Much as he was for the entire 2008-09 season, John Tavares was the consensus top-ranked North American skater in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, which were released Tuesday.
Central Scouting rated the top 210 North American skaters and the best 30 North American goaltenders available for the 2009 Entry Draft.
Tavares, who led the Ontario Hockey League with 58 goals and 104 points this season, figures to be the top prize when the teams meet in Montreal on June 26-27 for the annual selection process.
"He's a pure scorer who's going to be an asset to teams for years to come," NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire told NHL.com. "His numbers statistically speak for themselves. He is going to be, we predict, an All-Star caliber player for many years in the NHL."
Tavares showed his elite-level skill with a star performance at the 2009 World Junior Championship. He finished second in scoring with 15 points in six games to help Canada capture the gold medal, and he was voted the event's best forward and MVP.
Following Tavares on the final rankings -- just as they did in the mid-term release -- are Brampton Battalion center Matt Duchene and Vancouver Giants center Evander Kane at Nos. 2 and 3.
Duchene had 31 goals, 79 points and a plus-32 rating in just 57 Ontario Hockey League games, and he helped Brampton reach the OHL conference finals with 7 goals and 14 points in 10 postseason games. He's highly regarded for his smarts and all-round ability, and McGuire said Duchene compares favorably with last year's top draft pick, Steven Stamkos.
"All the things Stamkos was last year, as far as offensive ability and a keen hockey sense that allows him to play great defensively, penalty kill and everything else … Duchene is a natural sniper," he said.
McGuire said the gap between Duchene and Kane was miniscule.
"Matt Duchene might have a hairline edge in the skill -- and exciting skill -- department than Evander Kane," he said, "but not much."
Kane, like Tavares, made a big impact at the World Juniors. Playing in a fourth-line role, Kane earned a regular shift and finished with 2 goals and 6 points in six games. At 6-foot-1 and 176 pounds, Kane has good size and a nose for the net. He finished second in the Western Hockey League with 48 goals and fourth with 96 points in just 61 games, and he's played a major role in Vancouver's push to the second round of the WHL playoffs with 10 points in 10 games, including the double-overtime goal to force a Game 7 in the Giants' conference semifinal series with the Spokane Chiefs.
"Kane can score, but will do it in more of a physical sense than Matt Duchene," McGuire said.
Moving up one spot from the midterm to No. 4 was Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) center Brayden Schenn, younger brother of Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn
, the fifth pick in the 2008 Entry Draft.
The younger Schenn finished with 32 goals and 88 points, and scouts love his work ethic.
"Brayden Schenn is all about work," McGuire said. "He takes the puck to the net and scores goals when he gets there. He's got a tremendous work ethic, and he's equally adept at creating goals or scoring them himself."
University of Minnesota center Jordan Schroeder is the highest-rated American-born player at No. 5. Despite standing just 5-8, Schroder had 13 goals and 45 points in 35 games, and his 1.29 points per game was third in the NCAA. The fact that he turned in that performance playing against older, more physically mature competition is even more impressive.
Schroeder also starred for Team USA at the World Juniors, finishing with team-highs of 8 assists and 11 points in six games.
"Jordan might be the most skilled in all the skill categories -- skating, shooting, puckhandling," said McGuire.
John Moore of the United States Hockey League's Chicago Steel is the No. 2-rated defenseman and No. 6 in the final rankings. Moore was second among USHL defensemen with 14 goals and fourth with 39 points, and he's rated as one of the best skaters in the Draft.
"The first thing that jumps out at you is his overall skating ability," Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston told NHL.com. "He's an excellent skater, great mobility, acceleration, great lateral movement. … He looks like an NHL skater right now. Beyond that, he has puck skills to complement his skating. He thinks the game well, has a pretty good overall game."
Rounding out the top 10 are Brandon right wing Scott Glennie, Schenn's linemate; Saint John Sea Dogs defenseman Simon Despres, the top-ranked skater from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; Spokane Chiefs defenseman Jared Cowen; and Peterborough Petes right wing Zack Kassian.
"He's a pure scorer who's going to be an asset to teams for years to come. His numbers statistically speak for themselves. He is going to be, we predict, an All-Star caliber player for many years in the NHL." - -- E.J. McGuire, on John Tavares
Despres was ranked slightly ahead of fellow QMJHL defenseman Dmitry Kulikov of the Drummondville Voltigeurs, who was ranked No. 11.
Chris Bordeleau, who scouts the QMJHL for Central Scouting, said Despres' steadiness gives him a slight edge on Kulikov, who won the league's best defenseman, rookie of the year and best pro prospect awards, and was named a first-team league all-star.
Despres had 32 points in 66 games despite being limited for most of the season by a hip injury. He measures in at 6-3 and 205 pounds, and his skating is a major strength.
