It was tough to carry on a conversation with the board-stomping and chanting in the background threatening to completely drown out my caller, who happens to be an NHL scout. But through the din of the college arena, one sentence came through clearly over the phone:
"Yeah, this is going to be a good one."
"This" is the 2010 Entry Draft, a talent grab that could go down as one of the best of all-time.
It's not 2003 -- a pool so overstocked with potential that even latecomers were able to grab the likes of Mike Richards, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry and Loui Eriksson -- but early indications suggest the Class of 2010 could come close to producing a similar number of impact performers.
Windsor's Taylor Hall has long been considered the premier prospect. The leading scorer in the OHL (19 goals and 41 points in just 20 games) has done nothing to lose his footing. But there are challengers for the honor, including pace-setting defender Cam Fowler, two-way threat Tyler Seguin and Russian wizard Kirill Kabanov. Depending on a team's needs and drafting style, any one of those players could be the first to walk up to the stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
So, how do they stack up in the early going? It's still tough to say. With so much talent to choose from, there's an added emphasis on not blowing a pick. "No one wants to be the guy who is remembered for taking Hugh Jessiman," said one Western Conference scout, referencing the Rangers draft pick infamous for being the only flop from that 2003 first round.
No surprise then that scouts, even under the veil on anonymity, aren't revealing all their secrets. "Things will shake out over the course of the season like they always do, but right now there are a lot of moving parts," said another Western scout. "And I don't think anyone wants to tip their hand."
So after sorting through their input (and a bit of naked misdirection), we've arrived at your first look at 2010. Consider this list a rough sketch of a mock draft, an early introduction to some of the players who will be watched most intently as the season progresses.
1. Taylor Hall, 6-1, 185, left wing, Windsor Spitfires
The reigning Memorial Cup MVP has his critics ("I wonder about his decision-making sometimes," said one scout) but most agree that Hall is the surest bet to star in the NHL. "Game-breaking speed," said another. "Think Pavel Bure --he's that explosive -- and he's extremely competitive. He doesn't lose many battles." There's a desire to see more consistency from Hall, but a third scout says that's part of the process when a player has been viewed so often. "Look, I can nitpick this kid to death, but if I had the (No. 1) pick, this is the guy I'd want. He's a winner."
2. Cam Fowler, 6-2, 190, defense, Windsor Spitfires
The Windsor-born, Detroit-bred Fowler could end up being the first player taken, depending on the needs of the team with the pick as much as his progression this season. His quick transition to the OHL has scouts raving about his effortless skating and two-way play. Scout's Take: "He's got that projectable, Rob Blake-type body. He's physical and he has a tremendous shot. He just needs to work on getting it to the net. He covers as well as anyone. I like his positioning, but I'd also like to see him make better decisions with the puck. Sometimes he tries to do too much and ends up giving it away."
3. Tyler Seguin, 6-1, 180, center, Plymouth Whalers
A cruiserweight forward with tremendous drive, high-end playmaking skills and a world-class shot -- sound anything like Joe Sakic? Seguin could challenge for the top spot in the draft. Scout's Take: "His development from the beginning of last season to now is off the charts. He has the ability to stickhandle and create at top speed. He's relentless at both ends of the ice. It's easy to project him as a first-line center in the NHL."
4. Brett Connolly, 6-2, 181, left wing, Prince George Cougars
The reigning CHL rookie of the year has a bit of James Neal in him. Scout's Take: "He's not a prototypical power forward, but he plays a very strong game. He's strong on the puck, goes hard to the net. He has a chance to be a solid goal scorer." Second Take: "I like his leadership abilities. He's the sort of player you can go to war with."
5. Kirill Kabanov, 6-3, 176, left wing, Moncton Wildcats
Consistency may be all that keeps Kirill the Thrill from going top five. Scout's Take: "He has everything else you'd want. Great size, quick feet, really smart with the puck. He's one of those players who can really electrify a crowd. And you don't want to compare him to Ovechkin, but he's got the same nastiness to his game. But there are nights when he disappears and at times he's not the most team-oriented guy. You hope it's a maturity thing."
6. Erik Gudbranson, 6-3, 199, defense, Kingston Frontenacs
Based on his size, skating and offensive talents, he has the potential to be a top-pairing offensive defender. But to this point, it's mostly about projection. The hard-hitting Gudbranson's been sidelined since mid-October with a knee injury that should keep him out another two weeks. Scout's Take: "He was okay last season [as a rookie with Kingston]. He gave you glimpses of what he could be. He's so poised and he thinks the game so well, but you want to see more from him."
7. Brandon Gormley, 6-1, 175, defense, Moncton Wildcats
The Prince Edward Island kid who was babysat by Brad Richards' family has lived up to the hype that made him the first overall pick in the QMJHL last summer. He's reliable in his own end, but he'll make his living in the NHL as an offensive-minded defender. Think Sheldon Souray, but without the 100-MPH shot. Scout's Take: "He'll QB a power play, but he can be the shutdown guy on the PK as well."
