The Ontario Hockey League’s four-year reign could be coming to an end this summer.
Not since 2006, has a player been taken first-overall in the National Hockey League draft from a league other than the OHL. The last four drafts began with OHL grads going first in Taylor Hall (2010, Windsor), John Tavares (2009, London), Steven Stamkos (2008, Sarnia) and Patrick Kane (2007, London).
Erik Johnson holds the distinction as the last non-OHL grad to hear his name called first, when the St. Louis Blues selected the physically-imposing defender from the United States National Team Development Program.
The NHL’s Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings on Tuesday, which splits the prospects based not just from skaters and goaltenders, but also from region. Full rankings of North American-based skaters and goaltenders, plus another list of European skaters and goaltenders will not be released until Jan. 10. Central Scouting will release its final rankings later in the season.
For once, it finally seems regional pride will be on the line when the draft rolls around this June. Although a lot can still change in the coming months, the buzz around the junior game is that there is no consensus top pick this season.
Drummondville’s Sean Couturier, is among the group of prospects leading the debate. A late birthdate, Couturier is in his third season with the Voltigeurs and already has a league title to his list of accomplishments from his rookie season in 2009. He’s the son of Acadie-Bathurst general manager Sylvain Couturier.
Couturier is receiving the majority of headlines among QMJHL prospects, in spite of a strange decision away from the rink. His agent, Gilles Lupien, informed the media a month earlier his client would not be doing interviews until December, so he could focus on hockey.
The OHL’s top hopeful from Central Scouting’s list, is Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog. Like Couturier, Landeskog is a late-1992 birthdate, but playing in his second season of major junior after, the Rangers traded for his rights from Plymouth a year ago.
Landeskog isn’t merely a displaced Swede playing Canadian hockey. His style of play would leave one to believe, he had previously been a displaced Canadian in Sweden before making the jump to the OHL. The Rangers named him their captain this season and his head coach, Steve Spott, raves about his maturity and work ethic.
"He plays the game the right way," Spott told sportsnet.ca. "He’s a 200-foot player and a guy that I believe any NHL coach will want in his lineup any time soon."
The last time a WHL player was drafted first-overall, was in 1996 when the Ottawa Senators selected Prince Albert Raiders defenceman Chris Phillips, with the first pick. Red Deer’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the league’s best hope, to see that streak end this season.
Nugent-Hopkins, dubbed the ‘Golden Nugget’ by teammates in Red Deer, is a slick forward with uncanny playmaking abilities.
"It kind of sounds cliché I guess, but he’s just got a great head on his shoulders," Red Deer head coach Jesse Wallin said. "He’s very grounded, very humble, very hard working and committed to his team. He’s just a real pleasure to coach."
The intrigue will be fueled next month, when each of those three players vies for a spot on his nation’s world junior squad. Couturier and Landeskog are shoe-ins for the Canadian and Swedish teams, while Nugent-Hopkins might be a bubble player for Canada.
Canada chose not to carry a 17-year-old, for the first time in the last six tournaments last year. The selection camp last December featured three players aged 17, including the eventual second-overall pick, Tyler Seguin. History would suggest, Nugent-Hopkins would be limited to a depth role — if he made the team.
The debate between the three will heat up shortly, following the tournament when Central Scouting releases its mid-term rankings.
Central Scouting’s rankings always make for good debate and it hasn’t shied from shooting from the hip. Seguin was ranked ahead of Hall in their final rankings, which were coincidentally released the same day Hall’s Windsor Spitfires eliminated Seguin’s Plymouth Whalers in a playoff series.
Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire has always said the rankings are used more as a road map for the 30 NHL teams. Of course, NHL teams aren’t shy from straying from those rankings, as evidenced last year. Jeff Skinner was ranked 47th among North American skaters on the mid-term list, then 34th in the final rankings.
The Carolina Hurricanes selected Skinner seventh overall. Skinner currently leads all NHL rookies in scoring heading into Tuesday’s action with 15 points in 17 games, eight points more than Hall and nine more than Seguin.
The hype and anticipation of draft followers, now has turned Central Scouting’s rankings into more than just a road map for teams.
Unlike in previous years, regional pride will finally heat up the debate.