The year-long question - Taylor or Tyler? - will be answered on Friday when the Edmonton Oilers reveal who they are taking with the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles.
While NHL scouts from far and wide concede there is not a lot to choose between Windsor Spitfire goal-scoring winger Taylor Hall and Plymouth Whaler offensively-gifted centre Tyler Seguin, and the Oilers could not really go horribly wrong in selecting either player, there's no escaping this fact:
Hall has been the consensus No. 1 prospect from start to finish this year, in spite of the fact the NHL Central Scouting Bureau ranked Seguin first overall on its final list.
TSN conducted surveys of NHL scouts on four occasions to determine four separate TSN draft rankings - pre-season in mid-September, mid-season in late January, draft lottery in early April and now final in mid June - and each and every time, Hall has come out on top.
Seven of 10 NHL scouts surveyed by TSN over the last week pegged the Spitfire winger as No. 1 on TSN's Top 75 final draft rankings for the 2010 NHL entry draft. Three ranked the Whaler centre first.
That voting breakdown for the two players remains unchanged from early April. Ten of 10 scouts chose Hall No. 1 in the mid-season rankings in January and eight of 10 scouts took Hall first in the September pre-season rankings.
"If you just look at it on performance this season," one scout told TSN, "you really have to give the edge to Hall. I mean, I'm not sure what else he could have done. He put up great numbers in the OHL regular season, he was a star at the World Junior Championship, he was a force in the playoffs and he was named Memorial Cup MVP for the second straight year. He's a winner and a difference maker. The only way you could say Seguin should be No. 1 is because you believe he has greater potential for growth, that what you see is what you get with Hall but what you see with Seguin is just the tip of the iceberg. They're both great players and they're going to be very good pros. I guess it really comes down to where you think they'll be in five years."
Plymouth Whaler general manager and head coach Mike Vellucci would hardly be considered an objective voice - he drafted Seguin out of the Greater Toronto Hockey League to Plymouth and has coached him the better part of the last two OHL seasons - but he believes that issue of "upside" is what makes Seguin the better prospect.
"Listen, I think Taylor Hall is an outstanding player and a great prospect and I'm not taking anything away from him at all," Vellucci told TSN. "But I don't believe it's an apples to apples comparison right now. They are completely different style players and they don't have the same level of experience."
Hall has a late 1991 birth date - Nov. 14 - and Seguin was born one month into 1992 - Jan. 31. So there is only two-and-a-half months separating the two blue chippers in terms of actual age, but Vellucci maintains that is misleading in terms of experience.
"Taylor has had three years in the OHL, Tyler has had just two," Vellucci said. "If you want an apples to apples comparison, look at what Taylor has done this year, in his third OHL season, and try to envision what Tyler would do next season, which would be his third in the league. I mean, Tyler had more goals (48 to 40)and the same number of points (106) as Taylor this season. How much more dominant might Tyler be next year?
"I know I'm biased but I really believe Tyler is the No. 1 prospect. He's bigger than Taylor, he's a natural centre, he's that big right-hand shot centre that teams look for and he's as good a goal-scorer as he is a playmaker. He can speed the game up or he can slow it down. He just keeps getting better and better. If I'm building a team, I'm taking Tyler Seguin."
The majority of scouts may disagree, but there's certainly some validity to what Vellucci said about the extra year of experience.
Last December in Regina, Hall and Seguin both attended the final evaluation camp for Canada's national junior team. Hall played well at the camp, made the team and excelled during the tournament in Saskatoon. Seguin did not play particularly well at the camp and was cut. But a year earlier, during the national junior team's final camp in Ottawa, Hall looked much like Seguin did in Regina and was cut from the team.
"That extra year of experience means a lot," Vellucci said.
So these are some of the issues the scouts - specifically the Oilers' management team - must factor into any decision on who is No. 1.
What's clear, though, is that the two OHL cross-border rivals sit alone at the top of the 2010 draft class and an OHLer will be going first overall for the fourth consecutive year (Patrick Kane in 2007, Steven Stamkos in 2008, John Tavares in 2009 and Hall or Seguin in 2010).
