There are five European players identified on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list listed as potential first-round picks for the 2014 NHL Draft, which will be held June 27-28 in Philadelphia.
Among them are four players competing for teams in Sweden: Center Jakub Vrana of Linkoping, center/right wing William Nylander of Rogle, right wing David Pastrnak of Sodertalje and left wing Adrian Kempe of Modo Jr.
The player who might be the best among the European contingent, however, is starring in Finland -- right wing Kasperi Kapanen of Kalpa.
Goran Stubb, NHL director of European Scouting, feels "B"-rated Finnish goalie Kaapo Kahkonen of the Espoo Blues junior team is on the cusp of earning an "A" rating as a potential first-round draft choice. He enters the 2013-14 season as the top European goalie on the draft board.
Not only are Kapanen and Nylander regarded as "A"-rated skaters, they're also playing with NHL-experienced fathers on their respective teams.
Kapanen (5-foot-11, 172 pounds) skates with former NHL player Sami Kapanen, and has one goal in three games this season. Nylander (5-11, 169) plays alongside his dad, former NHL player Michael Nylander.
In addition, Kasperi's uncle, Kimmo, is a former international goalie and now general manager for Kalpa. And his grandfather, Hannu, played five seasons in SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league.
"Kasperi is at present the No. 1 European prospect," Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a regular with Kalpa in the Finnish league and is off to a good start. He's a sniper who will play for Finland at the 2014 World Junior Championship. He possesses excellent vision and has great skills … he's a star in the making."
Kapanen had eight points, including a team-leading five goals, for bronze medal-winning Finland at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Sochi, Russia.
Nylander moved from Sodertalje to Modo before being sent to Rogle, a team in Sweden's second division, on loan, a transaction made in order to provide Michael Nylander an opportunity to play with his son. William Nylander had two goals, three points and a plus-2 rating in five games for sixth-place Sweden at the 2013 World U-18s.
"William is an exceptional talent with all the tools needed to become a star," Stubb said. "He's an artist on the ice. William is an excellent offensive player with an extremely high skill level. He's not a selfish player, but does tend to hold on to the puck too long at times. He needs to improve his defensive game, but he's a fun player to watch and a real crowd-pleaser."
Stubb said he was glad to see Vrana and Pastrnak, both natives of the Czech Republic, listed as "A" players, even if they both play in the Swedish league.
"It's important that Czech junior hockey is back on the map," he said.
Vrana, born in Praha, represented the Czech Republic at the 2013 WJC and World Under-18 Championship. He had two goals and generated 21 shots in five games at the World U-18s for the seventh-place Czechs.
"Vrana has a very good chance to take a regular spot on Linkoping," Stubb said. "He's a skilled, offensive-minded forward who can shoot and pass; he's a very mobile skater."
Pastrnak, born in Havirov, had 12 goals, 29 points and a plus-6 rating in 36 games in the SuperElit league with Sodertalje's junior team last season. He had one goal, two points and a plus-1 rating in five games for the Czech Republic at the 2013 World U-18s.
"Pastrnak will play regular with Sodertalje and should also make the roster for the Czech team at the World Junior Championship," Stubb said. "In November he'll be on the Czech under-20 team at the Four Nations tournament in Moscow. He's mobile, has high skills and great offensive instincts."
Kempe, a left-handed shooter, had six goals and 13 points in 39 games with Modo's team in Sweden's junior league last season. The 17-year-old was chosen by the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round (No. 107) of the 2013 Canadian Hockey League import draft, but will likely remain with Modo.
"He's a power forward, strong along the boards with smooth hands and is a very speedy skater," Stubb said. "He's a solid two-way forward."
Stubb said that Kempe (6-1.5, 187) is a candidate for the first round to start the season. He's also one of the youngest 2014 draft-eligible prospects on the board, as his Sept. 13 birthdate puts him two days above the cutoff for 2014 draft eligibility.
"As is the case with all the players given an 'A' rating, it'll be up to [Kempe] if he stays there," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "He's got some talent and has some jam and when he applies himself he's really good. He makes things happen when he's on the ice. He's a young kid with good size and strength. He just needs time to mature, but the talent is there.
"I'm comfortable with him [as an 'A' prospect] and that he'll take his game to that next level. We're projecting right now that he will."
Stubb said he's looking forward to viewing the 6-1.5, 209-pound Kahkonen between the pipes. Kahkonen opened plenty of eyes at the 2013 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Despite finishing with a 3.45 goals-against average and .881 save percentage, the 17-year-old Helsinki native did impress at times.
"He's the next rising star from the Finnish goaltending school," Stubb said. "He has good size with good balance. He has excellent athleticism and flexibility and does a good job reading and following the play."
Kahkonen was a key player for the Espoo Blues team in the Junior A SM-liiga in 2012-13, finishing with a 2.43 GAA and .917 save percentage. He could earn considerable time in Finland's top league at some point this season.