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NHL Central Scouting final rankings wrap-up report

by Mike G. Morreale

TORONTO -- NHL Central Scouting this weekend put the finishing touches on the opening two rounds of its projections of North American players eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.

At the midterm rankings release in January, Erie Otters center Connor McDavid and Boston University center Jack Eichel were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Those generational stars are expected to remain there when Central Scouting makes its official release of the final rankings in April.

Although the scouts could basically do no wrong with projecting the top two, the voting became a bit more arduous after that.

"Initially, you don't get the consensus right away, so you have to go around and around and listen to everyone else's opinions and thoughts," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "Sometimes the most obvious point becomes the most salient point, and then it just helps put it all together so there's nothing difficult about it.

"Once we get the consensus, it's usually the right decision. It's not that it's difficult or challenging but just an exercise we must go through. Based on the track record and over time for Central Scouting and the NHL teams, the group list is always the best list."

One thing the scouts made certain while ranking the top skaters in North America was not selling short those players not named McDavid or Eichel.

"I think knowing how generational those top two are, we didn't want to forget the great potential of the guys below them," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "We have to be careful when a guy like [Dylan] Strome gets 129 points to lead the Ontario Hockey League; we can't discount that, because it's pretty darn special."

Many believe the battle for the third-best forward in the draft will come down to Strome, Kingston Frontenacs left wing Lawson Crouse, London Knights center Mitchell Marner and TPS (Finland) right wing Mikko Rantanen. McDavid, Strome and Marner each finished with more than 100 points in the OHL this season. Rantanen, 18, has nine goals and 28 points in 56 games in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland.

"I think it was a lot closer than what we expected at the beginning of the year," Central Scouting's John Williams said. "Players have made a case for themselves, and there's a solid group of guys there. If you look at our top 10, it's a really good group compared to some other years. That's just the way it is sometimes, but I think you can see it flipping back and forth from now until draft day for sure."

Marr said there are no wrong choices when it comes to selecting any one of the top projected first-round forwards the scouts spent a little more than 30 minutes discussing Saturday.

"If you want to argue who is going to be the best down the road, they're all equally going to be good in their roles based on their talent because all of them are different type forwards," he said. "After the playoffs, if we did this voting discussion again and since they are that close, it could change."

There was also strong debate regarding the top defense prospects. Noah Hanifin of Boston College, Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Zachary Werenski of the University of Michigan are considered the best along the blue line.

"Provorov has really come on strong," Central's Western Hockey League scout Peter Sullivan said. "I think he's given Hanifin and Werenski a run. I think everybody agreed at the meetings that he's more NHL-ready than most of the players in the draft right now. That's not to say that he'll be better than Hanifin 10 years from now, but I'd say he's the D-man that's almost ready right now."

At the midterm, Hanifin was No. 3, Werenski No. 6, and Provorov No. 10.

"All three of those defensemen are different, but they each excel at their own game," Sullivan said.

Williams completed his first full season as a scout for Central this season, working primarily in the Western Hockey League. Prior to joining Central, he served as assistant director of scouting for the Columbus Blue Jackets for five years.

"It's a different way for me to approach the game," Williams said. "I had to be a lot more open-minded in certain ways about certain players. I know some organizations might have certain criteria about certain players, like not taking anybody smaller than this guy. But we're working for 30 teams, and you have to keep all those different things in play. He may not be the guy that I would draft necessarily for my team, but I can see him playing in the League for a certain type of team or organization."

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