Once they're selected - presumably by Edmonton and Boston, the two teams holding the top two picks - this year's draft takes a decided turn towards the blueline, not unlike 2008, when Stamkos went No. 1 overall, only to be followed by a bevy of beauty blueliners. NHL teams that year had to decide between Drew Doughty (2), Zach Bogosian (3), Alex Pietrangelo (4), Luke Schenn (5) and Tyler Myers (12). This year, teams will be trying to discern between Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Gormley and Cam Fowler.
There aren't as many of them as in 2008 and one could argue that the Gudbranson-Gormley-Fowler trio isn't the same quality of the 08 group, but it's still an impressive triumvirate.
Kingston hard-rock Gudbranson is the consensus No. 3 choice on the TSN list, followed by Moncton's Gormley and Windsor's Fowler. The three defencemen could not be more different in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.
Gudbranson is a strong-skating, shutdown-type defensive defenceman who plays with a substantial degree of edge and nastiness. He's physically and emotionally mature. He hits hard, doesn't mind dropping the gloves and though he has a hard, heavy slapshot from the point and is not without some offensive ability, he's branded as having offensive limitations. His development was set back this season by a bout of monocleosis and some other injuries and he did not play particularly well at the Under-18 world championship in April.
Gormley is something of a hybrid, neither a pure shutdown type nor a flashy offensive guy. He is, however, a smart, mobile puckhandler who has an understated efficiency and elegance to his game on both sides of the puck. He makes the game look easy and some have compared him to a poor man's Nick Lidstrom, because he's able to separate players from the puck with good use of his stick and anticipation. His detractors, though, would say there's no "wow" factor for this top-five prospect and that he may be a "tweener" who is good on offence and defence but great at neither.
Fowler is a world-class skater with size who makes an outstanding first pass and effectively brings the puck up the ice. He has a good shot from the point and can play the point on the PP and some scouts firmly believe he has star qualities in terms of what he can bring to a team offensively. He was a star for the gold-medal winning Americans at the 2010 WJC and also excelled for the Spitfires at the Memorial Cup, though OHL coaches will tell you he is not a defenceman who can defend in his own zone or kill penalties in junior, never mind the NHL, and that he's devoid of any physical edge at all and doesn't engage in many puck battles.
It's actually a really interesting draft class. There's a strong air of unpredictability on so many levels and a wide range of intriguing storylines.
Take the players ranked Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, on TSN's list, for example.
A year ago, Portland centre Ryan Johansen was a Jr. A player in Penticton who wasn't even playing regularly there and was not on Hockey Canada's radar for any of the elite international U-18 teams. Now, he's No. 6 with a bullet, up from No. 19 on TSN's mid-season rankings and a strong two-way playmaking pivot who some think has Anze Kopitar- or Joe Thornton-like possibilities. Johansen's linemate, Swiss-born and -trained Nino Niedereitter, was a scoring sensation for Switzerland at the 2010 WJC, an absolute star who provided goals and grit in great abundance. But just as Kopitar slid in the draft for no reason other than being from Slovenia, might Niedereitter dip because of a bias against Swiss players, who historically have not exhibited a burning desire to play in the NHL as opposed to staying and playing at home?
Niedereitter will likely overcome the stereotype and become the highest-drafted Swiss player, eclipsing Michel Riesen, who went 14th overall to Edmonton in 1997.
One of the most fascinating studies of the first round is that involving Prince George Cougar slick offensive winger Brett Connolly, No. 8 on our final list. It's the first time Connolly has dropped out of TSN's top five this season. With the draft just days away, that may be the result of the scouts' now tangible concern over the fact he played just 16 regular-season games this season because of a series of hip injuries. Connolly and his agent vehemently maintain those issues are behind him and no longer a factor but enough scouts have voiced concern to label Connolly something of an injury wild card. But we're talking a goal-scoring winger who was dominant in the 2008-09 season, his first in the WHL, and internationally as well and it's difficult to imagine him sliding too far, if at all.
Only one goalie is included in the first round (top 30) of TSN's Top 75 final rankings and that's Jack Campbell of the USA Hockey Under-18 development program. Seattle's Calvin Pickard, the brother of Nashville's 2008 first-round goalie selection Chet Pickard (18th overall), is ranked No. 31 this year and the only other goalie our scouting survey suggested could climb into the first round. So, in terms of depth, this year's goaltending class is not considered bountiful, but Campbell has the aura of a potential franchise netminder.
