What are the odds a defenceman is selected with the first pick at the NHL Draft for the first time in seven years?
With Portland Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones in the crosshairs of every NHL scout and general manager this season, the odds appear to be pretty good.
At least that's what NHL Central Scouting believes based on its midterm rankings, released Tuesday, when the 6-foot-3.5, 208-pound blueliner from the Western Hockey League was listed as the No. 1 skater among North American players eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.
The last time a defender was taken with the first pick was 2006, when Erik Johnson of the U.S. National Team Development Program went to the St. Louis Blues. Jones, a native of Plano, Texas, also is a product of the USNTDP.
"Seth is a big, rangy defenceman who has a nice command of his shifts," NHL Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "He has the ability to be a game-changer because he has good instincts and awareness. He's an underrated passer, possesses solid one-on-one play and can skate the puck out of danger at any time. He's already the complete package, but I get the feeling he still has another gear to go to."
If he is taken with the first pick, Jones -- the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones -- not only would be the first American-born player chosen No. 1 since Patrick Kane in 2007, but also the first black player to go No. 1 in the history of the draft.
"It would mean a lot, but me and my family have never been into the race thing … whether you're white or black it really doesn't matter," Jones said. "Going No. 1 is special. But I could see why that is a big deal around the world. It's just that I never really thought about that kind of stuff."
Jones is fifth among all first-year WHL players with 28 points in 33 games, and has eight goals and a plus-29 rating.
In addition to Jones' WHL success, he was a major factor in the United States winning the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. He was the youngest player on the team, but still totaled six assists, seven points and a plus-8 rating.
Another big storyline heading into the draft, which will be held at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., is the incredible depth across the board. Just because Jones is considered to be the top choice in January, it doesn't mean he'll still be No. 1 when Central Scouting releases its final rankings in April. The race for No. 1 continues to be between Jones and forward Nathan MacKinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I think it's considered to be [a deep draft] when you look at the top-end talent in each of the leagues … it's pretty even in the number of prospects and similar in the talent at the top end," Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "So every team with a pick in the first round is going to get a solid NHL prospect."
MacKinnon is No. 2 on Central Scouting's list, followed by Halifax linemate Jonathan Drouin.
"Both [MacKinnon and Jones] impact the game in the position they play, but the one difference is that Seth plays the game well in all three zones," said Director of Central Scouting, Dan Marr. "That's not to say Nathan doesn't. Nathan excels in the offensive zone and he's going to be a prolific scorer. He's one heck of a competitor."
It's possible MacKinnon and Drouin could become the first players from the QMJHL selected among the top five draft picks since 1983, when Sylvain Turgeon and Pat LaFontaine went second and third, respectively.
"Personally, I feel Nathan benefits from having Jon as a linemate just as much as Jon does having Nathan," Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told NHL.com. "Drouin is unbelievable in my eyes. He's smart and can read the play so well."
MacKinnon leads Halifax with 55 points (23 goals) while also sporting an impressive plus-29 rating in 30 games; Drouin has 20 goals and 51 points in 26 games -- he missed six games with an upper-body injury earlier in the season.
MacKinnon and Drouin also played for Canada at the WJC. MacKinnon played more of a checking role for the team, while Drouin impressed to the point of being inserted on the top line alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Scheifele. Drouin finished with two goals and two assists in six games.
Bordeleau said he sees a lot of former QMJHL standout Antoine Vermette in MacKinnon. In his 1999-2000 draft season, Vermette had 30 goals and 71 points in 71 games for the Victoriaville Tigres. He followed that with 57 goals and 119 points in 2000-01.
"I don't think there's a particular area [MacKinnon] needs to work on … just his overall game," Bordeleau said. "With skill like that, you can't just pinpoint one thing and say if you don't do this, you won't make it."
Rounding out the top 10 among North American skaters are No. 4 Sean Monahan of the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League, No. 5 Hunter Shinkaruk of the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL), Ryan Pulock of the of the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL), Frederik Gauthier of the Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), Valentin Zykov of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL), Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) and Anthony Mantha of the Val-D'Or Foreurs (QMJHL).
The European contingent equally is loaded with high-end talent, including a pair of forwards vying for top honors. Earning the No. 1 spot on the mid-term list is Finland's Aleksander Barkov, with Elias Lindholm of Sweden a close second.
"The main reason why Barkov is ahead of Lindholm is his terrific fall with Tappara in the Finnish league," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com.
Barkov has 14 goals, 31 points and a plus-7 rating in 35 games with Tappara. Lindholm has six goals and 22 points in 35 games for Brynas in the Elitserien.
"Lindholm and Barkov are outstanding with their league teams and both could be top five at the draft," Stubb said.
Rounding out the top five European skaters are No. 3 defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen of TPS in Finland, forward Valeri Nichushkin of Chelmet in Russia's second division, and forward Andre Burakowsky of Malmo in Sweden's second division.
Barkov, Lindholm, Ristolainen and Nichushkin each represented their country at the WJC. Barkov had three goals, seven points and a plus-2 rating in six games for Finland, while Ristolainen was the team's top defenceman, finishing with two goals, six points and a plus-5 rating.
"He's a very mature young defenceman playing big minutes," Stubb said of Ristolainen. "He can carry or pass the puck out of danger, is a good, solid skater and uses his size (6-4, 207) and physical strength well in the defensive zone. He can play physical, but does not take unnecessary penalties."
Lindholm had two goals and four points for the silver medal-winning Swedes, while Nichushkin notched his only goal of the tournament in overtime of the bronze-medal game, helping Russia to a 6-5 victory against Canada.
After Jones, the top-rated American-born player is No. 13 Adam Erne, a forward for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. The native of New Haven, Conn., has 20 goals, a plus-9 rating and a team-leading 53 points in 43 games. The top-rated skater from the USNTDP is No. 20 J.T. Compher, a forward who has five goals and 15 points in 19 games. Committed to the University of Michigan for next season, Compher has been compared by some to Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Hartnell.
"J.T. has a great combination of skills; he has great hockey sense and can do things with the puck, but he also has skating ability and work ethic to go with it," Central Scouting's David Gregory told NHL.com. "That makes him this kind of tough package to play against and to contain if you're trying to defend. He's going to be a high pick."
Defenceman Ian McCoshen is the next top-rated skater from the United States Hockey League. The 6-2.5, 207-pound Boston College recruit, who is ranked No. 21, has five goals, 18 points and a plus-19 rating in 24 games for the Waterloo Black Hawks.
The top North American goalie among the 35 listed is 6-foot-1.25, 181-pound Zachary Fucale of Halifax.
Fucale, who is 28-4-2 in 32 appearances with a 2.50 goals-against average and .896 save percentage, will join teammates MacKinnon and Drouin on Team Cherry at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Wednesday in Halifax.
"Zach is an excellent positional style goalie with great stance and balance," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He plays and looks big in all situations, has an excellent butterfly style and is very tough to beat down low. Zach is very calm, relaxed and dependable, and has excellent rebound control. He directs the low shots and absorbs the higher shots."
The top European goalie is 5-10.25, 178-pound Juuse Saros, who plays for HPK Jr. in Finland's junior league, posting a 1.56 GAA and .941 save percentage in 25 games. He's represented Finland at the Under-18 level nine times and could well serve as the backup on HPK's team in the Finnish Elite League next season as an 18-year-old.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer