"Taylor versus Tyler" was a catchy slogan to set up last season's race between Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin for first overall in the National Hockey League entry draft.
Good luck trying to come up with a snappy label for the 2011 draft.
This year's battle for No. 1 could not be more wide open, shaping up at the starting line as at least a three-man race. In fact, for the first time ever, TSN's pre-season ranking of the Top 10 NHL Prospects has produced a dead heat at No. 1 overall.
Drummondville centre Sean Couturier and Swedish blueliner Adam Larsson finished with identical results in the annual survey of 10 NHL scouts by TSN. Remarkably, they each had four first-place votes, four seconds and two thirds. The only other prospect to get top-dog consideration was Red Deer centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was No. 1 on the other two ballots.
It's the first year in quite some time when there hasn't been a consensus No. 1 to start the season.
"All three guys have something special," one scout said. "Couturier is a big, skilled centre, Larsson is a total package defenceman and Nugent-Hopkins is a tremendous offensive talent with elite skill. It's going to be the most interesting race for No. 1 we've seen in a long time."
Couturier, Larsson and Nugent-Hopkins start as a notch above the rest of the field. No other prospect managed to break into the top three as Couturier, Larsson and Nugent-Hopkins weren't rated lower than No. 3 by any of the scouts surveyed.
Couturier is a rangy, point-producing centre who won the Quebec League scoring title last season as a 17-year-old. Couturier was born in Phoenix, where his dad, Sylvain, was playing minor league hockey for the IHL Roadrunners at the time. Sylvain had a few cups of coffee with the Los Angeles Kings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to putting up impressive offensive numbers, Couturier has a fairly well developed defensive game and has been used by Canadian national under-18 teams as a "shutdown" type centre who reads the game as well without the puck as with it. Not surprisingly, with his size, skill and ability to play without the puck, Couturier is said to have some Staal-like qualities -- Eric or Jordan, take your pick.
Larsson is a mobile, skilled and physical defenceman who has a terrific all-around game and has already played a full season in the Swedish Elite League against men. Many scouts believe Larsson's game is more advanced at the same age than the towering Victor Hedman, who went No. 2 overall behind John Tavares in the 2009 draft. "Larsson obviously isn't as tall as Hedman but he's still 6-2 or 6-3, very thick and his game has more natural bite to it than Hedman. He's also better offensively than Hedman, he's got a cannon of a shot. He has the ability to control the pace of the game when he's out there."
Nugent-Hopkins is said to be no more than 6 feet tall, and he's extremely thin and physically immature compared to the other two elite prospects, but he's considered an electrifying offensive talent who is able to bob and weave through heavy traffic and rarely, if ever, get hit directly. Scouts say he's as good a playmaker as he is a goal scorer and while some say he has similar offensive capabilities as Chicago star Pat Kane, others rave about his shot and quick release, which may be reminiscent of another Vancouver area product, future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic. Nugent-Hopkins scored the only goal for Canada against the United States at the gold-medal game of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Under-18 tournament in August.
Beyond the top three, this year's draft race continues to be ridiculously wide open. Only one other prospect -- Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog of the Kitchener Rangers -- got votes from all 10 scouts, but Landeskog still ended up in a dead heat for fourth place in voting points, with Saginaw Spirit forward Brandon Saad, a Pittsburgh area native who played for the U.S. national team development program last season. Saad was on nine of 10 ballots. Just as there was some separation between the Big Three and Landeskog/Saad, there appears to be a discernible gap between those two and the rest of the field. Landeskog and Saad had 53 voting points apiece, the next prospect had 28.
Nos. 6 through 10, in order, went to Swedish forward Victor Rask, Peterborough Petes big winger Matt Puempel, big Niagara Ice Dog defenceman Dougie Hamilton and a pair of Americans -- defenceman Adam Clendening, a freshman from Boston University and forward Seth Ambroz, who will play this season with Omaha of the United States Hockey League.
But no fewer than six other prospects -- Russian forward Vladislav Namestnikov of the London Knights; Brett Ritchie, the big power forward of the Sarnia Sting; tough defensive defenceman Duncan Siemens of the Saskatoon Blades , London Knight all-around defenceman Scott Harrington, Oshawa General strong two-way centre Boone Jenner and Kitchener Ranger dynamic offensive defenceman Ryan Murphy -- were on the verge of cracking the Top 10 and unseating any one of Rask, Puempel, Hamilton, Clendening and Ambroz.
Unbelievably, 27 prospects received at least one vote in the survey, where scouts were asked to rank their top 10 pre-season prospects and two honorable mentions. That is, by far, the most prospects who have received top 10 consideration in the pre-season Top 10 survey.
Other prospects who also received consideration include: Portland Winterhawk winger Ty Rattie; Slovak forward Tomas Jurco of the Saint John Sea Dogs, U.S. Under-18 defenceman Connnor Murphy, U.S. under-18 forward Tyler Biggs; Vancouver Giant defenceman David Musil, Boston University offensive freshman forward Matt Nieto and fellow Californian, Kelowna forward Shane McColgan; Soo Greyhound forward Daniel Catenacci; Oshawa General forward Lucas Lessio; Belleville Bull winger Austen Brassard; and Saint John Sea Dog defenceman Nathan Beaulieu.