It's become increasingly apparent that the competition for the 2011 Entry Draft will not just be a two-horse race to the finish line.
Unlike last year, when forwards Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin dominated the headlines leading up to the opening round in Los Angeles, there seems to be a significantly larger pool to choose from for the top spot when the teams convene at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.
At least, that's what NHL Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire believes is reflected with the release of Monday's mid-term rankings.
"I would say at this point, with the number of viewings our scouts have had, as many as eight players could be taken first," McGuire told NHL.com. "The depth goes right through this draft. A cynic or somebody who's characterizing this as a non-Sidney Crosby draft year only needs to know that whoever emerges in April at No. 5 on our list (Central Scouting's final rankings), and in St. Paul as the No. 5 pick, could eventually be a better NHL player than No. 1. That said, this isn't a Crosby draft year."
Topping Central Scouting's list of North American skaters is power forward Gabriel Landeskog of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers. Landeskog is currently sidelined with a high-ankle sprain suffered with Kitchener prior to joining the Swedish National Junior Team at the World Junior Championship two weeks ago. He re-aggravated the injury in the first game of the WJC after notching a goal and an assist in a 7-1 victory against Norway.
"He came over to North America as an under-age player and that's unique in that most Swedes don't," McGuire said. "He's a fearless forward who goes to the net and stays there."
Landeskog has 25 goals and 45 points this season, his second in the OHL, and this season he became just the second European-born and -trained player to captain an OHL team. Last season he had 24 goals and 46 points in 61 games and was named to the OHL's All-Rookie First Team. Prior to crossing the Atlantic, he was the youngest player -- at 16 years, 90 days old -- to suit up for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League.
Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is ranked second, followed by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, Jonathan Huberdeau of the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs, and Tyler Biggs of the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in the United States Hockey League.
Couturier, the only draft-eligible player to win a silver medal for Canada at the WJC after contributing 2 goals, 3 points and an impressive plus-6 rating in seven games, was considered the top offensive player from North America to begin the season.
"His projected dominance from last year's under-age performance has not rocketed up to expectations for some scouts," McGuire said. "Don't forget now, we're talking about the No. 2 guy overall. We probably expected Couturier to put on more weight and we're attributing it -- although none of us have our MD degree -- to maybe an after-effect of the mononucleosis he dealt with in August and maybe fatigue in playing a ton of hockey in a short period of time."
Still, McGuire considers Couturier a "polished all-round player who has gained another notch of maturity and poise." Most importantly, Couturier might turn out to be a future Selke Trophy candidate as his ability in the defensive zone is impressive.
Nugent-Hopkins, who has 10 goals and a team-leading 50 points in 39 games with Red Deer, might be the flashiest player among the top five prospects.
"He sees the ice very well and his ability to find teammates is beyond that of the first two players we ranked," McGuire said of the 6-foot-1/2, 170-pound prospect. "That's not demeaning the top two players among the thousands we watch, but Nugent-Hopkins has good speed and can make great decisions. He's just not as tall as a lot of people might want him to be."
The Saint John Sea Dogs could have as many as six players drafted, including Central Scouting's top choice among the group, Huberdeau. In fact, the 6-1 1/2, 168-pound center might be playing on the best line in junior hockey, alongside No. 12-ranked Zack Phillips
and No. 24 Tomas Jurco. Huberdeau has 27 goals, a team-leading 65 points and a plus-37 rating in 40 games.
Biggs, who has good size at 6-2 and 210 pounds, is committed to Miami University next fall. In 29 games as captain of the Under-18 team, he has 10 goals, 18 points and 88 penalty minutes. Biggs' father, Don, enjoyed a 16-season professional career, including 12 NHL games with the Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers.
"Biggs is another young player who has taken on the job as leader of his team, and does most of their fighting when they have to fight, if not all of it," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "I think the responsibility for standing up for teammates has taken a little away from his offensive finish … wearing that 'C' and doing those things. My gut feeling is that he's on an uphill path."
The top-rated North American defenseman comes in at No. 7 in the form of Dougie Hamilton, who has 6 goals, 34 points and a plus-29 rating in 38 games with the OHL's Niagara IceDogs.
"He moves the puck well and makes good outlet passes," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He does make good decisions with the puck, moves it very well out of his zone. He's a big guy, he'll take the body. He can muscle people off the puck."
Nathan Beaulieu is next behind Hamilton among top-rated North American defensemen -- rated No. 9. Beaulieu was one of two under-age players to attend the Canadian World Junior camp in August, along with Couturier, but wasn't invited to the WJC.
"He'll be an offensive-defenseman … he's a good skater, good puck-mover," Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told NHL.com. "He has a good shot and is very poised with the puck. He's a veteran who has a lot of responsibilities for Saint John."
Right now, Hamilton ranks ahead of Beaulieu, but Central Scouting believes the pair easily could switch spots by the time April's final ratings are released.
"Determining which defenseman, Beaulieu or Hamilton, will be better is like splitting hairs," McGuire said. "You can name nine great things each player does and one thing that's a deficiency."
There's no denying the fact the best defenseman available in this year's draft should be Sweden's Adam Larsson, who had 4 points and a plus-4 rating in six games for his country at the WJC. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Larsson is the top-rated prospect among Central Scouting's European skaters. He has 8 points in 28 games with Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League.
"He's a big, strong defenseman with an excellent understanding of the game," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a leader, cool and calm on the ice, and knows where to be. His positional game is excellent and he uses his size and reach very well along the boards and in front of the net. He's surprisingly mobile and fast for a player of his size."
The top North American goalie among the 33 listed is the USNTDP's John Gibson. In 18 games this season, he is 7-8-2 with a 3.25 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. His partner between the pipes, Matt McNeely, is ranked No. 5. He's 6-10-0 mark with a 3.82 GAA and .899 save percentage in 18 games.