As the race to the 2009 Entry Draft in June approaches the halfway point, one thing has become clear, there are two runners leading the pack, with everyone else fighting for third.
London Knights center John Tavares
and Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman
top the North American and European skater rankings, respectively, in NHL Central Scouting's Midterm Rankings, released Monday.
Central Scouting ranked the top 210 North American skaters, the top 30 North American goaltenders, the 148 top European skaters and the 12 best European goalies.
Tavares, named the MVP of Canada's gold-medal effort at the 2009 World Junior Championship, has been at the top of the '09 Draft lists for quite some time. He topped the ranking of Ontario Hockey League skaters when Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings in November, and nothing he's done since then has warranted any changes.
"He went in with deserved hype to be the No. 1 North American player," said NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire. "Hedman went in with deserved hype to be the No. 1 European player and both played admirably (at the WJC). Tavares, by judgment of people other than Central Scouting, got the MVP of the tournament. His team won, he was a leader and high scorer on his team. He solidified his No. 1 position."
Hedman, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman currently playing for MODO Hockey Ornskoldsvik in the Swedish Elite League, is renowned for having the skating ability and puck skills of a smaller player. While his performance for silver medalist Sweden at the WJC was less than exemplary -- he finished with 2 assists and a plus-4 rating in six games -- scouts remain enamored by his size and skills.
"If a team is going to solidify its defense, you look right to Hedman," McGuire said.
The race heats up after the big two.
Trailing Tavares in the North American race is Brampton Battalion center Matt Duchene
. One of the last cuts from the Canada's national junior team, Duchene has picked up his play as the season has gone on, and entered the weekend tied for seventh in the OHL scoring race with 49 points in 30 games. He was second to Tavares in the preliminary rankings of OHL skaters.
Next on the list is Vancouver Giants center Evander Kane
. An injury replacement on Canada's WJC roster, Kane finished with 6 points in six games, including a pair of assists in Canada's semifinal win against Russia. Kane has 22 goals and 48 points in 28 Western Hockey League games -- numbers good enough to move him up from the No. 2-ranked WHL skater in the preliminary ranking, and make the difference slight between he and Duchene.
"Those two are very close," McGuire said. "You might flip-flop them at any given point."
Also close is No. 4 Jordan Schroeder
, the top-rated American-born skater. The 5-foot-8, 175-pounder certainly raised his stock at the WJC, finishing with team highs of 8 assists and 11 points despite the U.S. team's fifth-place ranking. A freshman center at the University of Minnesota, Schroeder leads all first-year collegians with 14 assists and 21 points.
Ranked fifth is Brandon Wheat Kings center Brayden Schenn
. Schenn learned about the process last year while watching his brother, Luke, who was chosen at No. 5 by the Toronto Maple Leafs
last June. Brayden Schenn
(6-foot, 193) has 28 assists and 45 points in 39 WHL games. He was ranked third among WHL skaters in the preliminary rankings.
Kane and Schenn rose ahead of Spokane Chiefs defenseman Jared Cowen
, who was the top-ranked Western Hockey League skater in the November rankings. McGuire said it wasn't that Cowen, ranked No. 7 in the midterm release, did anything wrong; it's that Kane and Schenn played better.
continues to improve and the other two simply are playing a little better," McGuire said. "Just as easily and just as quickly, if Jared has a good second half, he's back where he can be."
The 6-4, 216-pound defenseman has 17 points, 30 penalty minutes and a plus-4 rating in 40 games.
Rounding out the North American top 10 is Saint John Sea Dogs defenseman Simon Despres
, who remained the top-ranked skater from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; Cowen; defenseman John Moore
of the Chicago Steel, the top-rated player from the United States Hockey League; Guelph Storm center Peter Holland
; and Lethbridge Hurricanes right wing Carter Ashton
Among those slipping from the preliminary rankings is London Knights center Nazem Kadri
. Kadri was ranked third in the OHL in the preliminary rankings, but now sits fourth behind Peter Holland
among OHL skaters. Kadri is ranked No. 11 among all North American skaters. A broken jaw suffered in mid-November kept him out for a month, but in 28 games, he has 16 goals and 41 points.
McGuire said Kadri could make another significant move -- up or down -- based on Tavares' arrival in London.
"If he (Kadri) is on the second power play and John Tavares
plays a minute and 15 seconds (on the first unit), and he (Kadri) is the next one out, he could be hurt," McGuire said. "My guess is he's going to be out on the first power play and benefit from the attention Tavares gets."
of the Saginaw Spirit was the top-rated goaltender, just ahead of the Owen Sound Attack's Scott Stajcer
"He's got the look of an NHL goalie down the road," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said of Pasquale. "I like his foot speed, he's got an excellent butterfly, and when he goes down he covers the net well. He moves well with excellent net coverage."
Pasquale has 21 wins in 38 OHL games, with a 2.81 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
"(Tavares) went in with deserved hype to be the No. 1 North American player. Hedman went in with deserved hype to be the No. 1 European player and both played admirably (at the WJC). Tavares, by judgment of people other than Central Scouting, got the MVP of the tournament. His team won, he was a leader and high scorer on his team. He solidified his No. 1 position."
-- NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire
Stajcer is the backup on a sub-.500 Attack team, and has just 7 wins and a 3.44 GAA in 16 OHL games, but Jensen sees a future NHL player.
"He's got an air of confidence about him I really like," said Jensen. "I see in him what you need at the pro level -- you need to be strong and confident in yourself. He doesn't let goals bother him, doesn't let pressure get to him. He's consistently improved as the year has gone on."
Jensen said if skaters and goalies were mixed together, Pasquale and Stajcer would be ranked between No. 20 and No. 30 -- the bottom-third of the first round.
While the gap between the top two North American skaters is fairly significant, the race for the top spot among European skaters has narrowed, with Swedish forward Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson
narrowing the gap on Hedman.
"Those two are close enough that the hair could be split on position," McGuire said.
Hedman, who turned 19 last month, has played the last two seasons against men in the Swedish Elite League. In 26 games this season, he has 3 goals and 11 points.
Paajarvi, a 6-1, 200-pound left wing, opened eyes at the World Juniors, finishing with 7 points and a plus-6 rating, and he assisted on Sweden's lone goal in the gold-medal loss to Canada. He also has 4 goals and 11 points in 33 games with Timra IK in the Swedish Elite League.
Swedes dominate the list of European skaters, as the top eight players and 11 of the top 15 are from Sweden.
The top European goalie also is Swedish -- Frolunda's Robin Lehner
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.