Saturday, April 17, 2010

Central Scouting Service final European rankings recap: skaters and goalies

The Central Scouting final rankings were released on April 7, so I'm a little slow in getting out my commentary on the European players, but better late than never as they always say.

Topping the European skaters list is Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund, who had an extremely succesful SM-Liiga season averaging a point per game against men. Despite his smallish size (5-10, 180), lack of speed and initial burst and a pedestrian World Junior (Under-20) tournament back in December and January, it would be a mistake to write him off. A brilliant playmaker whose hockey sense is off the charts, he flourished as a 17-year-old in a league populated by men with a skill level comparable to the AHL. Factor in his offensive prowess in a league that is traditionally more defensive in nature, and Granlund is still a heck of a prospect. Nobody else in Europe will seriously challenge him as the first Euro off the board come June.

Now, if not for the "Russian factor" Vladimir Tarasenko would give Granlund a run for the money, but the lack of a transfer agreement is a game-changer for a lot of NHL clubs. Some have gone so far as to completely remove Russian players from their draft lists. Tarasenko deserves to be No. 2 on the list, but he'll go much lower because of concerns about his signability and some uneven performances/concerns about the compete level from him at times. A pure shooter who can score at will, the talent is something to behold. He's very fast, elusive and has that killer instinct around the net. At 5-10 and under 180, he's another one of those prototypical small guys who can really scoot and shoot and get things done on offense, but he's going to fall victim to the Russia bias that has become a reality at the NHL draft. Some team will take him, but where it might have landed him in the top-five or seven as the No. 2 Euro, it will now likely happen outside of the top-15 or 20 if not lower.

Right behind Tarasenko is fellow Russian scorer extraordinaire Evgeni Kuznetsov, who shined at the World Jr. (Under-20) tourney, then followed it up with a dazzling performance in the Six Nations Cup in Feb, leading Russia to a perfect 5-0 record while leading the tourney in scoring, and he's currently playing well for Russia's Under-18 championship squad in Belarus (Tarasenko is a late-'91 birthdate and therefore not eligible). I've heard that Kuznetsov wants to come to North America next season, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. He's a dynamic player, but can play an undisciplined game and is prone to bad penalties and body language at times. Still, there's a very high upside with this kid.

At No. 4 overall on the Euro list is a player who is getting his absolute first mention on the B2010DW blog: Swedish center Calle Jarnkrok, who vaulted to that spot from 21 on Central's midterm list. The Brynas Jr. team pivot. Red Line Report has placed him atop their list of Swedish players, and had this to say about him in their April issue: "Very smart and smooth with the puck, finding open teammates with thread-the-needle passes." They also added that he's a slick, elusive skater with excellent vision and creativity. This guy is someone to watch for the late-first early second round.

Big Russian Maxim Kitsyn, a strong skater who plays a power game, dropped to six from three at midterm. He's got some nice tools and potential, but again- because of where he's from, he'll go a lot lower than his ranking would have dictated six or seven years ago.

Rounding out the top-10 are a pair of guys I like and find intriguing as options for the Bruins in the early second round if they still have the Toronto pick: German forward Tom Kuehnhackl, who had an injury-plagued season after being hailed as an early candidate to go inside the top-10 and huge Slovak defender Martin Marincin, who has the size and skating to be a player, but was up-and-down when I saw him this season, especially in the World Jr. tourney. One game, he's dominant, and the next a turnstile. He's extremely lanky and raw, but if anyone can develop him into a more consistent presence, he could be a real player at the next level. Kuehnhackl has nice bloodlines as the son of Germany's all-time leading pro league scorer, a centerman with very nice size (6-2) speed and skill. But, he's a bit of an enigma in that he wasn't seen by many scouts this year, so he's expected to slip a bit. Oh, by the way- he'll be seen by a lot of folks next year because he's coming to North America to play for the Windsor Spitfires, who are losing Taylor Hall to the NHL. He's a bit of a gamble to be sure, but if he's lighting it up for the Spits next season, whomever takes him in June is going to look real good.

At 17 is Europe's version of Jeff Skinner: Finnish goal scoring right wing (Jokerit) Teemu Pulkkinen, who missed a lot of time with a wrist injury but returned to action and put the puck in the net well enough to keep the wolves at bay. He's small and not a great skater, but like Skinner, just knows where to go on the ice to finish off the play. I hear he's having a pretty fair Under-18 tourney in Minsk, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder with him. One scout I talked to doesn't have much use for him as a projected impact player in the NHL.

Another guy who merits mention is Swedish center Victor Ohman, who was only 38th on Central's midterm list, but moved up to 18. Red Line liked him going into the season as a power forward with skill and bite, but he disappointed them early on with an indfference on the ice and overall lack of intensity. At least in Central's eyes, he woke up a bit and has made a push. The size, talent and potential is there, but he could very well slip to the third round.

Tuukka Rask's brother, Joonas, is an unspectacular two-way center who's been passed over in two previous drafts, but is ranked 82nd on the list, up from 121 at midterm. Could third time be the charm?

As far as European goalies go, it's not a surprise that a Finn is atop the list with Ilves Jr. netminder Sami Aittokallio leading the way, up from No. 2 at midterm. He plays in the same club/team system as Rask, and like the Bruins rookie, has the same kind of size and build. He's a butterfly goalie who plays well positionally but doesn't have the athleticism and upside of Rask. He's not a household name by any stretch, so any team who takes him will be going against the grain a bit.

Swiss netminder Benjamin Conz is a much more known commodity after his scene-stealing performance at the World Jr. tourney in Saskatoon. Passed over in 2009, he isn't the best conditioned goalie to ever put on the pads, nor is he the most athletic, but he never gives up on a play and does the one thing that matters most pretty well: he stops the puck. Someone will snap him up in 2010.

Swedish goalie Johan Gustafsson is fifth on the list, but some scouts think he might be the best of the Euro crop (which, honestly speaking-- isn't saying a whole lot this year). He's big, quick, athletic and solid positionally, with a few things to work on. But his overall game is appealing even if he is a work in progress (and not going to come with any kind of nicknames like "the Monster").

Well, that's it for the Central lists. There are more Euros out there, but I think the real theme with them this year is that for the most part, two of the best ones are already in North America, when you talk about Nino Niederreiter and Alexander Burmistrov, who between them, would have made the European list that much stronger.

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