After much deliberation and conversation with scouts and NHL personnel people, here's how I see the first round shaping up the draft on Friday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles. You can watch it live on Versus in the U.S., and on TSN and RDS in Canada, starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time.
Click here for a photo gallery of the top 30 draft prospects.
Tyler Seguin, C, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
Taylor Hall is the overwhelming favorite to go first overall after his MVP performance at the Memorial Cup, and there'd be no argument here if he did. That said, there was solid reasoning that led to Seguin being voted the top draft prospect in the OHL. "His hockey sense is off the charts," a Western Conference scout told SI.com. "He's the best in his class at creating something out of nothing."
Seguin's game is described as "incredibly mature," which is noteworthy considering that he's been in the OHL just two years compared to three for Hall.
"It's all about projection, about where you see a player down the road," said the scout. "He's not much younger than Hall, but he's less experienced. So when you see he scored 48 goals this year [eight more than Hall], you see the way he goes about his business...I believe [he'll be] the better player 10 years on."
Taylor Hall, LW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
The scouts are unanimous. Hall is considered the most NHL-ready player in his class and he has superstar written all over him. With the speed of Alexander Mogilny, the shot of Brett Hull, the fearless net drive of Cam Neely, he's going to be an impact player no matter where he lands. "He's a lot like Zach Parise, only he's more determined to get to the net," offered one scout.
Hall's reckless abandon has some people worried that he'll suffer a physical toll once he matches up with bigger, smarter pros. (Check out the hit that Travis Hamonic laid on him in the opening game of this year's Memorial Cup tournament.). But others aren't so concerned.
"He'll figure it out," says another scout. "He'll make some adjustments, but he won't lose what makes him special."
Brandon Gormley, D, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
I think there's a better-than-even chance that new GM Dale Tallon deals this pick as part of his effort to rebuild the Cats from scratch -- especially after picking up the 15th overall pick on Tuesday from the Bruins in the Nathan Horton/Greg Campbell trade for Dennis Wideman -- and if that happens, there's a better-than-even chance that someone has their eye on big, bad Erik Gudbranson in this slot. But if Tallon keeps it, look for the Panthers to tab Gormley.
There's a Duncan Keith-quality to his game that makes the 6-2, 180 defender seem like an obvious Tallon choice. His puck skills are his standout talent. "He makes a great breakout pass," said one scout. "He can read the play as well as anyone, and his positioning is textbook. You can rely on him in any situation."
Cam Fowler, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Perhaps if this Tomas Kaberle-starter kit had already been in the system, the Jackets might have been able to convince Guy Boucher to take their coaching job a couple weeks back. Fowler's taken a lot of heat during the last few months over his lack of physicality, but it's not like the guy's a kitten. It's clearly the least appealing part of his game, but it's also the sort of deficiency that can easily be covered by a more malevolently-inclined partner. Instead, the Jackets will be won over by his well-developed offensive tools. Fowler will key Columbus' transition game from the moment he steps on the ice. He makes excellent decisions with the puck and his passing is the most accurate of any player in the draft.
Erik Gudbranson, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
You'll hear experienced NHL bird dogs comparing him to Chris Pronger or Dion Phaneuf and a few viewings will reveal the nasty, physical play and hard-rock build that have many scouts pegging him as the next great shutdown defender. But there also have been whispers over the last several weeks that what you see with Gudbranson is what you get.
"He's a mean S.O.B., that's for sure," said an Eastern Conference scout. "He hits hard and he'll drop [the gloves] to make a point." But, the scout continued, he was a disappointment at the Under-18 tournament in Minsk. "You have to love his character, his leadership, but that event reinforced my concerns about his decision making. He'll be a player, no doubt. But can he do as much for a team as, say, Gormley? He does some things better, but overall, I don't think so."
Alexander Burmistrov, C, Barrie Colts (OHL)
Steve Yzerman knows a thing or two about the value of highly-skilled Russians, so look for the new Bolts GM to call the name of a player who's been compared to both Igor Larionov and Pavel Datsyuk.
Burmistrov plays the classic Russian style, all speed and jaw-dropping dekes, but he's also great on the draw and a reliable enough defensive presence that he should mature into as much of an asset on the penalty kill as on the power play. The one knock on him: his size. He's about 5-11, but doesn't yet top 160, so he needs a year, probably two, to build up his weight and strength before he can contribute in Tampa. While all Russians come with an asterisk these days, there's a sense that Burmistrov is committed to playing in the NHL.
