Midway through the race for No. 1 in the 2011 NHL entry draft, the picture has changed in two ways.
One, there's now a clear-cut leader at the head of the class.
Two, there are now four, not three, legitimate contenders for the top spot.
When TSN released its Pre-Season Top 10 rankings in September, Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson and Drummondville centre Sean Couturier were in a dead heat at No. 1, with each of them getting four first-place votes (not to mention four second-place votes and two third-place votes apiece, too). The only other player getting No. 1 consideration was Red Deer centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who picked up the remaining two first-place votes.
But now, in TSN's Mid-Season Top 60 rankings for the 2011 draft, Larsson has the No. 1 spot to himself, just ahead of Nugent-Hopkins at No. 2.
And Larsson's Swedish countryman, Gabriel Landeskog, has not only skated himself into the picture but now finds himself at No. 3 on the TSN list, ever so slightly ahead of Couturier, who has gone from tied for top spot in September to No. 4 at the midway point of the season.
"It's really close amongst those four players," one scout told TSN. "It may simply come down to individual preference or team needs because the four are all so different. Larsson is a stud defenceman in a year where there aren't a lot of them. Nugent-Hopkins has the greatest offensive upside but he's not big. Landeskog has the best all-around game and is the most ready to step into the NHL and play but what's his offensive upside? Couturier is a big centre who's capable of putting up points but has a two-way game. They couldn't be more different in the way they play the game."
But in TSN's survey of 10 NHL scouts, Larsson emerged as the leader.
Larsson, who plays in the Swedish Elite League, received five first-place votes, four second-place votes and just one third-place vote. There is no question a strong performance by Larsson at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo fueled his rise to the top. Going into the tournament, some scouts had voiced concerns over where the defenceman's game was at. By all accounts, he played poorly at an U-20 Four Nations Cup tourney in November and his SEL performances had not been inspiring.
"Great tournament," one scout said of Larsson's WJC, which was all the more impressive because he was battling through a groin injury. "He stepped up and made himself a factor. He was moving his feet more, just a lot more involved than we had seen him. From the blueline in, he's a lot more dangerous offensively than (Victor) Hedman at the same age."
In spite of the fact Nugent-Hopkins was the only one of the top four prospects who didn't make his national junior team at the WJC, the Red Deer centre has still managed to improve his ranking from September. He received three first-place votes, two more than either Landeskog or Couturier.
"I'm not saying he's Pat Kane, because he (Nugent-Hopkins) doesn't shoot the puck like Pat Kane but he definitely has a Pat Kane type body," said one scout who ranked Nugent-Hopkins No. 1. "The thing for me is that Nugent-Hopkins has the ability to make every player on the ice better. He uses everyone. His vision is tremendous. You kind of think a player as slight as he is won't be able to do that in the NHL but then you think of Pat Kane. I just think he can have an impact that may be greater than the others (Larsson, Landeskog, Couturier)."
Landeskog is currently sidelined with a high ankle sprain, which took him out of the WJC and won't allow him to play in the CHL Top Prospects Game, but his all-around game and favorable comparisons to Mike Richards from Kitchener Ranger GM-coach Steve Spott have the physical Swede right in the mix. He was No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings released last week.
"He's the most complete player in the draft," said a scout who has Landeskog at No. 1. "He's excellent in all three zones, a physical specimen who so much toughness and leadership and innate understanding of what a hockey player is supposed to be. It's too bad he got injured because I believe he would have shown (at the WJC) that he has another gear, another level."
Spott says questions about Landekog's offensive prowess are overblown.
"Scouts always ask me if Gabriel is a 'natural' goal-scorer," Spott said, "and I say, 'No, he's not a natural goal-scorer like Jeff Skinner,' but you know what, Gabriel had 25 goals at the midpoint of the season and if he hadn't been injured, he would score 50 and 50 is 50 regardless of how you get them and he's prepared to go to the hard areas to get a goal and he'll do everything else you want in a hockey player -- hit, fight, block shots, lead by example."
Couturier is the only one of the elite prospects who has seen his stock fall since September, going from tied for No. 1 to No. 4. Larsson and Nugent-Hopkins received no votes lower than No. 3 from the 10 scouts. Landeskog's lowest mark was a No. 5, but Couturier had two scouts rank him as low as No. 6.
The one scout who ranked Couturier No. 1 isn't sure why he's not getting as much love.
"I hear people say he didn't have a great world junior but he was playing behind Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen and there's no shame in playing behind two older guys who are top-five drafts," the scout said. "He's a big centre who's capable of putting up big numbers, who can be very creative with the puck, but he's also a strong player when he doesn't have the puck and is committed to playing defence. He obviously has to fill out and get stronger but who doesn't like a big two-way centre who can be a first- or second-line centre in the NHL?"
All scouts conceded there's still a lot of hockey to be played, that the race for No. 1 is as wide open as it could be and they reserve the right to change their mind between now and the draft in June in St. Paul, Minn.
Niagara Ice Dog defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who has size and mobility, is No. 5 on TSN's mid-season list. Hamilton is a a top scholastic player with average marks in the high 90s. His father was a medal-winning Olympic rower for Canada and his mother was a Canadian Olympian in basketball. His brother Freddie is a draft pick of the San Jose Sharks.
Hamilton's teammate in Niagara, dynamic offensive centre Ryan Strome, is No. 6; exciting offensive defenceman Ryan Murphy of the Kichener Rangers is No. 7; Saginaw Spirit big winger Brandon Saad, an American from the Pittsburgh area, is No. 8; Saint John Sea Dog offensive centre Jonathan Huberdeau is No. 9; and U.S. Under-18 program captain and big, power forward winger Tyler Biggs, the son of former OHL star Don Biggs, is No. 10.
Volatility would appear to be the hallmark of this year's draft class.
It's never been more difficult to get 'consensus' rankings than it has been this year. In September, an unprecedented 27 prospects got at least one Top 10 vote. Four months later, there are still 23 prospects who received Top 10 consideration. A total of 53 prospects received first-round consideration from at least one scout, but more telling is that even the prospects ranked between Nos. 10 and 20 on TSN's mid-season list this year, received multiple votes as second-rounders. Perhaps that will even itself out over the balance of this season but it's possible this year's draft will be a scattergun affair, where once outside of the top 10, it will be all over the map.
To give you some idea of this volatility, Soo Greyhound forward Daniel Catenacci is ranked 30th on the TSN list, but several scouts ranked him a late second-rounder/early third rounder while several others have him as a top 15 prospect. Diminutive U.S. Under-18 forward Rocco Grimaldi, slotted at No. 31 on our list, has similar numbers.
It does look to be a solid year for Swedish prospects. With Larsson and Landeskog positioned as they are, it's at least possible for Swedes to go Nos. 1 and 2 overall for the first time ever. Six Swedes - Larsson at 1, Landeskog at 3, Jonas Brodin at 12, Victor Rask at 16, Mika Zibanejad at 19 and Plymouth Whaler Rickard Rakell at 20 - are ranked in TSN's mid-season top 20.
No goaltender is a consensus first-rounder on our list, but three goalies - U.S. Under-18 team's John Gibson, Chicoutimi's Christopher Gibson and Finn Samu Perhonen - are possibilities to break into the first round.
TSN will next compile its final draft rankings in the weeks leading up to the entry draft in June.