So much for suspense.
Steven Stamkos started this season as the clear-cut favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2008 NHL entry draft and that is precisely what is expected to happen on Friday in Ottawa when the Tampa Bay Lightning choose the Sarnia Sting centre. Call it a wire to wire coronation.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise that Stamkos tops TSN's final Top 60 rankings for this year's draft in our annual survey of NHL scouts.
Not once -- not last September when the pre-season rankings were being put together and not in the past week when the final list was assembled or any time in between –- has Stamkos been anything but No. 1 on the list of every scout surveyed by TSN.
Outside of Stamkos being the undisputed centre of attention, the other angle that has been well documented all season long is that it's unquestionably the Year of the Defenceman.
Four of the five spots immediately after Stamkos are held by the same blue-chip defencemen we've all been talking about all season long -– Drew Doughty of the Guelph Storm at No. 2; Zach Bogosian of the Peterborough Petes at No. 3; Alex Pietrangelo of the Niagara Ice Dogs at No. 4 and Luke Schenn of the Kelowna Rockets at No. 6. Doughty is an outstanding offensive-minded, puck-moving blueliner with great hockey sense and a feel for the game. Bogosian is a physical, edgy two-way defenceman with dynamic qualities. Pietrangelo is a heady and smooth offensive puck mover. Schenn is a quintessential defensive defenceman with the ability to play a shut-down role.
No surprises there.
TSN's top 10 is rounded out with five other forwards (besides Stamkos), including Russian centre Nikita Filatov at No. 5, Danish forward Mikkel Boedker of the Kitchener Rangers at No. 7, Boston University centre Colin Wilson at No. 8, Cody Hodgson of the Brampton Battalion at No. 9 and Everett Silvertip winger Kyle Beach at No. 10.
While we may wonder what order the blue-chip defencemen will go, the most intriguing questions of the early going in this draft are centered on the forwards and the two high-end wild cards –- Filatov and Beach.
We have seen Russian players stigmatized at the draft –- top five talent Alexei Cherepanov went 20th overall to the New York Rangers last year -– in large part because of the lack of an agreement between the NHL and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and much uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of them coming to the NHL.
Will the same happen to Filatov, who is the clear-cut consensus next-best forward after Stamkos?
Filatov has certainly done a lot to minimize the chance of him sliding very far.
He speaks fluent English. He is perceived as a hard worker and good teammate, a prototypical team player with character and leadership skills. His parents are worldly in the sense they received education outside of Russia and have been emphatic about their desire, along with Filatov himself, to play in the NHL and make the move to North America for next season.
Based on all of that, if Filatov does slide it's likely to be a hockey decision more than a "Russian" issue.
The other high-end wild card is Beach, the power forward is who touted as a cross between Owen Nolan and Claude Lemieux. That is, a prototypical power forward with a nasty streak and goal-scoring ability (Nolan) as well as an agitating influence that rubs a lot of people the wrong way (Lemieux).
Some believe he's a temperamental head case who has anger management issues to say nothing of injury concerns; others believe he's hard-edged win-at-all-costs competitor who is still trying to figure out exactly how to harness his abundant energy.
What most everyone can agree on is that in a draft that features a lot of defenceman and a lot of really small but highly-skilled forwards, Beach is a unique talent. There's not really anyone else like him. No one that big, that tough, that mean, that talented.
Like Filatov, the question is whether a team will step up on Beach in the top 10 and make that commitment, to look past the question marks.
Barring a surprise on draft day, the fate of these two players should provide the most interesting story-lines of the day.
Not that there aren't others.
Defenceman Tyler Myers of the Kelowna Rockets is another interesting case. At No. 11 on the TSN's final list, the 6-foot-7 blueliner whose skating is rated as "outstanding" would surprise no one if he jumped up to be included in the group of Doughty, Bogosian, Pietrangelo and Schenn, but neither would it be a shock if he slid to later in the first round. The Big Four on defence are being drafted as much on performance as potential; Myers is cited for a lot more potential than performance thus far. Some scouts believe he could be the best of the bunch, but at this moment, his game isn't quite at their level.
No one is quite sure why it's such a great year for defenceman, but consider this: 12 of TSN's top 22 prospects are blueliners, including four of the top six.
Another interesting aspect of this draft is in net.
When the season started, scouts were hesitant to brand any goalie a sure-fire first-round prospect, but TSN's final top 30 includes three stoppers – Tri City's Chet Pickard at No. 18, Sweden's Jacob Markstrom at No. 23 and Guelph's Thomas McCollum at No. 24. Jake Allen of the St. John's Fog Devils is just outside the first round, at No. 31 on the TSN list.
Pickard is considered the consensus No. 1 goalie prospect but Markstrom, McCollum and Allen could be first-rounders as well.
It's not a particularly strong year for European prospects, at least those European-born players who played this past season in Europe.
Filatov, at No. 5, is the highest-ranked European. In all, seven Europeans are ranked in TSN's first round, although Boedker, at No. 7, and defenceman Luca Sbisa, at No. 17, played this season in the CHL for Kitchener and Lethbridge, respectively.
After them, the ranked Europeans in the first round are Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson at No. 20, goaltender Markstrom at No. 23, Swedish forward Mattias Tedenby at No. 26 and Swedish forward Anton Gustafsson at No. 30.
While the European influence in the first round may not be great, the number of Europeans drafted overall may be up this season. In the absence of an NHL transfer agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation, it is possible all European players (excluding those who played in North America) drafted will get defected status, which means there is no forced timetable on when they must be signed. In the last few drafts, when the transfer agreement with the IIHF was in force, NHL teams had two years to sign their European draft picks or risk losing them.
The ground rules for drafting Europeans this year will be determined this week in negotiations between the NHL and NHL Players' Association. What precisely they agree to, or not (if they don't it's likely to go to independent arbitration although not in time for the draft), is anyone's guess, but a lot of player agents and NHL team executives are banking on it going back to the old pre-lockout rules on drafting Europeans.
If so, like they used to be able to do, NHL teams could go back to letting these drafted Europeans play in Europe and sign them to NHL contracts at any time in the future, whenever it's mutually beneficial. In other words, if this is how the league and PA choose to go, the clock doesn't start running when a European player is drafted this Friday or Saturday.
Especially in the later rounds, this could lead to a lot of Europeans being stockpiled for future use.
Generally speaking, NHL scouts say this is a strong, deep draft with both good quality and good quantity of prospects.
And that, they figure, should make up for any lack of suspense in the early going on Friday.