8. Mikael Granlund, 5-10, 172, right wing, HIFK (Finland)
He's small and Finnish and dominant in his age group, but don't buy into the lazy comparisons to Saku Koivu. Euro Scout's Take: "He doesn't have the same kind of intensity. He's very clever with the puck and has a good shot, though. I like his confidence. He's a 17-year-old kid playing in the top league in Finland and he's leading his team in scoring. He's not fancy but he makes things happen."
9. Vladimir Tarasenko, 5-10, 167, right wing, Novosibirsk (Russia)
Tarasenko is small, but he does his best work down low. He made a strong impression at last year's U-18 championships, finishing second in tournament scoring with 16 points in just seven games. Scout's Take: "He's not the flashiest guy on the ice, but he gets it done. He just weasels his way into open ice and takes it from there. He's strong on the puck and willing to take a hit to get his shot off, but he needs to put on some muscle if he wants to keep playing that way."
10. John McFarland, 6-1. 195, left wing, Sudbury Wolves
Scouts raved about him at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, but he's off to a slow start that has one scout comparing him to another former Wolves star: Benoit Pouliot. Scout's Take: "He has all the tools. Good frame, quick feet, hard shot and he anticipates the play well. But he hasn't committed to his play away from the puck...and maybe there are some other issues that will be addressed as he matures. You wonder if he'll ever put it all together."
11. Derek Forbort, 6-4, 198, defense, US-NTDP
He ranks as one of the fastest risers of the early rankings. Scout's Take: "He'll be an elite, two-way defender. He's got a bit of Dan Boyle in him...he's got a much bigger frame, but he reads the play so well and is so composed at both ends of the ice. He'll eat a lot of minutes...and play both the PK and the power play. "
12. Stanislav Galiev, 6-1, 182, center, Saint John Sea Dogs
The first overall pick at the 2009 CHL Import Draft, Galiev plays the classic Russian game. Scout's Take: "He's a really crafty player and surprisingly. Strong on his feet and really creative with the puck. He's having trouble finishing right now, but he's piling up points with his playmaking skills."
13. Jonathan Merrill, 6-3, 198, defense, US-NTDP
He takes care of defense first, but he's comfortable with the puck and makes a good first pass. He's also versatile. He's played some forward with the NTDP. Scout's Take: "He looks a lot like Jack Johnson. He's big, he's mean and he likes to hurt you when he hits you."
14. Emerson Etem, 6-0, 194, center, Medicine Hat Tigers
With the draft set to be held in L.A., expect lots of attention to be focused on this Southern California native who currently ranks fourth in the WHL with 15 goals in just 21 games. Scout's Take: "He has world-class speed and is incredibly creative off the rush. He doesn't need a lot of room to make something happen." Second Take: "He has a great release [that makes him] a dynamic finisher."
15. Joey Hishon, 5-10, center, Owen Sound Attack
He impressed last season with his speed, his willingness to drive the net and his ability to create plays on his own, so he's getting a break from scouts even though his slow start has him on double-secret probation. Scout's Take: "I've watched him three times and he was lousy every one of them. He's making mistakes you don't expect from a first-round prospect. You wonder what he's thinking, or if maybe he's thinking too much. He's so creative with the puck that sometimes he tries to do too much. He needs to use his linemates more effectively."
16. Austin Watson, 6-3, 177, right wing, Windsor Spitfires
At least one scout suggests Watson is basking in the reflected glory of teammates Hall and Fowler: "I'm not sure he'd get this much talk if not for them." But most agree that he has the potential to be a solid power forward once he adds some muscle to his lean frame. Scout's Take: "He loves playing physical... but he doesn't get caught out of position going for the big hit because he reads the play so well." Second Take: "He's got that rare combination of size and speed. The scoring isn't there yet, but that'll come. And he does so many of the little things well that he's a safe pick."
17. Stephen Johns, 6-4, 205, defense, US-NTDP
He's a right shot, which adds to his appeal. Scout's Take: "He's a beast. Big, strong, tough, smart, physical. He's got all the elements you want in a shutdown defender. He's an explosive skater, but he mostly relies on his positioning and wingspan. He's really tough to get by."
18. Alex Burmistrov, 5-11, 172, center, Barrie Colts
Has improved his stock with his seamless transition to North American hockey. His passing and playmaking are his bread and butter, but he's responsible enough to play a key role on the Barrie penalty kill. There's a fly in the ointment, though: he's contractually obligated to return to the KHL after this season, which could damage his draft stock. Scout's Take: "His hockey sense makes him dangerous at both ends of the ice."
