It is known as TSN's Mid-Season Top 30 NHL Draft Rankings but this year it might be better termed the "Look Over Your Shoulder Sweepstakes".
As expected, in our survey of NHL scouts, Windsor Spitfire goal-scoring winger Taylor Hall is the No. 1 prospect. Every scout surveyed by TSN currently has Hall at the top of their list, but every scout also indicated the margin between Hall and the unanimous No. 2 prospect, Plymouth Whaler centre Tyler Seguin, is indeed slim.
Their message is clear – the No. 1 spot is still very much up for grabs.
"Seguin just keeps pushing," one scout said. “He's not going away. If the team picking first overall needs a high-end centre more than it needs a goal-scoring winger, I could see Seguin going No. 1. If a team needs that goal-scoring winger more than the centre, then it would be Hall."
There is, however, no denying Hall's strong performance at the 2010 World Junior Championship, and a good effort at the CHL Prospects Game, has thus far helped him to fend off the challenge from Seguin, the OHL's leading scorer who has five goals and 11 points in his last three games.
To no one's surprise, Hall's Windsor teammate Cam Fowler is the consensus No. 3 on the TSN list, but his status as the top defenceman is being seriously challenged. No fewer than two scouts told TSN they now rate Kingston Frontenac hard-rock defenceman Erik Gudbranson ahead of Fowler. Another scout has Moncton Wildcat Brandon Gormley at the No. 1 defenceman, ahead of both Fowler and Gudbranson, who wasn't able to play in the CHL Prospects Game last week because of an enlarged spleen as a result of a bout of mononucleosis.
But Fowler, the big American who turned in a solid effort at the WJC, has enough support to nail down the No. 3 spot behind Hall and Seguin. Gudbranson, who is both tough and talented, and Gormley, who plays an understated all-around game, hold down the No. 5 and No. 6 slots respectively on TSN's list.
The No. 4 spot belongs to silky smooth forward Brett Connolly of the Prince George Cougars. It is a testament to Connolly's skill and offensive prowess that he has remained a top five prospect in spite of playing only 12 games in the WHL this season because of a hip problem. Mind you, he had seven goals in those 12 games.
"He was spectacular at the Under-18 and if you saw him in any of the games he played this season, he was very good," a scout told TSN. "He's big, fast, skilled and productive. There's a lot to like. Obviously, we're going to have to see what's going on with this hip thing but if he's healthy, he's a top five guy for sure."
Connolly's problem is said to be a cranky hip flexor. He's skating again and taking treatment for it but is said to be at least a couple of weeks away from playing.
The rest of TSN's top 10 are rounded out by four European forwards, three of whom play in the CHL.
Barrie Colts' Russian forward Alexander Burmistrov, with speed and skill to burn, is No. 7. Portland Winterhawk winger Nino Niedereitter, who lit it up for Switzerland at the WJC, is No. 8. Moncton Wildcat forward Kirill Kabanov, the Russian with game-breaking qualities, is No. 9, although like Connolly, Kabanov has been injured much of the season. He has played in only 11 games because of a wrist injury that required surgery in November. He's scheduled to return to the lineup in mid-February or thereabouts.
Diminutive Finn Mikael Granlund holds down the No. 10 spot, even though many scouts said the highly-skilled forward was underwhelming at the WJC.
But if there is a resounding message from the scouts on this mid-term ranking it is that there's still plenty of racetrack to be run and change – both within the top 10 and outside of it – is highly likely.
"Let's face it," one scout said. "Hall, Seguin, Fowler, Gudbranson, Gormley and Connolly, if he's healthy, are pretty much locks to be in the Top 10. But if Hall stumbles, Seguin can pass him. Fowler has to deal with Gudbranson and Gormley and those guys have to play well or other guys are going to go by them. If Connolly and Kabanov don't get healthy and play some games, they could slide. It's really pretty fluid."
Indeed. No fewer than seven other prospects that didn't make the TSN's consensus Top 10 received some support from scouts as Top 10 picks.
Russian Vladimir Tarasenko is perhaps the most intriguing. He checks in at No. 11 on TSN's list, but one scout ranked him as high as No. 3. There is clearly the Russian Factor to consider – NHL teams are growing increasingly wary of taking Russians with high end draft picks, especially after Columbus prospect Nikita Filatov went home to Russia to play this season rather than go to the American Hockey League – and that alone can have a huge negative impact on everyone from Tarasenko to Kabanov. But Tarasenko is a mercurial talent who is either the best player on the ice or a complete no show on a lot of nights. So he's a major league wild card in this draft, a player whose skill level puts him in the same strata as Hall and Seguin but who also comes with some caution flags.
Sudbury Wolves' forward John McFarland is another curious case. McFarland was considered a solid Top 10 prospect in TSN pre-season rankings and while a few scouts still have him there – suggesting his skill level is in the same range at Hall and Seguin – many others have not only dropped him out of the Top 10 but currently rank him in the lower end of the entire first round. His consensus ranking for TSN mid-season's list is at 17. It would not be a surprise if he bounces back to be a top 10 consideration but based on the opinion of some scouts this time around, it wouldn't be a huge shock if he were taken at 20 or later.
"McFarland is a tough read," one scout said. "When he plays in major competitions for Canada with good players, he tends to play well and show he belongs with the elite guys. But if you watch him in Sudbury, he's just not getting it done. We know he doesn't have the same supporting cast there but that only goes so far and he's not playing as well (in the OHL) as he can and that's a concern.'
Other prospects who received some top 10 consideration from scouts include: No. 12 ranked Mark Pysyk, the mobile Edmonton Oil King defenceman; No. 13 ranked University of Notre Dame forward Riley Sheahen, who was ranked No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting's mid-season list; No. 14 ranked Minnesota high school forward Nick Bjugstad; No. 19 ranked Portland Winterhawk centre Ryan Johansen; and No. 21 ranked Jarred Tinordi, the U.S. Under-18 defenceman who is the son of ex-NHLer Mark Tinordi.
Were any of those prospects, along with Tarasenko and McFarland, to unseat players currently in TSN mid-season Top 10, it would come as no huge surprise.
"It's a good draft," one scout said, "but outside of the top five or six guys, I think you're going to see a fairly wide variety of opinons on a lot of guys."
Even though there are four Europeans in the TSN Top 10, there's not a lot of support of first round support for Euros who are actually playing in Europe. Granlund is the safest bet, followed by Tarasenko. Two Russian forwards – Evgeny Kuznetsov and Maxim Kitsyn – are considered first-round talents but may well fall because of the "Russian Factor." Kuzentsov and Kitsyn did not get ranked in TSN's Top 30 – they were designated as honorable mentions – but it wouldn't be a huge shock if someone stepped up on them in the latter stages of the first round. Outside of those four homegrown Euros, it's doubtful there are any others receiving serious first-round looks.
It's apparently not a particularly strong year for goaltenders either.
Team USA hero Jack Campbell - who led the Americans to WJC gold - is the only goaltender on the TSN Top 30, at No. 16. Seattle's Calvin Pickard was the only other goalie to merit any firstp-round consideration and he was deemed to be an honorable mention on the TSN Top 30. It's possible other goalies could work their way up in the rankings but as of now, Campbell and Pickard look to be the top two tenders.