A diverse collection of forwards take the lead this time around, spanning the world and making teams who own several top picks wear big smiles after finishing rough seasons on the ice.
“When I look at these players, I see elite No. 1 centers, top-end scoring wingers and solid No. 2 centers,” Former Calgary GM and current TSN scout Craig Button said. “That doesn’t end in the first round. It goes right through the second.”
Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said there are five A-rated players in the draft and four are forwards – Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Aleksander Barkov and Valeri Nichushkin. Because they are also so highly regarded, you may have 30 teams with those players in a different order on their board. Forwards Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm could also sneak into the top five on some lists.
It all adds up to the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting pretty with the No. 3 pick, June 30 in Newark, N.J.
“Being at 3 this year gives you lots of opportunity,” Murray said. “There’s a legitimate chance we could get the No. 1 guy on our overall list. It gives [GM Steve Yzerman] the flexibility of moving back or in for a player. I think anybody in the top 5 has got a prospect that is very close to playing in the NHL and playing at high level. That’s a really valuable pick this year.”
There’s a good chance Seth Jones will be the only defenseman to hear his name called in the first seven picks and the forwards all have different strengths and skills.
The 2013 NHL Entry Draft takes place on Sunday, June 30 at New Jersey's Prudential Center. Follow on-going updates on TampaBayLightning.com
MacKinnon and Drouin from Halifax of the Ontario Hockey League could celebrate their Memorial Cup title by being the top two forwards selected. Both recorded an amazing five points in the championship game when the Mooseheads beat Jones and Portland, 6-4.
MacKinnon, a 6-0, 182-pound force who can play center or wing, is a dynamic skater with great hands and a physical edge. Murray said he is a hybrid of the top two in the 2010 draft, displaying Taylor Hall’s recklessness and drive along with Tyler Seguin’s skating and playmaking ability.
“He views himself as more of a power forward that has skills,” Murray said. “If you talk to a lot of people, they think he’s a highly-skilled player with power. It’s a nice combination to have. His skating is elite and his hockey sense is a notch down from Drouin, but not far. … He can play the game any way you want to play it.”
MacKinnon performed well for Team Canada in a checking role at the latest World Juniors and had three goals and two assists in the Memorial Cup final.
“He has great determination,” Button said. “When you watch him over the years, the bigger the game, the better he is.”
Drouin, at 5-11, 185-pounds, was named the Canadian Hockey League’s MVP with 105 points in 49 regular-season games. His cross-ice pass to Martin Frk for a one-timer that hit the net in the Memorial Cup final was just one example of his playmaking ability. Murray compares him to Patrick Kane.
“You can’t give him space, because he’s such a good playmaker,” Murray said. “But if you’re tight on him, he can take the puck and embarrass you.”
Drouin had 35 points in 17 playoff games and MacKinnon recorded 33 after scoring 75 in the regular season over 44 contests. He may not be as physical of MacKinnon, but Drouin can impact a game in many ways.
“He’s an unbelievable player in my view,” Button said. “There’s nothing he can’t do in the game. He’s equally as good scoring as he is in making plays and he has big-time competitiveness. The kid’s got star written all over him.”
Nichushkin is a strong-skating wing with a 6-4, 196-pound frame and burgeoning all-around skills. Murray said the Russian’s performance at the Five Nations Under-18 tournament in February was one of the most dominant he has ever seen.
“He absolutely took over the tournament,” Murray said. “He was a combination of [Alex] Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin. He was in on the forecheck, he was finishing checks, making plays and scored or set up big goals in the third period when his team was behind. He never quit on a shift. He was just spectacular.”
Nichushkin, who turned 18 in March, was a regular in the Russian men’s league (KHL) late in the season and fit in smoothly. The fourth-rated player overall by the International Scouting Service has said recently that he would like to play in the NHL next season.
“You’re trying to get the best player long term,” Button said. “All I know is, I don’t know where you’re going to find a player like Nichushkin.”
Barkov, a 6-3, 209-pound center, is the son of former Russian legend Alexander Barkov. The father finished his career in Finland, where the family settled. The son posted 48 points in 53 games during his second season playing in the Finnish Elite League with his father’s former club Tappara Tampere and won’t turn 18 until September.
Murray said Barkov has always played above his age group and will have to be evaluated after a shoulder separation that ended his season.
“He’s a big, mobile forward and has good puck handling ability,” Barkov said. “He’s a good defensive player, probably similar to a Joe Thornton or a Patrick Marleau as far as style. He doesn’t run all over the place, he’s not the first one in on the hits, but he’s very conscientious in his defensive positioning.”
Button calls Barkov an elite No. 1 center.
“He wasn’t just a good player in the Finnish Elite League, he was one of the very best on a team that lost in the championship,” Button said. “The team would not have lost – in my view – if he was able to play.”
In other years, Lindholm and Monahan might be in the top three.
Button said Monahan, a 6-2, 186-pound center for the Ottawa 67s, “makes everybody around him better,” and might be ready to step onto an NHL roster in 2013-14. Monahan had 78 points in 58 games for a poor Ottawa team.
Lindholm, a 5-11, 192-pound center who is ranked No. 4 overall by The Hockey News, had 30 points in 48 games playing against men in the Swedish Elite League in 2012-13. Button said Lindholm played wing this season, but is a versatile, smart player who can be a real good NHL player.
London standouts Bo Horvat and Max Domi (the son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi), Medicine Hat’s Hunter Shinkaruk, Edmonton’s Curtis Lazar and Alexander Wennberg from Sweden are forwards also expected to go high.
Murray said there are about 40-50 top-notch prospects in this year’s draft that are rated B+ or better.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Murray said.
Is there a Zach Parise or Ryan Getzlaf in the middle of the first round, a Corey Perry late in the first or a Patrice Bergeron in the second like in 2003? The development of this class of forwards -- after the top four or six -- may tell the story on whether it approaches the level of what many call the best draft in history 10 years ago.