"He's a really consistent player who seldom makes a bad play," Bordeleau told NHL.com. "For a guy that size, he's a real good skater. He's going to be a very strong player on the blue line for quite a few years to come in the NHL.
"Kulikov is a great skater, not as big, can shoot the puck. I would say right now he's got a good chance of playing (in the NHL) next year, the way he handles himself. He's a pretty good all-round player. Not much difference between the two guys. They're just two different players."
A surprise at No. 9 is Cowen, who entered the season with much fanfare after helping lead the Chiefs to WHL and Memorial Cup titles. Cowen was the top-ranked WHL skater in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings, but a slow start was compounded by a season-ending knee injury suffered Jan. 30.
"Everyone came in thinking that he was going to dominate from start to finish," McGuire said. "When he didn't in the first couple of weeks, scouts were saying what's wrong with Jared Cowen. He began to get better as the year went on and then the injury cut that year short."
Still, expectations for a long, successful pro career remain.
"He's going to be a top defenseman in the National Hockey League," Central Scouting's Blair MacDonald told NHL.com. "Might take him a couple years to get used to the quicker speeds, but I think he's going to be a big, reliable guy back there for a couple years."
Kassian, likely the toughest player in the Draft, made one of the biggest jumps from the midterm rankings, when he was No. 24. A 6-2, 210-pound bull, he had 24 goals, 63 points and a team-high 136 penalty minutes in 61 OHL games -- but he might best be remembered for his crushing hit on Tavares in the Top Prospects Game.
"I think the only question when it comes to Zack Kassian is depending when you went in to see him; there are nights when he wasn't jumping off the ice as far as his talents and abilities," said McGuire. "On the nights when he was jumping into it and playing his full game, people will say, 'Why isn't he No. 2 or 3?'
"What Zack has to learn, and we're confident he will, is to bring that top-level talent to the fore on a more consistent basis."
Also rocketing up the rankings is Swift Current center Cody Eakin. Ranked No. 52 in the midterm release, Eakin rose to No. 29, fueled by an MVP performance at the Top Prospects Game in January. Despite injuries that limited him to just 54 games, he finished with 24 goals and 48 points; after his two-goal Top Prospects performance, he had 8 goals and 27 points in 26 games.
"A lot of people say the Top Prospects game is only one game, but he grabbed people's attention in January at that game and forced scouts to go watch him in the regular season, and he didn't disappoint," McGuire said. "Cody Eakin took that Most Valuable Player for his team at the Top Prospects and built on it to the point where we predict he'll be a No. 1-round choice."
Eakin was one of nine players from the WHL to be ranked in the first 30 picks, the most of any one league. There were seven skaters from the OHL, four from the QMJHL, and three from the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Leading the NTDP group is forward Kyle Palmieri, ranked No. 20. Palmieri, who is headed to Notre Dame in the fall, was released from the program due to off-ice issues, but that shouldn't affect his status in the eyes of NHL decision makers.
"Brayden Schenn is all about work. He takes the puck to the net and scores goals when he gets there. He's got a tremendous work ethic, and he's equally adept at creating goals or scoring them himself." - -- E.J. McGuire
"The way he controls the puck in traffic, the way he's got a great release and the way he plays a number of positions on the power play, including the point -- nothing on the off-ice side is going to deter a team from taking him very high," McGuire said.
Plymouth's Matthew Hackett was the top-ranked goaltender on Central Scouting's final list. In his first season as an OHL starter, Hackett -- the nephew of Avalanche goaltender coach Jeff Hackett -- went 34-15-3 with a 3.04 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Hackett was No. 8 in the midterm rankings.
"A huge improvement over last year," Central Scouting's Al Jensen, the group's goalie specialist, told NHL.com. "Great potential, got very good size (6-2, 170), very poised. His angles, his net positioning are very good. He's a very smart goaltender with excellent net coverage."
Just behind Hackett is Olivier Roy of Cape Breton of the QMJHL. While Roy is small at 5-11 and 167 pounds, Jensen said he plays bigger.
"Roy is a very quick, athletic goaltender," Jensen said. "He's maybe not as big as Hackett is, but he doesn't play small, he plays big. His angles are very good and he's very smart. He's very tough to beat in tight; just a smart goaltender."
Saginaw's Edward Pasquale, who was ranked No. 1 at the midterm, was third, followed by Michael Lee of Fargo (USHL); and Owen Sound's Scott Stajcer, who was second at the midterm.
Rounding out the top 10 are Alex Vazzano of the Gunnery School; London's Michael Zador; Brandon Maxwell of the USNTDP; Red Deer's Darcy Kuemper; and Jean Berube of the QMJHL's Montreal Juniors.Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer