What was once considered by many an obvious choice for the team holding the No. 1 pick on Sunday at Prudential Center (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN), is no longer the case. Additionally, not only will all seven rounds be conducted on the same day for the first time since 2006, but this year's draft could end up becoming one of the deepest, in terms of talent, in recent memory.
It wasn't that long ago that defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League was thought to be the slam-dunk top choice for the Colorado Avalanche, the team holding the No. 1 pick.
In recent weeks, however, it has become a four-horse race between Jones and forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov -- exceptionally talented players expected to shine brightly on the big stage one day.
Not only is Jones the top-ranked player on NHL Central Scouting's final list of draft-eligible North American skaters, but it was thought he could fill a potential need within the Colorado organization. It certainly doesn't hurt that he's familiar with Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic, who introduced him to the game as a 6-year-old.
But Sakic revealed a major part of his draft plan last week when he announced the Avalanche would probably use the top pick on a forward, rather than the top defensive player available. Rick Pracey, the Avalanche's director of amateur scouting, reiterated those plans Wednesday.
"We believe they offer transitional offense at the [NHL] level, and that is something that is very coveted," Pracey said of MacKinnon, Drouin and Barkov. "If you look even recently at the top five scorers in terms of point production in the League, all of the top five were first-overall picks. If you look at the past five years in the top-20 scoring, a good percentage of them were top-five picks in the draft."
It could all be a form of gamesmanship, of course. Is Sakic attempting to lure those teams holding the Nos. 2 and 3 picks, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively, into making a deal at the last minute?
Either way, expect high drama once NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman steps to the podium to start the draft shortly after 3 p.m.
Halifax teammates MacKinnon, No. 2 on Central Scouting's final release, and No. 3 Drouin each played a pivotal role in the team's first Memorial Cup championship.
Not since 2005, when Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic was chosen No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has a player from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League gone first in the draft. But that league is certainly stocked with high-end talent this year.
MacKinnon is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, the same place Crosby calls home. Not only that, when MacKinnon turned 14, he left home to play at the Minnesota prep school, Shattuck-St. Mary's, where Crosby spent some of his early years. In the spring of 2011, MacKinnon was selected first in the QMJHL draft, just as Crosby had been eight years earlier.
MacKinnon (6-foot, 182 pounds) closed out his second season with the Mooseheads with 32 goals, 75 points and a plus-40 rating in 44 matches. His nine-game goal-scoring streak from Oct. 6-27 was the longest of any player in the league this season, and he generated 14 goals and five assists during that stretch. He miised 14 games with a lower-body injury but was an effective force in the playoffs.
In 17 playoff games, he had 11 goals and 33 points to help lead Halifax to the President Cup. He then won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as the most valuable player in the Memorial Cup after connecting for seven goals and 13 points in four games.
In two games against Jones and the Winterhawks during the Memorial Cup, MacKinnon produced six goals and nine points.
Drouin was a human highlight-reel waiting to happen this season. He had 41 goals, 105 points a plus-48 rating in 49 contests for the Mooseheads. The 5-11, 185-pound player had a 29-game point streak from Nov. 30, 2012, to March 15, 2013, collecting 26 goals and 65 points during that span.
He led all scorers in the QMJHL playoffs with 35 points (12 goals) in 17 postseason matches. He then connected for one goal and nine points in four Memorial Cup contests.
Then there's Barkov, who finished with 21 goals, 48 points and a plus-18 rating in 53 matches playing against men for Tappara in the Finnish Elite League in 2012-13.
"Barkov is big, strong and a hard worker in all areas of the ice," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a sniper who can also set up scoring chances for teammates. I like the fact he's a two-way center with a good understanding of his defensive duties."
Jones, MacKinnon, Drouin and Barkov each represented their countries at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. Jones had one goal, seven points and a plus-8 rating to help the United States to a gold medal. Drouin and MacKinnon earned a fourth-place finish for Canada.
Barkov was a marked man for Finland, but persevered for his country despite a disappointing seventh-place finish. Central Scouting's No. 1-rated European prospect had three goals, seven points and a plus-2 rating in six WJC matches.
"These are players you can build your team around so what kind of player do you want to build with?" NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr said. "Do you want to build from the back-end out, or do you want to build up the middle? There's no steadfast answer, so the projection is what the player will mean to the team."
Rounding out Central Scouting's top 10 North American skaters are defenseman Darnell Nurse of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL), center Sean Monahan of the Ottawa 67's (OHL), center/left wing Hunter Shinkaruk of the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL), left wing Valentin Zykov of Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL), center Frederik Gauthier of Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), defenseman Mirco Mueller of the Everett Silvertips (WHL) and right wing Anthony Mantha of the Val-d'Or Foreurs (QMJHL).
The top domestic goaltender, according to Central Scouting, is Halifax's Zachary Fucale. He likely will be the first player chosen at his position.
Fucale went 45-5-3 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .909 save percentage with two shutouts in 55 regular-season appearances. He has a franchise record 77 career regular-season wins in 113 games spanning two seasons. The former mark of 68 career wins in 152 matches was established by Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 1997.
Following Barkov, and rounding out the top five among Central's best European skaters, are forwards Valeri Nichushkin of Dynamo Moscow in Russia and Elias Lindholm of Brynas in Sweden, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen of TPS in Finland and center Alexander Wennberg of Djurgarden in Sweden's second division. All four represented their countries at the 2013 WJC.
More than likely, right wing Nichushkin (6-4, 202 pounds) will be the first Russian off the board. Some scouts have compared him to Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin. He had two points, a plus-5 rating and 25 penalty minutes in six games for Russia at the 2013 WJC, and has shot up everyone's draft board down the stretch.
"He's big and strong … makes things happen with his skating and surprising moves around the net," Stubb said of Nichushkin. "He's very skilled and talented and, by far, the best Russian available in the draft this year."
The top three international goalies include No. 1 Juuse Saros of HPK Jr. in Finland, No. 2 Ebbe Sionas of AIK Jr. in Sweden and No. 3 Luka Gracnar of Salzburg in Austria.
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Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer