Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Central Scouting Service final rankings recap: North American skaters and goalies

I'm back with some thoughts on Central Scouting's final rankings beyond the top-two that I covered over the weekend.

First of all, this is a difficult thing to put together, and I appreciate the Central staff's hard work to view and rank all of the players. Everyone sees the prospects differently, and in this business, sometimes beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. That said, I've talked to a few of my sources in the NHL scouting fraternity, and they aren't all that impressed with a few of the conclusions E.J. McGuire and his scouts arrived at with the list.

You won't see a lot of debate with the first six players on the list. After Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall, you have players like Prince George winger Brett Connolly, Erik Gudbranson of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs, Windsor blueliner Cam Fowler and Moncton defender Brandon Gormley, and all of them have the requisite skill and upside to go there. If there is a little controversy, it is with Connolly, who missed most of the year with hip problems, but he looked strong when he returned late in the year and will get another opportunity to raise his stock at the World Under-18 Championship in Belarus this week and next.

The problems start at No. 7 and 8 overall, where Central has Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL) defenseman Mark Pysyk and Medicine Hat Tigers winger Emerson Etem ranked.

"It's a joke to have those guys that high," said one scout who's seen both with heavy scorn in his voice. "I don't get how you have Nino Niederreiter so far down the list (at 12) behind Pysyk and Etem...how do you do that?"

Several scouts have said that Pysyk was a real disappointment this season. Yes, he has size and all of the physical tools, but didn't put it all together and much too often, seemed like more of a soft, passive player with questionable decision-making than you want to see so early in the draft. As for Etem, he scored a lot of goals (37) and showed off great speed and skill, but didn't do much else. Oh, and did I mention he was hurt for a long stretch of the season to close it out? That's not the kind of guy you take inside the top-10, even with the impressive physical attributes. Can you say Johnathan Aitken?

"I think Etem has huge bust potential," the scout said. "I wonder about his vision and hockey sense; I've seen him just throw the puck in the middle of the slot when nobody's there, and he doesn't display a lot of creativity. He won't get away with some of the things he's done in the WHL at the next level."

One player who's earned a solid passing grade inside the top-10 is Portland center Ryan Johansen, who Central ranked ahead of linemate Niederreiter. Johansen addressed some of the concerns about his awkward skating stride and balance, showing off his tremendous playmaking skills and also finding the back of the net down the stretch. He was outstanding in Portland's seven-game series victory over the Spokane Chiefs in the opening round of the WHL playoffs. This was a guy who a year ago was a fourth-liner for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL. Talk about a developmental curve that is shooting straight up...

Niederreiter, some feel, is too low at 12. He scored 36 goals this year for Portland, but also showed a gritty two-way game that earned him a great deal of praise. There is some risk that his average skating ability makes him a risk as a top-six forward at the NHL level, but he does so many other things well that he's got better potential to succeed than fail.

Nick Bjugstad and Austin Watson are a pair of Americans from Minnesota and Michigan with very good size and hockey skill. Watson's offensive game took off after he was traded from Windsor to Peterborough where he got top line duties. Bjugstad is the winner of the prestigious Mr. Hockey award, given to the top Minnesota high schooler. His uncle, Scott Bjugstad, played in the NHL in the 80's and 90's, so he's got the bloodlines to go with his impressive upside.

John McFarland at 15th overall is another curious choice by Central. By most accounts the immensely talented and former top OHL Priority Selection two years ago has chronically underachieved this season for the Sudbury Wolves. At times, he's acted pretty disinterested on the ice, and I hear that some of the issues with McFarland go beyond just him. With just 20 goals and 50 points in 64 regular season games, that is production far too low for what he's capable of providing. He did score three goals in a four-game sweep in the first round of the OHL playoffs, but he's far too risky a player with attitude/work ethic/off-ice, family concerns to be taken seriously as a top-20 pick.

