-- Of all the prospects talked about on the first day of Central Scouting's final meetings, few were the topic of more discussions than Jared Cowen
There were no debates about the impressive skill set possessed by the 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman for the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs. The discussions centered on how quickly Cowen would recover from the knee injury that ended his season Jan. 30.
Cowen needed reconstructive surgery on his right knee after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and spraining the medial collateral ligament. The injury not only kept him out for the remainder of the Chiefs' run through the WHL playoffs and made their hopes for a Memorial Cup repeat that much tougher, it made the scouts whose job it is to watch him and decide on his future that much tougher.
Some scouts were hoping to see Cowen raise his game in the second half of the season -- the way he did a year ago.
"In Cowan's case it might have been nice to see him play the second half to see how he could have really helped his club," Central Scouting's Blair MacDonald
told NHL.com. "In the playoff rounds is when he played really well last year for them. It would have been nice to see how he can elevate his game in the second half of the season."
Cowen had 4 goals, 18 points and a plus-27 rating in 68 games last season, 4 points in 21 WHL playoff games and a goal in the Memorial Cup championship game.
While Cowen had surpassed his offensive numbers this season with 7 goals and 21 points in 48 games, scouts believed a level of consistency was missing from his game. The hope was that a strong postseason would solve that lingering what-if feeling. It was part of the reason he slipped from No. 1 among WHL skaters in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings to No. 7 overall -- and third among WHL skaters -- in the midterm rankings.
Cowen wasn't the only top player who has scouts weighing potential against hard evidence.
Minnesota high school forward Zach Budish
missed the season after suffering a major knee injury playing football. If those reading the story of Cowen's season stopped in the middle of the book, those reading Budish's never got past the front cover.
"The question is, how good was Budish before he got hurt?" Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire said.
Despite not lacing up a skate this season, Budish was No. 16 in the midterm rankings. According to Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, the injury shouldn't hurt Budish a bit.
"In his situation, my years of experience have taught me that I have more confidence leaving Budish exactly where he is (in the ratings) than some other guys on my list that I've seen all year," Barzee told NHL.com. "If I was with a team … teams that let this guy go by will regret it."
Like Cowen, Budish needed reconstructive knee surgery, but Barzee said Budish already has started skating and running, and looks stronger than he did before he got hurt.
Barzee said missing this season and concentrating solely on hockey when he gets to the University of Minnesota in the fall will only help him going forward.
"The only criticism I've heard of this guy has been his skating, because he was on and off the football field and then went to hockey," Barzee said. "I liken it to Mark Osiecki
, who played for Calgary who now coaches at Wisconsin who was a hell of a football player and hockey player. He never got his hockey legs until February. He went through the draft and the next year went to Wisconsin and his skating, just because he was just using his skating muscles and training for hockey, went through the roof."
The final analysis will come when Central Scouting's final rankings are released April 14, and then at the Scouting Combine, when medical personnel and scouts from the 30 teams will have a chance to poke, prod and analyze just how recovered Budish and Cowen are from their injuries.
"(Teams) will take the Combine opinion, and if they like what they hear at the Combine, they'll take their own surgeon and bring him in or call the examining doctor at the Combine," McGuire said.
MacDonald believes Cowen's injury won't push him any further down the draft board than his skills would place him.
"We've seen enough of him -- saw enough of him last year and early on this year -- to get a read on what he's going to be," MacDonald said. "He's going to be a top defenseman in the National Hockey League. It 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.
"Maybe it would have been nice to see if he could have turned his game up a couple notches again in the playoffs, but we saw that last year in the Memorial Cup run. I think that was a pretty good indicator of what he's going to be like."
However, there's always a buyer-beware element to the rankings and the Entry Draft.
"It's easy for me," Barzee said of his vote in the final ratings. "I'm not (drafting) them."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.