Nino Niederreiter Portland Winter Hawks (WHL)
The Canes are coming in with a Best Player Available approach, and that has to lead them to Niederreiter, who is possibly the best prospect ever to come out of Swiss hockey. One of the youngest players in the draft (if he'd been born a week later, he'd be a 2011 selection), he made a name for himself with a standout performance at the 2010 World Juniors. "What you saw there is what you get," said a scout. "Great hands, a plus shot, tons of grit and passion. And he's got a knack for coming through in the clutch. He's a special player."
Ryan Johansen, C, Portland Winterhawks
There's speculation that the Thrashers might stretch to take goaltender Jack Campbell here, but Johansen is a rarer commodity: a big, rangy center with solid two-way ability. What really captured the imagination of scouts was his improvement level over the season. "Another year and he might catch up to Hall and Seguin," said one. Another compared his game to that of Eric Staal. "I won't say he'll score like Staal, but that's the thing with this kid. Things are just now starting to come together for him. That touch might be the next step in his evolution. We really haven't seen the best of him yet."
Jeff Skinner, C, Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
With a checkered draft record like theirs, the Wild simply can't afford to blow this pick. There'll be some sentiment to take local boy Nick Bjugstad, but Skinner's dazzling offensive game is a safer bet. He's often knocked for his skating -- odd, considering that he was once a nationally-ranked figure skater -- but there's no debate about his touch after he scored 70 goals in 84 regular and playoff games. "He's a game-breaker, pure and simple," said one scout. "He may not look good on the way, but he gets to where he needs to be to finish plays." The scout also noted that while Skinner isn't the strongest kid, his legs are surprisingly sturdy, making him tough to knock off the puck.
Brett Connolly, RW, Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Some fans are hoping the Blueshirts take goalie Jack Campbell here, but New York's recent history with first-round picks spent on goaltenders (Al Montoya and Dan Blackburn) suggests the Rangers will replenish that position later in the draft. Instead, look for them to take a leap of faith with Connolly, a dazzling winger who might have challenged for Seguin and Hall if hip injuries hadn't limited him to just 16 games on the season.
Shades of Marian Gaborik? Maybe...no way of knowing for sure that the injuries aren't chronic, but Connolly is worth the risk. He scored 30 goals and won the CHL's rookie of the year in 2009, then scored 10 times in his 16 games this year. "He has great size [6-2, 181] and no one questions his touch," an Eastern Conference scout told SI.com. "He plays a mix of a finesse and a power game. He might have helped his case if he'd played better at the recent Under-18s, but it's hard to see him falling out of the top 10."
Derek Forbort, D, USA NTDP
One scout told me that Forbort could be this year's Thomas Hickey, a defender regarded as a mid-first round prospect who eventually was drafted by the Kings fourth overall in 2007. It could happen. Forbort has the size (6-5, 198) that teams covet, is quick on his feet, and he has both the poise and the smarts to bring something to the offensive end of the ice. There's a lot of projection involved with his still-maturing game, however, and that should allow him to drop to the Stars, a team that's desperate for some defensive depth in the system.
Mikael Granlund, LW, HIFK (Finland)
At just 5-10, 180 pounds, Granlund never would have passed muster under the Brian Burke regime, but new GM Bob Murray understands that skill is the ultimate trump card. Granlund's size and skating have raised some concerns, but there's no arguing with his talent. He might have the best hockey sense in the entire class, and he excelled while playing against grown men in the Finnish Elite League, where he scored 40 points in just 43 games. The Saku Koivu comparisons seem a little too easy, but it's accurate. "He's got a lot of fight in him," offered one scout.
Jack Campbell, G, USA NTDP
Goalies have proven to be a high-risk proposition in the first round in recent years, but Campbell's performance in big games over the past season has scouts raving about his potential to emerge as a franchise goalie...and possibly one of the best players in this draft. Looking for an eventual replacement for Ilya Bryzgalov, the Yotes will be happy to snap up a player who led the U.S. to gold medals at both the U-18 and the World Juniors.
"I could see someone using a top-five pick to snag him," said one scout. "He really is that good. He's got the size, the athleticism and his compete level is off the charts. He's as intense at practice as at game time. A great leader and a great teammate. He's the real deal."
