Auston Matthews, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of the top international skaters eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, proved as advertised this season for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league.
Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., opted to play overseas rather than remain in North America playing college hockey or in the Canadian Hockey League. He took the road less traveled because he figured the only way to improve was by playing against bigger and stronger players, many of whom had NHL experience. He succeeded, finishing second in voting for league MVP after scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games.
It is expected Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting, who is based out of Finland, will recommend Matthews remain No. 1 on his final ranking of international skaters released next month.
Additionally, NHL Central Scouting will meet this week at their Toronto headquarters to determine the final ranking of the top 210 North American skaters and top 30 North American goaltenders. London left wing Matthew Tkachuk was No. 1 on Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters released in January.
"The 2016 draft is proving to be quite an interchangeable list of NHL prospects," said Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting. "There is some consensus on who the top five players would be, who would be in the top 10 and the depth of the first round, but the order is very much in transition and will likely differ significantly from the midterm ranking."
Here are five questions to consider entering NHL Central Scouting's final meetings:
Can any other player in the 2016 draft class supplant Matthews as the No. 1 prospect?
Although there are many other high-caliber performers in this class, the fact Matthews already has professional experience and has dominated as a top-line center makes him the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 in the first round on June 24 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Stubb told NHL.com there is a very small difference between Matthews and Finnish right wings Jesse Puljujarvi (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) and Patrik Laine (6-4, 206), however.
Matthews (6-1, 210) will next represent the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship from May 6-22 in Russia.
The bottom line is Matthews will likely earn a top-six role in 2016-17 for the NHL team drafting him. There is no guarantee any of the other players in this draft class will have that sort of impact.
How close is the race for best defenseman in the draft?
It would appear at this stage Jakob Chychrun of Sarnia and Olli Juolevi of London are each high on the list of defensemen eligible for the draft.
Chychrun, the son of former NHL player Jeff Chychrun, might be a slight favorite to go first at his position. He possesses good size (6-2, 215) and plays with great confidence and poise. He had 11 goals and 49 points in 62 regular-season games for the Sting.
Juolevi (6-2, 179) has been gaining momentum since winning a gold medal for Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship when he had nine assists in seven games. Juolevi, who is often compared to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, had nine goals and 42 points in 57 regular-season games.
Boston University freshman Charles McAvoy (6-0, 208) is next in line. He is probably the top right-handed defenseman available in the draft.
Who will be the top forward on the final North American list?
Tkachuk, Mississauga left wing Alexander Nylander, Val-d'Or right wing Julien Gauthier and Cape Breton left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois have continued to make major strides over the second half of the season.
Tkachuk, Nylander and Gauthier represented their country in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland.
Tkachuk (6-1, 195) tied Matthews for the team lead with 11 points in seven games for the bronze medal-winning United States. Nylander (6-0, 179) led Sweden with four goals and nine points in seven games. Gauthier (6-3, 225) had two assists and four shots on goal in five games for Canada.
Dubois ranked third in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 99 points (42 goals, 57 assists) in 62 regular-season games. He had 10 power-play goals and three shorthanded goals.
The guess here is Tkachuk, who continued to dominate for the Knights despite the added pressure as the top draft-eligible prospect at the midterm ranking, will remain No. 1 among North American skaters. He ranked fifth in the Ontario Hockey League with 107 points (30 goals, 77 assists) in 57 regular-season games.
Is there a dark horse to keep an eye on down the stretch?
Forward Tage Thompson of the University of Connecticut has been impressive in his first season in Hockey East.
Thompson (6-5, 185), No. 24 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters, had 14 goals, 32 points and 97 shots on goal in 36 games for the Huskies. He led the NCAA with 13 power-play goals in the regular season.
The right-handed center has earned the trust of the coaching staff, has logged big minutes and, according to Marr, has improved his skating tremendously since the start of the season.
Others to watch are Penticton center Tyson Jost, Blaine High School left wing Riley Tufte and University of Wisconsin center Luke Kunin. Jost was named MVP of the British Columbia Hockey League. Tufte won the Mr. Hockey Award as the top high school senior in Minnesota. Kunin had 16 goals, 28 points and five power-play goals in 31 games for the Badgers.
What are the chances a goaltender is selected in the first round of the 2016 draft?
There are a few goaltenders having solid seasons, but the odds one is selected in the first round is slim. There are three who could hear their name called as early as the second round: Carter Hart of Everett in the Western Hockey League, Evan Fitzpatrick of Sherbrooke (QMJHL) and Zachary Sawchenko of Moose Jaw (WHL).
Hart (6-0, 177), No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of North American goalies, is 35-23-4 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 63 regular-season games. Central Scouting's Al Jensen considers Hart a very good prospect. He stands square to the shooter and plays mostly at the top of the crease. He seals the ice well with his pads and is able to keep his body upright to protect the upper corners.
Fitzpatrick (6-2, 222), No. 2 among goalies on Central Scouting's midterm ranking, is 18-26-8 with a 3.42 GAA and .896 SV% in 54 regular-season games. Jensen describes Fitzpatrick as having a big presence in the net with very good butterfly coverage for both the low and high shots.
Sawchenko (6-0, 178), No. 3 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking for North American goalies, is 28-16-7 with a 3.04 GAA and .916 SV% in 51 regular-season games. Jensen said he feels Sawchenko plays with a lot of drive and determination. He likes his recovery and scrambling ability to come up big.