The NHL scouts have spoken -- Russian goal-scoring winger Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting is the consensus No. 1 prospect for the 2012 NHL draft.
Now it's up to the Edmonton Oilers, who (assuming they don't make a trade) actually have to decide whom to take first overall at this Friday's draft in Pittsburgh.
It's one thing for a scout to rank a prospect No. 1; it's quite another to commit to picking that prospect ahead of all others. And so it goes for the Oilers, who hold the top pick for the third consecutive year.
But Yakupov has been the more or less undisputed top prospect this year from wire to wire, ranked No. 1 in TSN's pre-season (mid-September), mid-season, (late January), draft lottery (early April) and final (late May) rankings.
Of the 10 scouts surveyed by TSN for its final rankings, eight pegged Yakupov as the top prospect. Everett Silvertip defenceman Ryan Murray and Yakupov's linemate, centre Alexander Galchenyuk, were the only other prospects to get a No. 1 ranking. Each had one.
But of the eight scouts who ranked Yakupov No. 1, most of them said the gap between Yakupov and the rest of the field -- it was generally considered in the first half of the season to be fairly wide -- has closed significantly since Yakupov first suffered a knee injury at the World Junior Championship and later sustained a mild shoulder separation and was only average to below average when he returned, especially in Sarnia's first-round playoff loss.
"(Yakupov) is the top guy," one scout told TSN, "but it's no longer a reach to consider someone else could be taken instead of him. It was at the beginning of the season."
This sets up as a volatile, unpredictable draft where even in the top five or top 10, there's substantial variance of opinion from team-to-team.
"It could be all over the map from the early going," said another scout.
What we know for certain is that the four-year run of Canadian forwards going first overall -- Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- will come to an end.
Either Yakupov will go No. 1 or, failing that, it's likely to be a defenceman.
In fact, Canada will undoubtedly set a dubious draft record for not having a forward chosen in the early going. The lowest a Canadian forward has ever gone was seventh overall in 1999, when the Washington Capitals drafted Kris Beech. It's not out of the question that no Canadian forward will be taken in the top 15 of the draft. The highest-ranked forwards on TSN's final list are Plymouth Whaler hard-hitting winger Tom Wilson at No. 18 and Belleville Bull two-way centre Brendan Gaunce at No. 20. They could go higher than that, but they could also go lower than that.
It's a draft that is a little top heavy in defencemen but, again, there is a wide variety of opinion on which defencemen are the premier prospects.
Everett's Murray is the consensus No. 2 overall prospect, behind Yakupov, but some teams may favor Edmonton Oil King Griffin Reinhart at No. 4, Red Deer Rebel Matt Dumba at No. 6, Moose Jaw Warrior Morgan Rielly at No. 8, U.S. Under-18 team Jacob Trouba at No. 9 or London Knight Olli Maatta at No. 10.
Those blueline prospects run the gamut of style and approaches. Murray is a strong two-way presence, all calm, cool and collected with a similar style as Nick Lidstrom (not saying he's Lidstrom, only that they play similar styles). Reinhart is also a two-way threat but a bigger body than Murray. Dumba is a running and gunning big hitter who is polar opposite to Murray's measured approach. Rielly is a pure rushing, offensive defenceman who missed most of this season with an ACL injury that required surgery. Trouba is a big, physically mature hitter and shooter and Maatta is a heady, multi-purpose defender.
Yakupov is said to embrace some qualities of Alexander Ovechkin and/or Ilya Kovalchuk, but some scouts believe he'll be pushed for long-term potential by at least three, maybe four, forward prospects.
Swedish winger Filip Forsberg, who checks in at No. 3 on TSN's list, doesn't have the flash and dash of Yakupov but he's a big, strong guy with a tremendous shot, a love of physical play and capable of playing the hard, pro-style grinding game.
American-born Galchenyuk, with a strong influence of Russian heritage in his game, is No. 5 on the TSN list. He's a big, point-producing pivot who missed the entire OHL regular season with an ACL injury that required surgery but he came back in time for the playoffs and showed reasonably well. And Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen, rookie of the year in the Finnish League, isn't very big but he's a dynamic offensive presence who some scouts believe may have the best skill in the entire draft. Teravainen went from No. 28 on TSN's mid-term ranking to No. 7, reflecting his strong second-half.
The wild card is Russian centre Mikhail Grigorenko, who fell from No. 2 on TSN's Draft Lottery edition rankings, to No. 12 on the final list.
Grigorenko did not have a strong playoff for the Quebec Remparts but the big, talented pivot discovered after the fact he had contracted mononucleosis. His second half was also affected by an ankle injury sustained at the World Junior Championship, but he came into his first season with questions about consistency and work ethic and whether it was injury, illness or whatever, he finished the season with more questions than answers.
"If a team has done their homework on this guy (Grigorenko) and really likes him, he could be taken anywhere in the top 10," one scout said. "Skill wise and physically, he's in the same class as Yakupov and any of the other top guys, but if you have concerns about consistency or whether he'll one day prefer to play in the KHL, well, he's a guy a lot of teams could pass on."
Czech centre Radek Faksa of the Kitchener Rangers and Latvian centre Zemgus Girgensons of the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints flank Grigorenko just outside the Top 10. Faksa is 11, Girgensons is 13.
The safe bet is that a Russian (Yakupov), or two (Grigorenko), a Swede (Forsberg), an American (Galchenyuk), a Finn (Teravainen), a Czech (Faksa) and a Latvian (Girgensons) will all be selected before a Canadian forward is taken.
The other aspect that makes this year's draft more unpredictable is that so many of the top prospects suffered significant injuries.
Galchenyuk and Rielly had their knees reconstructed. Peterborough Pete defenceman Slater Koekkoek suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November that later required surgery. Yakupov had the knee injury in the WJC, Maatta was concussed at the WJC, Grigorenko rolled his ankle and contracted mono and Girgensons had a series of injuries over the course of the season.
"I don't ever remember a draft class that had so many big injuries to so many of the key guys," a scout said. "It was like they were jinxed."
Two goaltenders -- Russian Andrei Vasilevksi at No. 24 and Belleville Bull Malcolm Subban, the younger brother of Montreal's P.K. Subban, at No. 25 -- are ranked in TSN's Top 30 but Swedish netminder Oscar Dansk (No. 35 on TSN's Top 60) may also merit first-round consideration.
Finally, a word about how TSN arrives as its rankings.
Ten NHL scouts are surveyed and asked to numerically rank the prospects. The survey results are thrown into the hopper and a consensus ranking, an average of sorts, is arrived at. This process is not to be confused with the many scouting services that subjectively rank the prospects on potential to be NHL players. Ultimately, TSN's list is basically a projection of where in the draft we believe that player will be chosen and over the years it has proven to be a relatively reliable indicator in terms of a range the prospects are taken.
The first round of the draft will be held Friday at 7pm et/4pm pt from Pittsburgh, carried live on TSN and TSN.ca. The remainder of the draft starts Saturday at 10am et/7am pt and is televised by the NHL Network.