Campbell, of course, backstopped Team USA to the gold medal vs. Canada at the 2010 WJC, but also has back-to-back Under-18 world championships and is the most decorated young American in the history of USA Hockey's program. If the teams currently picking in the Top 10 have no need for a goaltending that high in the draft, there is speculation other teams from further down the pecking order will make concerted bids to trade up to get a crack at the Port Huron, Mich., native whose character and confidence and sense of purpose are said to be off the charts. Campbell, by the way, has committed to play for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires next season.
With Fowler and Campbell - two centerpieces of Team USA's WJC victory - ranked in the top 10, it's likely to be a banner draft year for Americans. TSN has 11 Americans ranked in the top 30 this year, as opposed to 14 Canadians, and that means there's a chance the U.S. record of 10 first-rounders (2007) could be challenged.
U.S. under-18 defencemen Derek Forbort (No. 11), Jonathan Merrill (No. 22), Jarred Tinordi (No. 23) and Justin Faulk (No. 30) made our Top 30, as well Fowler (No. 5), Campbell (No. 9), Peterborough Pete winger Austin Watson (No. 14), Medicine Hat Tiger winger Emerson Etem (No. 17), Penticton Vees' forward Beau Bennett (No. 18), Minnesota high schooler Nick Bjugstad (No.19) and Minnesota State forward Tyler Pitlick (No. 25) are the other Americans in TSN's Top 30. U.S. junior prospect Charlie Coyle (No. 32) from South Shore of the Eastern Junior League and Minnesota high schooler Brock Nelson (No. 34) from Warroad are amongst a number of other Americans who are knocking on the door.
It's not just a terrific year for American prospects, it's a special time for the California kids who will be drafted at home in Los Angeles.
This may just be the best story of the entire draft. While the NHL's strategy of locating teams in the U.S. south/sunbelt is constantly scrutinized and second-guessed for business reasons, there's no denying the impact it will have on this year's draft in L.A.
There is an outstanding chance that two California kids - the goal-scoring speedster Etem and the offensively-gifted Jr. A player Bennett - will be chosen in the first round and quite possibly in the top 20. Jonathan Blum, drafted 23rd overall by Nashville in 2007, holds the unofficial record for being highest-drafted Californian, although Bobby Ryan, taken by Anaheim No. 2 behind Sidney Crosby in 2005, was a transplant from New Jersey who did spend some of his formative years in southern California.
In fact, Ryan used to babysit Bennett when the latter was nine years old.
Etem and Bennett were originally products of in-line hockey but they also represent a rapidly expanding SoCal ice hockey culture that has both quantity and quality, which is turning out some of the elite minor hockey programs in all of North America and some flashy offensive prospects.
Both Etem and Bennett are fascinating human interest stories.
Etem is from Long Beach, Calif., who went to Shattuck-St. Marys prep school, the U.S. development program and Medicine Hat of the WHL. He has been training with the noted T.R. Goodman since he was 14 years old, working out in the summer with pros such as Rob Blake, Wayne Simmonds and others. He's an accomplished artist (drawing) and his notoriety in SoCal for being an elite hockey talent has attracted the interest of none other than rapper turned hockey fan Snoop Dogg, amongst others.
Etem's mother Patricia was an Olympic rower for the United States. His dad, Richard, was a rower at Navy and his older brother and sister - Martin and Elise - are on the national U-23 rowing team(s).
Bennett is from Gardena, Calif. Like Etem, he's an interesting story. They both like to surf - go figure -- and while Etem draws, Bennett's artistic pursuit is playing the piano. He first started "skating" when his dad Kirk built a concrete pad (in-line) "rink" in their backyard, which was made big enough by Mr. Bennett buying the lot next door.
They are the leading edge of a wave of California kids who will be heard from in coming NHL entry drafts, including Kelowna Rocket Shane McColgan, the Manhattan Beach product who scored 25 goals and 69 points in his rookie WHL season and is touted as a top pick for next year's NHL entry draft.
Bennett is also one of the true wild cards in this entire draft.
Ranked 32nd amongst North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, TSN's survey of NHL scouts provided a jarring range of results.