Jon Merrill, D, US NTDP
Scouting director Jarmo Kekalainen already has built an enviable stable of defensive talent for the Blues, but don't be surprised if he goes back to that well for his final draft with the team. The question is, will that pick be Merrill? He was the best defenseman at the Under-18 tournament in Minsk, where his high-end offensive potential was undeniable. But he followed that up with a poor showing at the combine, particularly in the interview sessions.
"He was Phil Kessel-bad," said one scout, referencing the memorably poor showing of the former Bruins first-rounder. If the Blues are willing to write that off as simple immaturity, they could land another American kid [they love drafting them] who should be a second-pairing stalwart at worst, thanks to his ability to think the game and react at high speed.
Emerson Etem, RW, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
It wouldn't be a surprise if Etem went earlier (possibly to the Ducks at 12), but it says here he'll fall to mid-round where GM Tallon will be thrilled to pounce. The SoCal native is one of the fastest players in the draft and also has some of the best hands. Etem's 37 goals led all CHL rookies and he could be a Patrick Kane-lite for the Cats.
"He's got a bit of Marian Gaborik in him," suggested one scout. "He gets into high gear in a hurry and he can really let it go on the fly. He has a really heavy shot."
Etem also impressed scouts by adding to his arsenal of moves this season. "He has that desire to improve his game. He's a very coachable kid," said another.
Beau Bennett, RW, Penticton Vees (BCJHL)
A bit of a stretch here? Maybe. Two scouts suggested Bennett could slide to the second round, but others say he's a mid-first lock, with one scout comparing his dynamic finishing touch to that of Dany Heatley, a player the Sens would dearly love to replace. In 56 games with the Vees, Bennett scored 41 goals (25 on the power play) and added 79 assists for 120 points. "There are elements of his game that need work, but they're all things that can be addressed," said a scout. "The one thing you can't teach is touch and Bennett has that in spades."
Vladimir Tarasenko, LW, Novosibirsk (KHL)
If the Avs are looking for a high-value pick, this one just fell into their laps. It wouldn't be a surprise to hear his name called in the top 10, but the Russian factor seems likely to prolong his stay on the draft board. As one scout for a club drafting in the bottom third of the round told me, if his team were picking in the 5-7 range, he'd push hard for Tarasenko. "A top-five talent, no doubt," the scout said. "Has a tremendous shot and has a knack for finding the dead areas down low."
He's no banger, but at 5-11, 202, the son of former Russian Olympian Andrei Tarasenko is already sturdier than his father. Witnesses at the scouting combine gave him high marks for a physique that's allowed him to battle two years already in the KHL, where he's likely to remain for another couple years.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Blaine (Minn HS)
Having just dealt Jason Arnott, the Preds can draft his eventual replacement in Bjugstad. Minnesota's Mr. Hockey is a massive 6-5, 188-pound slab of beef who absolutely dominated the high school ranks. "He's still growing... he's going to be a real horse in a couple of years," said one scout, who also applauded Bjugstad's leadership and work ethic both on and off the ice. Bjugstad scored 29 goals in 25 games this year, but he'll benefit from playing a higher brand of competition at the University of Minnesota.
Ludvig Rensfeldt, LW, Brynas (Swedish Juniors)
The Kings have earned a reputation for going off the board, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them reach here for the top-rated Swedish prospect in what's considered a down year for that country's talent. Rensfeldt's got good size (6-2, 192), an excellent shot (21 goals in 39 games) and can be a force along the boards. But one scout damned him with faint praise.
"He's a softer version of Niederreiter. I don't question his strength or his skill, but he lacks the consistent intensity to be a top scorer. [He'll be a] a streaky, secondary-type." Another scout agreed with the basis of that assessment, but said it was just a matter of focus. "In the right situation, he could really find his niche. He really showed me something in Minsk. Someone could stretch for him."
Dylan McIlrath, D, Moose Jaw (WHL)
A team that's desperate for a nasty physical presence on the back end simply can't ask for more than McIlrath. "He doesn't have the puck skills to project as a top pairing guy," said a scout. "But he is easily the most intimidating player in the draft. He'll keep the opposition honest."
McIlrath had 19 fighting majors on the season. He'll need another year or two to work on his skating and filling out his 6-4, 215-pound frame.
Austin Watson, RW, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
Watson is considered a lock to become an NHL player solely on the basis of his defensive skill set. "He battles as hard as anyone," said a scout. "He plays with a lot of desire. He'll pay the price at both ends...blocking shots, battling for position. Whatever it takes." The question is: can Watson develop the offensive game to become a top-six forward? Word is that several NHL teams see it in him, and that could lead to his name being called sooner. I'm not sold. I see him as more of a Kris Draper-type in the NHL, which makes him the ideal choice for a team that's about to lose the real thing.
