With Rimouski Oceanic winger Alexis Lafreniere leading the way, the 2020 NHL Draft Class is coming into focus.
Lafreniere is the clear consensus choice but not a slam dunk No. 1 pick for the Draft that takes place in Montreal, not far from where Lafreniere grew up in Ste. Eustache.
Four other players, Sudbury Wolves center Quinton Byfield, Swedish forwards Lucas Raymond (Frolunda) and Alexander Holtz (Djurgardens) and Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov (St. Petersburg) have also emerged near the top of the class.
Another Ontario Hockey League forward, Cole Perfetti of the Saginaw Spirit, is roughly in the same group as that quartet.
Though collective evaluation is more art than science, particularly while still early in the season, this year's class is considered a very good crop.
"The quality of this class is high," said NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr. "Sometimes, there can be a lot of hyperbole to describe (high draft prospects). These kids are just good young kids and they are going to continue to develop. But the overall depth, there is a lot of it this year."
Lafreniere, a late-01 birthdate, is ripping up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 12 goals and 31 assists through weekend action. He recently suffered a lower body injury that caused him to miss the QMJHL leg of the Canada Russia Series but is not expected to miss much time.
Lafreniere won both the QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League player of the year award last season Devils prospect Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs won the Western Hockey League /CHL top defenseman honors. Both Smith and Lafreniere were members of Team Canada at last year's World Junior in Vancouver and are expected to have leading roles for their country at this year's event in the Czech Republic.
Byfield will likely join them on Team Canada. He is a natural center with great size (6'4", 215 pounds) and physical tools. Last season, he won the OHL/CHL's rookie of the year awards.
Raymond and Holtz both helped Sweden win the World U18 on home ice last season, while Askarov stoned a Team Canada squad that included both Perfetti and Byfield to win the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August.
Last year in Vancouver, the Devils selection of Jack Hughes at No. 1 was the first of 11 American selections in the opening round, including seven of Hughes' teammates on the U.S. National Development team.
The cyclical nature of draft prospects is swinging the other way for this year; the top two American prospects right now are defenceman Jake Sanderson and forward Ty Smilanic. Both are mid-first rounders at this point. Marr says there is no reason for concern after last season's record-setting American flavor in the opening round.
"I just saw the U18 team again, they have a few guys who are going to elevate themselves," said Marr. "That's the process."
Looking at the overall process by country, Americans drafted in the annual process has held firm over the past decade, with a clear trend of more players being taken in the early rounds over the past few years.
That same trends holds true for Sweden, especially given Raymond and Holtz lofty ranking thus far.
There has been a spike in Russians drafted in recent years, roughly at the expense of Canadians taken. Overall, Canadian numbers have been down year-over-year since 2016. That trend is now expected to bounce the other way in Montreal as Lafreniere and Byfield headline what is expected to be a very strong draft for Canadian prospects.
Beyond the traditional powers, Manheim forward Tim Stutzle is another potential top-10 pick, which would mark the third time in the past four years that Germany has produced a first-rounder.
"There are good players everywhere, there always have been," said Marr.
Marco Rossi, an Austrian forward with the Ottawa 67's, the junior club of Devils prospects Mitchell Hoelscher, Graeme Clarke and Nikita Okhotyuk, is currently pegged in the same area as Stutzle.