Three of 10 scouts labeled him a mid-second round or later prospect. Four scouts said he should be in the bottom third of the first round, but three others had him as a potential Top 10 pick. It's rare for there to be such wide divergence of opinion, but the physically immature but offensively gifted right winger who scored 120 points in the British Columbia Junior League generates that kind of debate.
TSN ranked Bennett at No. 19, but he could conceivably go a lot higher than that.
McFarland started this season as perhaps in the mix for challenging Hall and Seguin for No. 1 status - he was No. 6 on TSN's pre-season list - but his offensive totals dropped this season in Sudbury compared to last and so did his ranking with the scouts - No. 17 at mid-season and now No. 28 on the final TSN list. He clearly has talent justifying being taken in the first half of the first round but his stock has fallen and it remains to be seen whether drops right out of the first round.
But nothing compares to the story of Kabanov, the elite Russian talent who fought the Russian system for his right to play with Moncton of the Quebec League. But he ultimately quit the Wildcats, went home to Russia to play for the U-18 team only to be dismissed from it before the tournament in April. His North American agent, J.P. Barry of CAA, severed ties with Kabanov. No one disputes the kid has talent to justify a first round selection, but with the baggage Kabanov has accumulated this season, it's anyone's guess where he's chosen.
He's ranked No. 43 on TSN's final list. Some scouts think he'll still creep into the first round, others figure he's well worth a second-round pick on what's perceived as a major reclamation project.
And then, of course, there's the Russian Factor.
If the California Kids angle is the feel-good story of the 2010 draft, the uncertainty and all-out fear surrounding the drafting of Russian players is clearly the biggest negative.
With each passing year, more and more NHL teams are expressing reservations if not all out rejection of drafting Russian players because of the uncertainty of when or if they'll come to the NHL or whether they'll return to the KHL and Russia the first time they hit a bump in the road in North America. There are more than a few NHL teams who are going into the 2010 entry draft with an unwritten policy of NOT drafting any Russian players no matter what.
"We just can't afford to take the chance on them not coming or leaving once they get here," one scout said. "They're just not a consideration for us at all right now."
And that's unfortunate because there is some terrific Russian talent this year that could be negatively affected.
Alexander Burmistrov of the Barrie Colts is an elite talent who all season long was considered a Top 10 talent on TSN lists, but he slipped to No. 12 on the final rankings. A team could still step up and take him in the top 10 - some scouts say he may have Pavel Datysuk qualities - because he played in the OHL this season and has shown an affinity on and off the ice for the North American game, but a lot of the same things were said of Nashville's Alexander Radulov, who bolted back to the KHL in spite of being under contract to the Predators.
Vladimir Tarasenko is another elite talent. A physical specimen with elite offensive skill, Tarasenko is No. 16 on TSN's list, but where he goes - higher or lower than that - is anybody's guess. Ditto for another talented Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is No. 24 on TSN's list.
Not all teams are running scared on Russians, though.
New York Ranger director of player personnel Gordie Clark said the Rangers have enormous faith in their Russian scouting staff to advise them on which Russians are good bets or not and they try to judge each player on his own merit. The Rangers, of course, took Alexei Cherepanov 17th overall in 2007 and Cherepanov was scheduled to come to the NHL but tragically died on the ice in a KHL game because of a heart condition.
Clark's openness to considering Russian talent has spurred a lot of talk that the Rangers could use the 10th overall pick in this year's draft to take a Russian, but there are clearly more organizations that are fearful, some to the point where choosing a Russian is not even a consideration.
That story line, along with so many others, is why the 2010 draft holds a great deal of intrigue.
As for the TSN rankings, it's important to point out a number of things. First and foremost, these rankings are not a mock draft or a prediction of which NHL team will take which player. The rankings are done without any consideration of NHL teams' order of selection. NHL scouts are simply asked to provide a numerical evaluation of where a specific player is ranked in this year's draft. The results for each player are compiled and from that numerical evaluation, a consensus ranking is obtained. There is little or no subjectivity to the exercise.
Historically, especially in the first round, this method has been outstanding in terms of designating which players end up where in the draft, though this year's rankings seem particularly volatile, especially with the growing presence of the Russian Factor, and a seemingly unusual number of wild cards such as Bennett, McFarland and Kabanov.