Mark Pysyk, D, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
The broken foot that cost him the last 24 games of the season hurt Pysyk more than the minus-19 rating he picked up playing for the woeful Oil Kings. "He lacks the high-end quality that everyone wants in a first rounder, but he's the sort of kid you can throw out there every other shift and feel confident that he'll make the right play." Pysyk makes a good first pass, and has the skating ability to lead the rush and the smarts to know when to take the chance. He comes up a little short in the physical game, however, and that likely will push him towards the end of the round.
Riley Sheahan, C, Notre Dame (CCHA)
The Sabres would love to add some more size and skill to their front lines, especially down the middle. Sheahan has the build (6-2, 195), but there are questions about his offensive upside after he scored just six goals as a freshman at Notre Dame. Still, scouts see him finding a way to contribute once he hits the pros. "He's a high energy player," said one, who compared him to a poor man's Jordan Staal. "Even if the hands don't come around, he has the [will and the skill] to be an effective shutdown center."
Brock Nelson, C, Warroad (Minn. HS)
The nephew of 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice star Dave Christian is projected as a hard-hitting power forward. Scouts are praising his smarts and his considerable work ethic. "He's already a solid player, but you can tell how badly he wants to be more," said one. "He's a very coachable kid."
Nelson is expected to spend at least two years honing his craft at the University of North Dakota. No hurry, say the Hawks.
Jarred Tinordi, D, US NTDP
Call him a chunk off the old block. Already 6-6 and 205 pounds, the son of long-time NHL banger Mark Tinordi projects as a bigger, meaner version of his father -- exactly the sort of hold 'em accountable defender the Canucks are lacking. "You don't want to spend too much time around the crease when he's on the ice," said a scout. He also earns praise for his leadership and character. His dad has said he sees more of an offensive touch to his son's game than he himself had, but beyond a smart first pass, don't count on too much.
Quinton Howden, LW, Moose Jaw (WHL)
With Tinordi gone, the Caps can add some size and strength on the wings with the 6-2, 183-pound Howden.
"I see a bit of Ryan Kesler in him," said one scout. "Great skater, reads the play well, and he's strong on both sides of the puck. [I'm} not sure he'll ever have the touch [to play] a top-six role, but he's a player who will find a way to make an impact with his minutes." At worst, he's seen as a strong penalty-killer.
Evgeni Kuznetsov, C, Chelyabinsk (KHL)
If it wasn't for the Nikita Filatov factor, a player as talented as Kuznetsov would earn consideration as a top-10 choice. "He's inconsistent, but when he's on his game, he can be the most dominant player on the ice," a scout suggested. "But how many Russians have you heard that about?"
While his detractors point to a non-descript performance at the WJC and question his desire to play in North America, Kuznetsov has an apparent skill level that has to appeal to a team lacking high-end offensive talent in its system, like the Habs. It's a risky pick, but the potential payoff of a top-six forward will have Montreal swinging for the fences.
Charlie Coyle, F, South Shore (EJHL)
Coyle is "a bit of a project" according to one scout, but he should be worth the wait. The Boston University-bound winger has all the physical attributes -- he's 6-2, 207 and ranked in the top-five in the key fitness tests at the combine -- but his game is still a work in progress.
"He's strong and he skates and is terrific at protecting the puck," said the scout. "But you want to see if he can score against high-end competition." If Coyle takes after cousin Tony Amonte, that shouldn't be a problem.
Tyler Pitlick, C, Minnesota State (WCHA)
Like Howden, Pitlick is a big body (6-2, 204) who lacks an elite offensive touch but plays such a responsible two-way game that he projects as no worse than a solid third-line center.
"No one's going to buy a ticket to see him play, but he's the sort of guy who'll hang around [the league] a long time." said a scout. Pitlick plays an honest, physical game that reminds some of Washington's Dave Steckel.
Jaden Schwartz, C, Tri-City (USHL)
A Canadian version of Mikael Granlund, Schwartz is short on size (5-10, 180) but long on talent. He led the USHL in scoring last season (33-50-83 in 60 games), thanks to a great set of hands and tremendous vision that makes him the league's top playmaker. He needs to improve his skating -- he's shifty but lacks overall speed -- but that could develop while he matriculates at Colorado College. He may need all four years, but the defending champs can afford to let him take his time.