Three months ago NHL.com asked nine top evaluators from NHL Central Scouting who their choice would be as the first pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
The impromptu poll had McDavid, a center with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League the 5-4 choice against Eichel, who will be a center at Boston University in the fall.
Many top scouts believe that slim difference between the two will be par for the course in 2014-15 when the two players will be scrutinized and publicized in every way leading up to the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
"Every year the scouts think that it's a good crop of prospects," Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting, said. "There's just been a little more emphasis in 2015 because there's been a couple more top-end frontrunners and the fact that there were a number of underage players performing in their various junior leagues and performing well. That leads to high expectations for this draft class."
Strong European class for 2015 Draft
In addition to the fantastic group of North American prospects eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, the international contingent looks to be equally appealing to scouts entering the 2014-15 season.
"We think the international side will rebound a little bit to where there's more first-time draft eligible prospects," said Dan Marr, NHL director of Central Scouting. "Last year, a number of the top European prospects chose to play in North America, so that kind of cut back on the depth of the international list."
The player who could top the charts in 2015 is Czech center Pavel Zacha, who was taken by the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League with the first pick of the 2014 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft earlier this month. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound center had four goals and four assists in 38 games last season with Liberec in the top professional league in the Czech Republic as a 16-year-old.
"Pavel is a power forward with excellent size and strength and looks like a man when playing juniors in his own age-group; he's quite a complete package," said Goran Stubb, NHL director of European Scouting. "He's physically strong, has great overall skills and is really tough to play against. He's always on the puck and can create scoring chances with his strength and quick, smart moves; has very good puck control, is a smart playmaker and has a great shot."
Zacha, who will spend the 2014-15 campaign with Liberec, played in five games for the Czech Republic at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. He finished with three goals and two assists to help his country win a silver medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
Stubb said Zacha wants to follow the identical path of San Jose Sharks forward and fellow countryman Tomas Hertl by going right from the top Czech league to the NHL upon being drafted.
Two other players Stubb recognized on the Futures List are defenseman Oliver Kylington of Farjestad in Sweden and right wing Mikko Rantanen of TPS in Finland.
Kylington (6-0, 180) earned a spot with Farjestad in the Swedish league after a solid start with the junior team last year. He can quarterback a power play and enjoys joining the rush.
"Oliver is a very good skater with first-step quickness and fine balance," Stubb said. "He's a two-way defenseman who loves to join the offensive rush. He's smart with excellent hockey sense and passing skills, can read the situations very well. He takes a big role with the puck."
Rantanen (6-4, 195) had a breakthrough season at the senior level with TPS in 2013-14, scoring five goals and nine points in 37 games.
"He's a physically strong power forward with very good playmaking abilities," Stubb said. "He's smart, active and involved on every shift. Has very good speed and quickness for a big man and plays with authority. He's difficult to check, protects the puck well, has good hands. He's not overly physical, but uses his size to his advantage and finishes his hits."
-- Mike G. Morreale
The first phase of pinpointing those potential draft gems was achieved this week with the release of NHL Central Scouting's Futures List for North America and Europe.
"The list is based on the body of work that we saw from the players during 2013-14," Marr said. "A number of these players will be changing teams for 2014-15 and that will be reflected in our preliminary players to watch list in September."
Marr said the summer scouting cycle began in June with the United States Under-17 select camp in Amherst, N.Y. Among the big scouting events on the agenda are the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament from Aug. 11-16 in Slovakia and Czech Republic; the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Sept. 25 in Buffalo, N.Y.; the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 22, 2015 in St. Catharine's, Ont.; and the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January at a location to be announced.
A number of scouts believe the 2015 draft is loaded with talent, so much so that it may one day rival the 2003 draft. Heading the pack are McDavid and Eichel.
In March 2012 McDavid (6-foot, 185 pounds) was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2012 OHL draft as a 15-year-old. Less than a month later Erie made him the first pick of the draft and he went on to win the OHL Rookie of the Year award in 2012-13. Last season he was fourth in the OHL in scoring with 99 points (28 goals, 71 assists) in 56 regular-season games, and he has 53 goals and 165 points in 119 OHL games. He also earned a spot with Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, becoming the sixth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the WJC, following Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Wayne Gretzky.
Eichel (6-1, 191), a likely participant in the All-American Prospects Game, led the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team with 32 goals and 71 points in 43 games despite being the youngest player on the team. He played for the United States at the 2014 WJC and had five points in five games.
"McDavid is an exceptional talent and he's been on display now for the world to see for two years [in the OHL] and he's lived up to all the expectations that were kind of placed on his shoulders," Marr said. "That's not an easy burden for a young man. This year just happens to be his draft year and the expectation is he'll continue to be the frontrunner for the No. 1 spot. But Jack Eichel has already made known that this is a two-horse race."
Also on Central Scouting's list is McDavid's Erie teammate Dylan Strome (6-2, 177). Strome, the younger brother of New York Islanders forward Ryan Strome, had 10 goals and 39 points in 60 regular-season games for the Otters.
In addition to McDavid and Strome, Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said he will also be keeping a close watch on OHL forwards Lawson Crouse of the Kingston Frontenacs and Travis Konecny of the Ottawa 67's.
Crouse had 15 goals, 27 points, 64 penalty minutes and a plus-10 rating in 63 games for the Frontenacs in 2013-14.
"Crouse is a big guy and he uses his size (6-3, 198) very well," Edwards said. "He was used as a top-six guy in Kingston last season and took a regular shift on both the power-play and penalty-kill units. He protects and handles the puck very well, plays with a lot of energy and competes hard every night. He can hit hard."
Konecny, who is a second cousin to Vancouver Canucks prospect Bo Horvat, had 26 goals and 70 points in 63 games last season.
"He's a highly skilled forward who never quits," Edwards said. "He is around the puck every shift and created most of the offense that the 67's were able to generate last season. He skates very well and has excellent speed, is not afraid to get involved in battles and has no fear of taking the puck to the net. Despite not being the biggest guy (5-9, 172) on the ice, he's not afraid to play in traffic and is capable of winning battles."
The top player to watch in the Western Hockey League could be center Mathew Barzal (5-11, 174), who is one of three skaters playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds on Central Scouting's list. Barzal had 14 goals and 54 points in 59 games as a rookie last season. Joining Barzal are teammates defenseman Ethan Bear and left wing Ryan Gropp.
The Charlottetown Islanders of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League have three players on the Futures List, defenseman David Henley and right wings Kameron Kielly and Daniel Sprong.
2014-15 NHL CSS FUTURES LISTS
There are several high-caliber performers to watch from the United States National Team Development Program. Among them are defenseman Noah Hanifin (6-2, 200), right wing Colin White (6-foot, 178) and left wing Jordan Greenway (6-4, 214). Hanifin is committed to Boston College in 2015-16, White to Boston College in 2016-17 and Greenway to Boston University in 2015-16.
There are quite a few goalies on the radar of scouts at this stage, but two that stand out are Callum Booth (6-2, 196) of the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL and Mackenzie Blackwood (6-2, 205) of the Barrie Colts in the OHL.
"There's no clear No. 1 goalie yet and there could be some goalies that step to the forefront as the season goes along, but Booth and Blackwood look good," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "Booth is very controlled and has good quickness and athleticism. He reminds me a bit of the way Semyon Varlamov plays with the Colorado Avalanche.
"Mackenzie was Barrie's No. 1 goalie last year and has good size. He's calm, poised and confident with an excellent butterfly style and is tough to beat down low."