeil's quickness for a big goalie. When you see him you won't believe how quick he is for a big guy (6-5 3/4, 186). Very controlled and soft pads, no big rebounds. I find Domingue moves very quick but he gives up big rebounds. Corbeil has an excellent feel for the game. He's very good at controlling his rebounds."
Domingue is No. 4 on the list, with Thief River Falls (Minn.) High School goalie Zane Gothberg No. 5.
Finnish forward Mikael Granlund is the top-rated European skater. The 5-10, 180-pounder plays for HIFK Helsinki in SM-Liiga, the top Finnish league. In 20 games, he has 19 points, second among league rookies. He also led Finland in scoring with 7 points in six games at the World Juniors.
The next three spots were taken by Russian forwards -- Vladimir Tarasenko, Maxim Kitsyn and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Tarasenko, a 5-11, 202-pound right wing, has 10 goals and 18 points in 28 games for Novosibirsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, despite playing just over 12 minutes per game. He also tied for the team lead with 4 goals at the World Juniors.
Kitsyn, a 6-2, 194-pound left wing who turned 18 on Christmas Eve, is scoreless in eight games with Novokuznetsk in the KHL, but had 3 assists and a plus-2 rating at the World Juniors.
A 6-foot, 172-pound center, Kuznetsov has 2 assists in 22 games with Chelyabinsk in the KHL, and had 2 goals and 10 penalty minutes at the World Juniors.
"Tarasenko looks a bit better and is more mature than Kitsyn and Kuznetsov," said Stubb.
Ludvig Rensfeldt, at No. 5, is the highest-ranked Swedish skater. He has 12 goals and 27 points in 25 games with Brynas' junior team.
"Rensfeldt is a more complete package," said Stubb, "big, strong and very skillful."
Jonas Gunnarsson, who plays for HV71's team in the Swedish junior league, is the top-rated European goalie. Sami Aittokallio, who plays for Ilves Juniors in Finland, is second. Lars Volden, who plays for Stavanger in Norway, is third.
Benjamin Conz, the Swiss netminder who took home the best goaltender award at the World Juniors, is No. 5. He plays for Geneve in the top Swiss league.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org