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Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting, says 'this is a deep draft at the top end for the first 30, 40 players'

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

BUFFALO - It takes a lot for men of 18 to walk in and command a room, but take one look at their resumes and you'll see - they do.

They're certainly not short on confidence, grace and fortitude.

Talent, too.

The reporters arrive in droves, hang on their every word and make lofty proclamations. But, it turns out, none more so than what the elite expect of themselves.

"I'm ready," declared the fifth-ranked North American skater, Dylan Cozens, before a throng of reporters at the NHL Scouting Combine. "I'm ready to jump into the NHL right away."

A common refrain.

Cozens, along with the projected first-overall pick Jack Hughes, Bowen Byram, Kirby Dach, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras took centre stage Friday, speaking to reporters from all over the globe and announcing their plans to be the next big thing in the world's best league.

 

Video: "I'm ready to jump into the NHL right away."

 

While the Flames - at Pick 26 - likely don't have a shot of any of them, it was the proper kickoff to 'Draft Month,' a glimpse into the future of our game, and, perhaps, a look at the quality of talent that could be available later in the opening round.

"We kind of say it every year that everybody's going to get a good pick in the first round," the director of NHL Central Scouting, Dan Marr, announced, "but this is a deep draft at the top end for the first 30, 40 players.

"The players at the top end are always going to set that opportunity [to step into the NHL right away], but you always find there's going to be one or two players taken a little later in the draft, that are going to be in the right place at the right time, and they're ready for that opportunity to take advantage of it."

Naturally, Hughes and the projected second-overall pick, Finnish phenom Kaapo Kakko, are among those.

The New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers - who share the proverbial 1-2 punch of the draft's opening round next month - can't go wrong.

But just how good are we talking?

"I went to a camp in July (of last year) in Toronto and best three players on the ice were Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid and John Tavares," Marr said. "This was a skills camp. And next best player was Jack Hughes.

"It was a series of skill drills that they were doing that involved skating, quickness execution, precision. …  He's got that talent that he belongs in that group."

 

Video: "Playing at the Worlds was an invaluable experience."

 

Hughes, the younger brother of Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn, and a fellow product of the U.S. National Team Development Program, scored 34 goals and 112 points in 50 games last year, and finished off the campaign by representing his country at the World Hockey Championship earlier this month.

Kakko, meanwhile, turned heads by leading TPS of the Finnish Elite League with 22 goals and tying for sixth in league scoring with 38 points (22G, 16A) in 45 games. His 22 goals set a record for most by a draft-eligible prospect in Finland's top league, surpassing Aleksander Barkov (selected 2nd overall by Florida in 2013), before he, too, suited up at the Worlds, potting six goals en route to a gold medal.

"He's a competitor," said fellow U.S. Team grad Zegras of his teammate Hughes. "You look at what he's done this year…

"Pretty incredible."

 

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Zegras, ranked sixth among North American skaters, is no slouch, either.

In fact, this projects to be a record-setting year for the U.S. program, with every player currently enrolled in the program listed by Central Scouting.

Including Hughes, Zegras, and the supremely talented Turcotte, ranked fourth.

At the top end, it's also a big year for the WHL, with three of the Top 5-ranked North American skaters having big offensive years in that league.

"They're two great guys and two great players," Byram said of his Western League counterparts, Cozens and Dach, of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Saskatoon Blades. "They're both great in their own way.

"Coz uses his big body well to get to the net and when he's there, he has the hands and the smarts to make plays and put the puck in the back of the net. Kirby's more of a finesse player. He's got soft hands and he's really smart. Both, wherever they're going to end up, are going to make a huge impact with them right away."

 

Video: "So many teams are built around their centre depth."

 

Byram, too.

Ranked second among North American skaters, the 6-foot-1, 193 lb. defenceman torched the WHL with 71 points (26G, 45A) in 67 games, helping the Vancouver Giants reach the Championship Final and take home the CHL Top Prospect of the Year Award.

As one of the best and most fluid skaters in the class, his game is tailor-made for today's NHL.

"It's a real fast game," he said. "The more I work on that, still, the better off I'll be there.

"If I want to play in the NHL, I've got to be good on both sides of the puck, so that's what I have to focus on."

That, too, a common refrain.

Speed. Skill.

And a vivacious thirst to be best.

From Pick 1 through 26 and beyond, the 2019 Draft projects be one of the best in years.

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