"I really don't know what (Central's) doing with him at 15," the scout said of McFarland. "If they're ranking him on performance, attitude and potential based on his season with Sudbury, then he's a second- or third-round pick. If they're ranking him on his performance with Team Canada, then he's a top four or five. It seems like they just threw him in the middle somewhere and left it at that."

The most curious ranking comes in the second round with Kitchener forward Jeff Skinner, who tallied 50 goals in the regular season, then added 12 in 13 playoff games in leading his Rangers team to the conference final series against powerhouse Windsor. Skinner is 34th, which is up 13 spots from his even more confounding No. 47 slot at midterm.

"I don't even know what to call that," he said. "Yes, he's not a great skater and doesn't have ideal size, but he scored 50 goals and has kept it going in the playoffs. There's no way, none-- that Skinner is on the board at 34."

The scout added that the more confounding thing about Central's slotting of the natural scorer is that when you factor in the European players, that 34th ranking is more like a 40-50 projection. Skinner is destined for the first round, and possibly even the top-15.

Russian Kirill Kabanov, who is falling like a stone (31st from 15th at midterm) after being dismissed from the Moncton Wildcats in the playoffs and then booted from Russia's Under-18 team. He had wrist surgery in December and missed most of the year after getting off to a good start in the QMJHL, but even though he's talented, he's extremely immature, has a domineering over-involved father, and has too many red flags to be considered as a viable draft candidate commensurate with his raw talent and skill level. He's been hyped to the point that people who haven't seen him, nor understand the level of petulance he's displayed on several levels this year, are convinced that NHL teams still see him as worthy of a first-round pick. I respectfully disagree-- he'll probably go somewhere in the second, but even then, he'll be a big risk and potential high-maintenance headache for any team that rolls the dice on him.

Ryan Spooner (39th) and Jared Knight (82nd) are two more OHLers who appear to be ranked much lower than their talent and upside would indicate. Spooner, who is blazing skater and offensive whiz for Peterborough, broke his collarbone after the Top Prospects Game in January, derailing his season, but the injury isn't expected to effect him and he should be ready for the NHL Draft Combine at the end of May.

As far as the goalies go, Seattle Thunderbird Calvin Pickard deserves to be in the top spot. He's a tremendous athlete who played great all year for a very mediocre team, facing about 35 shots per game on average, but always keeping the T-Birds in every one. Like his older brother, Chet, he'll go solidly in the first-round somewhere.

American Jack Campbell is right behind him, and has a chance to raise his profile at the World Under-18 tourney. He won gold last year at 17 in Fargo, then won gold again at the World Junior (u-20) in January and could make it a gold trifecta in Belarus. He's also a solid first-rounder and the distance between Campbell and Pickard is very small.

Everett Silvertips goalie Kent Simpson is No. 3 on the list and deserves to be there. The big, atheletic Edmontonian had a very consistent year in the WHL, posting a .925 save percentage with a 2.25 goals against average. He's your prototypical modern-day goalie with the size and quickness to be tough to beat in net.

I also like Niagara Ice Dogs goalie Mark Visentin who is fourth on the list, but shows some interesting upside. At least, he did in the one half of the game I saw him play in Windsor back in January.

Keep an eye on Sam Brittain, the Denver University-bound netminder who played with Canmore of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (the same league that produced Joe Colborne). He's another big, skilled player who will need a lot of patience and development, but he'd be an interesting option for Boston at 47th overall if he's on the board.

Quebec native Martin Ouellette, who recently committed to the University of Maine after backstopping Kimball Union Academy to the New England Prep small school championship in early march, is up to 13th from 17th at midterm and is an interesting developmental project.

I can't believe Brian Billett was left off the list entirely. All he did was win the EJHL championship and had a solid Beantown Classic performance last month. I know I'm higher on him than some, but it is inconceivable to me that he would be snubbed like that. I'm convinced that one of the NHL's 30 teams will take the Boston College-bound Billett at some point.

Well, that does it for the North American roundup. I'll be back soon with a look at the European list.

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