Leading the way are Aleksander Barkov of Tappara in Finland and Elias Lindholm of Brynas in Sweden. While there's a good chance several top players currently starring overseas will hear their names announced during the opening round of the draft in June, Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said he feels Barkov and Lindholm are the surefire standouts.
Tuesday, NHL Central Scouting revealed its preliminary rankings for the top levels of North American junior hockey and Europe. Barkov was the No. 1 rated skater in Finland. Lindholm was tops among skaters in Sweden.
"I have played against [Lindholm] a few times," Barkov told NHL.com. "He is clever and skillful. He skates well and is very dangerous with the puck."
At this point in the season, Stubb said he believes Barkov holds a slight edge.
"Both are great prospects and outstanding young players," Stubb told NHL.com. "Their style of play is a bit different. Lindholm is the better skater, but Barkov is more of a complete package. It's more or less impossible to say who is better. The World Junior Championship in [Russia] will decide who will be No. 1 and who will be No. 2 on our midseason rankings. Both are just excellent."
Barkov was named the best player at the Under-20 Four Nations Tournament in Sundsvall, Sweden, in November for silver medal-winning Finland. He had three assists in three games, a plus-2 rating and won 59 percent of his faceoffs. He was on the ice for eight of his team's nine goals in the tournament.
"He's big, strong and a hard worker in all areas of the ice," Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a sniper who can also set up scoring chances for teammates. He's a two-way center with a good understanding of his defensive duties, stickhandles well in tight situations, and always seems to come out as a winner. He'll probably go among the top three at the draft."
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen of TPS and left wing Artturi Lehkonen of Kalpa round out the top three from Finland.
Ristolainen, regarded as one of the top overall defenders on the board, has five assists in his second full season with TPS in the top Finnish league.
"He's a very mature young defenseman playing big minutes," Stubb said. "He can carry or pass the puck out of danger, is a good, solid skater, and uses his size (6-3, 203) and physical strength well in the defensive zone. Rasmus will be a key defenseman for Finland at the World Juniors. He can play physical but does not take unnecessary penalties."
Lehkonen, a 5-10, 163-pound forward, moved from TPS to Kalpa in the summer and is now playing regular shifts with the team in SM-liiga, Finland's top league. He has seven goals and 14 points in 22 games.
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"He has very quick feet and smooth hands, plays a solid two-way game, and uses his speed and hockey sense to his advantage," Stubb said of Lehkonen. "He's full of surprises in the offensive zone, can score the big goals and accelerates quickly, especially when in possession of the puck. While he's not very big or strong, he's still a first-round talent."
Despite the fact Lindholm didn't offer the same eye-opening offensive display Barkov did at the Four Nations, the Swede remains a solid prospect in Stubb's eyes.
"His coach [in Brynas] did not give him much ice time, but he dominated the U-20 tournament in Kravare in September … he's as close to the complete package as you can get with speed, talent, skills, strength and attitude," Stubb said. "He has excellent ability to move the puck through a crowd and finds his man with smart passes and can finish. He's a very effective forechecker, and if he loses the puck, it doesn't take long before he has it back."
Following Lindholm on the list of top Swedish prospects are forwards Andre Burakovsky of Malmo and Jacob de la Rose of Leksand.
Burakovsky (6-1, 178) is a regular in Sweden's minor league at this point, but Stubb said it's only a matter of time before he gets his shot at the top level.
"He has excellent acceleration and speed and is effective in traffic," Stubb said. "He's got good hands and his on-ice vision complements his playmaking skills. He can beat his opponent one-on-one, is smart and clever. His father [Robert Burakovsky] was also a great player on the international level."
At 6-2.25, 178 pounds, de la Rose was a regular with Leksand in Sweden's second-tier division last season and captained Sweden in the Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August.
"He's tall, big, talented and effective," Stubb said. "He's a very good skater with a powerful stride and is tough to knock off the puck, which makes him very effective in traffic. He's got soft hands, skillful puckhandling and fine on-ice vision."
Stubb said that though there may not be first-round caliber players coming out of Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Norway or Belarus this year, Slovakian center Marko Dano is "one serious contender."
Dano is ranked No. 7 among skaters playing in Russia.
The 5-11, 183-pound forward has two goals, four points and a plus-3 rating in 18 games with Slovan Bratislava in the KHL this season. The fact he averages about 10 minutes of ice time a game probably explains his low point production. Dano's Canadian Hockey League rights are held by the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.
"He's a slippery, smart center," Stubb said. "He's a Slovakian playing for a Slovakian team, Slovan Bratislava, in the Russian-dominated KHL. He's smallish, but has a good combination of speed, stick work and smarts. He plays a steady two-way game and gives a consistent effort on every shift. At the present, he's the best prospect from former powerhouses Slovakia and Czech Republic."
Stubb said there are several Russian forwards on the board possessing the speed and breakaway ability customary in players from the country.
"The only question, though, is whether or not a Russian top prospect would want to move to North America," Stubb said.
Stubb offered his top four Russian prospects currently starring overseas (Russian ranking precedes player):
1. Valeri Nichushkin, RW, Chelyabinsk 2: "He's a big, strong, two-way winger, who played both in the KHL and in the junior league during the fall. He's tough to stop when driving to the net from either wing and is a defender's nightmare in one-on-one situations when at top speed. He handles the puck well in traffic and makes good decisions in those situations."
2. Bogdan Yakimov, C, Penza: "A center with excellent size (6-5, 202), who is physically strong and can use his strength and reach without taking unnecessary penalties. He possesses a good shot, moves the puck with ease at the right time, is a steady competitor and very mobile for a player of his size."
3. Anton Slepyshev, LW, Novokuznetsk: "I was surprised nobody drafted him 2012 … maybe he wasn't interested in playing in North America? He spent the fall with Novokuznetsk in the KHL, and is the type of player who is dancing on the ice. He's an excellent skater with an excellent skill level. He creates a lot of scoring chances with quick moves in the offensive zone."
4. Pavel Buchnevich, LW, Cherepovets: "He had injury problems during the fall while playing with Cherepovets in the KHL. But he's a classic Russian winger with speed and talent; an excellent skater and very smart. He's full of surprises."
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