It has been an unprecedented roller-coaster ride with as many as five legitimate contenders dating all the way to back to September, but with this year's entry draft almost upon us there is finally some clarity atop TSN's draft rankings' leaderboard.
Nine of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN have the offensively-gifted Red Deer Rebel centre at No. 1. The lone dissenting view was a ballot cast for forward Gabriel Landeskog, the Swedish captain of the Kitchener Rangers.
In three previous TSN rankings – a pre-season poll in September, a mid-season survey in January after the World Junior Championship and a draft-lottery edition in mid-April – no prospect ever received more than six first-place votes.
“He has elite vision, elite playmaking skills, elite goal-scoring ability, he's an elite offensive player,” one NHL scout said of Nugent-Hopkins. “He has a lot of really special qualities that make every player on the ice better, not just him.”
Whether the Edmonton Oilers, who have the No. 1 overall pick for the second consecutive year, agree with the vast majority of scouts remains to be seen on Friday.
Oiler general manager Steve Tambellini and chief amateur scout Stu MacGregor will meet with their entire scouting staff and hockey operations department on Thursday in the Twin Cities to formally decide which player they will take first overall.
“Our process is the same as last year,” Tambellini said. “We obviously have had a lot of discussion back and forth all season long on a lot of players because there are some really special players to choose from. But we haven't had our whole group together and we'll go through all the possibilities one more time and arrive at our final decision after that.”
While Edmonton has exhaustively studied all the high-end talent in this year's draft, it's believed the Oilers have legitimately looked hardest at the four elite prospects which top TSN's final rankings – Nugent-Hopkins at No. 1, Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson at No. 2, Saint John Sea Dog forward Jonathan Huberdeau at No. 3 and Landeskog at No. 4.
It would appear Drummondville centre Sean Couturier, who is No. 5 on TSN's final rankings, played his way out of true No. 1 consideration, but each of those five prospects received one or more No. 1 votes in TSN's four rankings.
Larsson was tied with Couturier for the No. 1 ranking in the September pre-season poll of scouts. Each had four votes, with Nugent-Hopkins picking up the remaining two. Larsson is a big, mobile defenceman who logged big minutes in this, his second season playing against men in the Swedish Elite League. He's a complete package who looks as though he's ready to make the jump to the North American pro game and would most definitely fill a positional need for the Oilers if they were to go in that direction. Nugent-Hopkins, by the way, went from two first-place votes in September to three in January (ranked No. 2 behind Larsson) to six in April, when he was first designated the No. 1 prospect.
Huberdeau is the rising star of this year's draft. He didn't get a single vote (at any number) in our poll to determine a pre-season Top 10. In fact, Huberdeau is the only one of TSN's Top 5 prospects who didn't get a No. 1 vote at some point of the season. He was ranked No. 9 on the mid-season list in January, moved up to No. 4 on the draft-lottery edition in April and settled at No. 3 on the final list. Huberdeau is the scouts' consensus choice as the “smartest player” available this year. He was MVP of both the Quebec League playoffs and Memorial Cup and was instrumental in the Saint John Seas Dogs' Memorial Cup win.
Landeskog is undisputed choice of the scouts as “most ready” to play in the NHL. He's been dubbed the Swedish version of Philadelphia Flyer captain Mike Richards, a strong, two-way forward who will fight, hit, block shots, make plays, score goals and shut down the opposition's best forwards with off-the-scale intangibles in terms of heart and desire. Landeskog received one first-place vote in January, two in April and one for the final ranking – the only player besides Nugent-Hopkins to get a first-place vote.
Scouts say the Oilers couldn't go wrong taking any of those four.
And while Couturier is no longer considered a true candidate for No. 1, reports of his demise as a high-end prospect would seem to be greatly exaggerated.
Six of the 10 scouts surveyed by TSN had Couturier at No. 5 or higher. He was no lower than No. 8 on any ballot. While his game lacked the dynamic quality of the other Big Four, he's still a talented two-way centre who is as good without the puck as he is with it and his point production remained notable – his point-per-game average in the QMJHL on a relatively weak Drummondville team was better than any of the elite prospects in this draft.
It would appear there's a fairly strong consensus top nine in this draft. Niagara defenceman Dougie Hamilton at No. 6, Niagara teammate and offensive centre Ryan Strome at No. 7, Kitchener offensive defenceman Ryan Murphy at No. 8 and Swedish centre Mika Zibanejad at No. 9 kept turning up in top 10, over and over and over again. Swedish defenceman Jonas Brodin rounded out TSN's top 10, but there was a gap between the top nine and the rest of the field.
Beyond that group of nine, though, the scouts' opinions were wildly divergent and there's a real scattergun feel to the draft outside of the top 10.
Finally, a word about the process used to determine these rankings.
This is not a subjective analysis of who TSN believes will develop into the best prospects or the order that they should be taken. It's not a scouting report, per se.
It is a more objective numerical ranking based on the consensus of opinion gathered from 10 NHL scouts, a barometer of where we think a player is most likely to be taken in the draft.