There have been surprises before when NHL Central Scouting Service has filed their final rankings, but not in recent memory has any raised eyebrows among professional talent assessors like the list NHL CSS issued this week. It has scouts and executives for NHL teams trying to read between the lines, and many believe that the list might be as much about evolving politics inside the organization as it is talent on the ice.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s weekly CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.
The big news was the rise of Cape Breton left winger Pierre-Luc Dubois from No. 7 among North American skaters in the mid-term to the top slot. Scouts don’t have an issue with placing Dubois in the top 10. None balked at where CSS ranked him in the mid-term. And players do rise and fall over the last months of the season. Still, Dubois is an outlier.
“You’ll see players move up six slots in the top 20 but not in the top 10,” one veteran scout said when the list came out. “You’ll even see a kid from the 40s move into the 20s or even in the high teens. You might see a big shift for a Tier II player who was seen a lot. You don’t see that type of movement right at the top of the class, no.
“I never saw it coming and I had seen Dubois a fair bit. He was a priority for us in the second half of the season.”
Others saw Dubois’s ranking as a bit of a knock on those he passed. “I wonder what [London left winger Matthew] Tkachuk did to fall from No. 1 to 2,” one Ontario-based scout said. “He’s torn it up all season, no real point where he let down. He was great at the world juniors, [and is playing] a higher level than Dubois saw in the Q.
“Some people might have questions about Tkachuk’s skating and maybe some scouts would like Dubois over him because of more balanced skill. Still, what about all the other guys? Did they all fall in the second half of the season? I don’t see it.”
Tkachuk’s 1.87 points-per-game average was fifth in the OHL this season. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
At least a few NHL team scouts, especially those acquainted with the staff at CSS over the years, believe that Dubois’s climb reflects a shift in power in the war room underwritten by the league. Danny Marr replaced the late E.J. Maguire in 2011 as CSS director and over the course of the years has shaped the outfit into his own.
A lot of veteran scouts have moved on, including the top man in each of the CHL regions: B.J. MacDonald in the West and Christian Bordeleau in Quebec both retired after decades with CSS, and Chris Edwards in Ontario left CSS to work with the overseers of the league’s on-ice officials. In their absence David Gregory, who is based in New England, has asserted authority that none of the other top regional scouts had up until this season.
Said one NHL team scouting director: “Under E.J. [the CSS war room] was about consensus—building and sounding everyone out, giving everyone else a voice. Under Marr and Gregory it’s very much top-down… they have strong opinions and expect [the rest of CSS staff] to fall in line.”
Okay, it’s somewhat speculative to say that Dubois was Gregory’s guy, but scouts point to another player on CSS’s final list as proof Gregory’s outsize influence: UConn centre Tage Thompson at No. 20 among North American skaters.
|Final Rank||Midterm Rank||Player||Position||Last Amateur Club||League|
|1||7||Dubois, Pierre-Luc||Left Wing||Cape Breton||QMJHL|
|2||1||Tkachuk, Matthew||Left Wing||London||OHL|
|3||3||Nylander, Alexander||Left Wing||Mississauga||OHL|
|6||9||McAvoy, Charles||Defenseman||Boston University||H-EAST|
|9||8||Keller, Clayton||Center||USA U-18||USHL|
|10||12||Bellows, Kieffer||Left Wing||USA U-18||USHL|
|11||16||Kunin, Luke||Center||U Wisconsin||BIG10|
|12||4||Gauthier, Julien||Right Wing||Val-D’or||QMJHL|
|14||11||Jones, Max||Left Wing||London||OHL|
|17||17||Tufte, Riley||Left Wing||Blaine||HIGH-MN|
|20||24||Thompson, Tage||Center||U Connecticut||H-EAST|
|21||20||Debrincat, Alexander||Right Wing||Erie||OHL|
|22||27||Howden, Brett||Center||Moose Jaw||WHL|
|24||21||Benson, Tyler||Left Wing||Vancouver||WHL|
|25||32||Katchouk, Boris||Left Wing||Sault Marie||OHL|
|29||56||Abramov, Vitaly||Right Wing||Gatineau||QMJHL|
|33||33||Kopacka, Jack||Left Wing||Sault Marie||OHL|
|35||19||Bastian, Nathan||Right Wing||Mississauga||OHL|
|36||34||Raddysh, Taylor||Right Wing||Erie||OHL|
|37||28||Gettinger, Timothy||Left Wing||Sault Marie||OHL|
|39||117||Dineen, Cam||Defenseman||North Bay||OHL|
|40||37||Green, Luke||Defenseman||Saint John||QMJHL|
|42||57||Mascherin, Adam||Left Wing||Kitchener||OHL|
|44||41||Lajoie, Maxime||Defenseman||Swift Current||WHL|
|45||75||Gregor, Noah||Center||Moose Jaw||WHL|
|46||59||Morrison, Cameron||Left Wing||Youngstown||USHL|
|47||39||Frederic, Trent||Center||USA U-18||USHL|
|48||25||Stransky, Simon||Left Wing||Prince Albert||WHL|
|49||51||Lindgren, Ryan||Defenseman||USA U-18||USHL|
|50||67||Fox, Adam||Defenseman||USA U-18||USHL|
A survey of five scouts came to a consensus opinion that Thompson is a late-second or third-round pick. “This is a guy Gregory would have seen a lot of and the cross-over [scouts] less so,” one scout said. “Not that he’s waving the pom-poms, but the fact is that if you see someone more than others do, you aren’t dispassionate about it sometimes.
“You have to try to avoid that but the urge is to see stuff [through repeated viewing] that other people don’t see on more limited views because it’s really not there.”
Maybe this is something of an awaited turn-about: Historically the belief under Maguire’s stewardship was that NHL CSS under-scouted the QMJHL, that players in the ‘Q’ were less frequently viewed than those in the OHL and WHL. (NCAA players are in another category given fewer games played.)
Ten years ago, a QMJHL prospect might have 40 views from scouts compared to 60 or 70 in the other major-junior leagues. It’s not clear how often Dubois or others in Quebec and New England were viewed but what matters most, it seems, was who was doing the viewing.
Other notes on the list
1. On the other side of the bracket, the European list, there were no big surprises: Auston Mathews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi top the list and quite possibly the only players in Europe who’ll land in the top 20. Said one scout: “Laine and Puljujarvi have been unbelievable in the playoffs, just tearing it up. I know that Laine is No. 2 on most people’s lists and has a higher ceiling, but I think Puljujaarvi is the safer pick at No. 2.”
Puljujarvi and Laine have been provding near nightly highlights in the Fiinnish League playoffs. (Heikki Saukkomaa /Lehtikuva via AP)
2. Everyone agrees on the four defenceman among CSS’s top North American skaters, but exactly where they’ll fit into teams’ final lists is bound to vary. Sarnia’s Jakob Chychyrun fell from No. 2 to 4, behind Dubois, Tkachuk and Mississauga’s Alexander Nylander but held on to the highest slotted defenceman, ahead of London’s Olli Juolevi at five, Charles McAvoy of Boston University at six and Windsor defenceman Mikhail Sergachev at eight.
Said one scouting director: “Chychryun is farther along than these other guys physically right now but I just wonder how much development you’re going to see from him compared to Juolevi. McAvoy came on but I haven’t shut the door on Sergachev being the second defenceman to go [at the draft].