19. Quinton Howden, 6-3, 183, left wing, Moose Jaw Warriors
The first overall pick in the WHL's 2007 bantam draft has put the disappointment of last season behind him with a strong start. Scout's Take: "He's making the adjustments, which is what you want to see. He always got by on size before. Now he's showing more drive, more commitment to physical play and he's working hard at both ends. He has a good release and is willing to get into the greasy areas to make the most of it." Second Take: "I'd like to see some more finish. I'm not sure he's more than a premium third-liner."
20. Nick Bjugstad, 6-5, 190, center, Blaine High School (Minnesota)
Size and bloodlines (he's the nephew of former NHLer Scott Bjugstad) put him on the map, but his talent will land him in the first round. He led his team in scoring with 31 goals last season and is reliable in his own zone. He's also impressed scouts with his maturity. He's accelerating his studies in order to attend the University of Minnesota next fall. Scout's Take: "He's one of those deceptively fast skaters. He doesn't look quick because of his size, but he gets there in a hurry."
21. Teemu Pulkkinen, 5-10, 175, forward, Jokerit (Finland)
The youngest player in the SM-Liiga last season, he relies on guile around the net to create offense but he's yet to show a willingness to work hard without the puck. Some scouts have him rated as a top-10 talent, but a wrist injury that will sideline him for three months -- and cost him spotlight time at the World Juniors -- may allow other players to move past him.
22. Jeff Skinner, 5-10, 197, center, Kitchener Rangers
One of the top scorers in the OHL, herearns raves as much for his consistently high energy level as his elite one-on-one skills. His size might scare off some teams, but given the success of other smaller players, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him go much earlier. Scout's Take: "He's like a wind-up toy. Turn his crank, send him over the boards and watch him go." Second Take: "He's an exciting player to watch. You'll be looking at another guy and he finds a way to grab your attention."
23. Tyler Toffoli, 6-0, 181, right wing, Ottawa 67s
Scouts are divided on his early season struggles. "He misses [graduates Logan] Couture and [Corey] Cowick," says one birddog. "I expected him to step up, not fade into the woodwork. Maybe he's just a complementary player." Scout's Take: "I think it's just a matter of making an adjustment. He's being thrust into [the role of offensive leadership] on a team that's not very good. There's still a lot to like about his game. He has a great release and competes really hard. Give him some time and let's see what he does with it."
24. Brock Beukeboom, 6-2, 195, defense, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Despite the build, the position and the bloodlines, Brock is a very different player than his father, Jeff. In just his second season playing defense, he is helping his stock with some offensive touch, averaging close to a point per game in the early going. Scout's Take: "He takes care of his own zone, but he's not the big hitter like his dad." Second Take: "He's a better skater and probably smarter about his positioning. He keeps it simple. Clears out the man, makes a good first pass."
25. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 6-0, 174, forward, Chelyabinsk (Russia)
He's not particularly strong and he needs to pay attention to his play away from the puck. The next Alexander Semin? Scout's Take: "That's the easy comparison because he's so dynamic. He's the classic Russian player. Great skater, tremendous vision and capable of breaking open a game all by himself. You can bulk him up and teach him how to play some defense. But you can't teach hands like these."
26. Mark Pysyk, 6-1, 175, defense, Edmonton Oil Kings
Teams looking for a classic, shutdown defender can't go wrong. Scout's Take: "He has his limitations so he keeps it simple. He's best when you don't notice him. He's not going to make the flashy pass. He's a chip it in, chip it out guy. He's really effective at angling off an attacker and clearing the front of the net."
27. Jack Campbell, 6-2, 185, goaltender, US-NTDP
After starring at the Under-18 tournament, his stock has risen to the point that he's likely to be the first goalie taken. Scouts love his size and rebound control, but it's his leadership that sets him apart. Scout's Take: "He's like Ryan Miller in that sense. He takes charge of the room, fires up the guys and gives them reason to believe."
28. Victor Ohman, 6-1, 203, left wing, Malmo, Sweden
The latest Swedish power forward brings the physical style and playmaking skills of Johan Franzen, but might be a better skater. Already a wide body, he's expected to grow considerably before he comes over. Scout's Take: "He makes more happen off the rush. He might not have the finish of Franzen, but he's [equally] fearless. He goes hard to the net."
29. Louis Domingue, 6-3, 183, goaltender, Moncton Wildcats
That he's been able to replace MVP Nicola Riopel so seamlessly speaks to the potential of the big stopper. Scout's Take: "You see some Steve Mason in him. He's got that big, limber body and he's so strong positionally. He's aggressive and doesn't give the shooter a lot of room. Does a nice job controlling his rebounds, too."
30. Jarred Tinordi, 6-5, 205, defense, US-NTDP
Further proof the apple doesn't fall far. Tinordi is an aggressive, defensive-minded defender. That said, he's bigger than his dad, Mark, and a better skater as well. Scout's Take: "He still has some growing to do, but he's a what you see is what you get type. He keeps the other team honest with his physical play, and his positioning makes him pretty reliable in his own end. Kind of reminds me of Mark Stuart."