The road to the 2013 NHL Draft began in earnest Wednesday with the release of NHL Central Scouting's preliminary list of players to watch in North America and Europe.
The lists, comprised of "A," "B" and "C" players for the upcoming season in each of the major junior hockey leagues, are sent to NHL team scouts for the purpose of tracking the top draft-eligible players entering the 2012-13 season.
All "A" skaters have been identified as potential first-round picks, while "B" players are considered second- or third-round candidates. The players on the "C" list are thought to be fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round possibilities.
Central Scouting's preliminary rankings will be revealed in November. That list includes the top 25 prospects for each of the various leagues throughout North America and Europe.
While it may be too early to determine the strength of the 2013 draft class, NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said this season's group of forwards "is going to be strong." At this stage, Marr said "A" prospects Nathan Mackinnon of the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League are the frontrunners in North America.
"There are some very talented players in Europe who will push those players at the top," Marr said.
Mackinnon, a center, finished the 2011-12 regular season with 31 goals, 78 points and a plus-11 rating and finished second to Mikhail Grigorenko of the Quebec Remparts as the QMJHL's Rookie of the Year. Grigorenko was chosen by the Buffalo Sabres with the 12th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.
"His skill level with the quickness with which he can execute, read and react -- there aren't many players who can do that," Marr said of Mackinnon.
Mackinnon finished the Under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in Slovakia with five goals and six assists in five games for Canada, including a hat trick in the gold-medal win against Finland.
"At the Under-18 Ivan Hlinka, he displayed his 'A' game to where he did some things that no other player in this draft class has shown," Marr said.
Jones, a defenseman, is entering his first season with Portland after totaling six goals and 20 assists in 48 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 team last season. He also served as captain for the United States at the 2012 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, totaling eight points in six games as the United States won gold.
"If Seth Jones was eligible for the 2012 Draft, he would have given Ryan Murray (the second pick) a run for his money as the top defender chosen," Marr said, mentioning the Columbus Blue Jackets' selection.
In addition to Jones, forward Hunter Shinkaruk of the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL also will command plenty of attention. Shinkaruk had 49 goals and 91 points in 66 games in his second WHL season in 2011-12.
"He's a diminutive forward but has an explosive skill set," Marr said of Shinkaruk (5-foot-10, 166 pounds). "If you give him an opportunity to score, he could pounce on it and burn you. He's a player you don't have to look for … he jumps out at you when watching a game."
Curtis Lazar of the Edmonton Oil Kings will challenge Shinkaruk for top honors among WHL forwards all season long. The center had 20 goals and 31 points in 63 games last season, and helped Edmonton win the WHL title and reach the Memorial Cup.
"He plays with conviction and he's an up-and-down, two-way player," Marr said.
In the OHL, Ottawa 67's center Sean Monahan is an "A" performer with a strong two-way game. He had 33 goals and 78 points last season, his second in the OHL. He also had eight goals and 15 points in 18 playoff games. He is joined on the OHL radar by forward Max Domi of the London Knights. The son of former NHL forward Tie Domi plays a much different brand of hockey than his father. The younger Domi had 21 goals, 49 points and 48 penalty minutes in 62 games with the Knights last season.
"As far as Sean goes, there's not much to dislike about his game," Marr said. "He brings all the intangibles and has everything you need in a good offensive game.
"Max has the same frame [5-foot-9 1/4, 193] as dad and the same competitive edge, but Max is a goal-scorer and a terrific finisher. That's what makes him stand out from similar-type players."
The top player to keep an eye on in the United States Hockey League is forward J.T. Compher of the USNTDP Under-18 team. Compher, who has verbally committed to the University of Michigan for next season, had 15 goals and 42 points in 40 games with the U-17 team in 2011-12. He also had eight goals and 13 points in 18 games with the U-18 team.
"He's the most exciting player on the U.S. Under-18 team right now," Marr said of Compher.
Center Luke Johnson of the Lincoln Stars of the USHL is another 2013 draft prospect high on the list of players to watch. Johnson, committed to the University of North Dakota for next fall, had 20 goals and 55 points in 55 games for Lincoln last season. He also finished with a plus-22 rating, five power-play goals and four game-winning goals. He is the son of former Stars coach Steve Johnson, and nephew to current Stars coach Chad Johnson.
One of the more discussed goalie prospects entering the season is Zach Fucale of Halifax.
Fucale played four of the five games for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, capped by a 23-save shutout against Finland in the gold-medal game. The 6-foot-1 1/4, 181-pound goalie, who shared team co-MVP honors with Mackinnon in Halifax last season, went 4-0 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage at the Hlinka.
"Zach is very fundamentally and technically sound," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He has excellent net coverage and presents himself big in the net, spreading out very well. He hardly leaves any holes for shooters and looks and plays big even when in the butterfly. He keeps his body upright, protecting the upper corners. He's smart, patient and poised, has great balance and is very controlled and smooth in his movements."
The most talked-about "A" prospect among the international skaters might be Finland's Alexander Barkov of Tappara in SM-liiga, the top Finnish league. In 32 games last season, the center had seven goals and 16 points. Barkov also had a goal and four points in seven games for fourth-place Finland at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
Also in the mix are Swedish forwards Elias Lindholm of Brynas and Leksand's Jacob de la Rose. Lindholm had 14 goals and 49 points in 36 games for Brynas' Under-20 Team last season. De la Rose, who was captain for Sweden at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, had four goals and 13 points in 28 games with Leksand's U-20 Team last season.