The Saskatoon Blades will host this year's edition of the Memorial Cup, and for NHL scouts, there is an extra buzz in the air. The potential top three overall picks -- Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin -- will all be in the tournament, and potentially as many as eight first-round picks will take part. But in what order will those names be called on draft day? This big-stage tournament will help sort that out.
Who wins the tournament is anyone's guess, but scouts will be looking for reasons to move one player ahead of another as final prospect lists get massaged and arranged before the June 30th entry draft in Newark, N.J.
Much of the speculation -- including our own -- centers on the Colorado Avalanche taking Portland Winterhawks defenseman Jones with the first overall pick. His father, Popeye Jones, played for the Denver Nuggets, and Seth grew up watching and admiring the Avs. The 6-foot-3 elite-skating D-man will not be selected for that reason alone, but the temptation may be too great with the franchise in big need of depth at the defense position. That said, he still may have more to prove.
When you own the No. 1 overall pick, you simply cannot miss. If you do, you set back your franchise for years. The Avs' scouts will be scrutinizing every detail in Jones' game up in Saskatoon. And they'll likely be examining their other top options as well. Conveniently, they all seem to be up in Saskatoon.
Here is a look at some of the players who could use the national stage to improve their draft status, noting where they fall in my rankings as well as where Central Scouting (CSS) has them on their final North American rankings.
C Nathan MacKinnon, Halifax (QMJHL)
My List: No. 1 | CSS: No. 2 North American Skaters
There is little doubt that he is going to be selected in the top three, but this Memorial Cup may make it more difficult for Colorado to not select him first overall. All hands will be on deck when Halifax plays Portland and he and Jones go head to head. An elite-skating, offensively gifted center matched against a dynamic skating two way D-man is going to be appointment viewing. The matchup likely means more for MacKinnon, who was knocked for a lackluster showing at the World Junior Championships. A better showing in another pressure-packed setting could improve his standing and help his stock recover to pre-WJC levels.
LW Jonathan Drouin, Halifax (QMJHL)
My List: No. 2 | CSS: No. 3 North American Skaters
Like his linemate MacKinnon, he too is expected to go in the top three. In some circles, he is talked about as being the best player in the draft. I have little doubt he is going to impact an NHL roster, but he and MacKinnon are different-style players. This French-Canadian winger has an incredible one-on-one game and finds a way to beat opponents more with his hands than his skating. In Saskatoon, Jones will need to worry about both MacKinnon and Drouin in this tournament if he is on the ice against this tenacious tandem.
D Seth Jones, Portland (WHL)
My List: No. 3 | CSS: No. 1 North American Skaters
Playing defense is so much more difficult -- especially at a young age -- than playing a forward position. Elite young D-men don't come along every draft, and this American stud has so many great qualities. It will be hard to pass on him when draft time comes along. Scouts will be looking to see how he reacts to playing against high-skilled players like MacKinnon and Drouin and many others and if he can handle the pressure of a major event like the Memorial Cup. All indications suggest he will thrive under pressure, just as he did in leading the U.S. to gold at the World Junior Championships.
D Nikita Zadorov, London (OHL)
My List: No. 8 | CSS: No. 22 North American Skaters
There is much talk about Halifax and Portland because of the top three players, but London is the only returning team to the Memorial Cup, and it is not a fluke. Viewers are going to get an idea of just how big, strong and physical this Russian D-man is, not to mention getting eyes on his skating and skills. If he has an outstanding tournament, I do not think he will move much higher in the draft simply because of the elite players to be selected before him, but the OHL playoffs proved just how much of an impact he can have. He is an imposing specimen with tremendous upside to develop into a complete shutdown player.
C/LW Max Domi, London (OHL)
My List: No. 9 | CSS: No. 19 North American Skaters
The first thing you'll hear about Domi will center on his size (just 5-foot-9), but there's so much more to him than that, and a lot for scouts to like. His strength and low center of gravity are assets for the way he plays. No question he has the skill set and skating to play, and I think if the right team selects him, he will be playing in the NHL next season. Some publications have penalized Domi because of his size and have him going much later in the draft. This tournament could prove to be very beneficial for this big-time offensive forward.
LW/C Bo Horvat, London (OHL)
My List: No. 17 | CSS: No. 15 North American Skaters
Fresh off his OHL playoff MVP accolades, this two-way forward has been excellent down the stretch. Perhaps he doesn't own the skill set of others rated above him, but he's certainly one of the more complete players in this draft class. Like his teammate, Domi, I feel he has a chance to play in the NHL next season.Strength on the puck, hockey sense and his overall efficient game in all three zones makes him extremely attractive. My feeling is the Memorial Cup will elevate his status.
G Zachary Fucale, Halifax (QMJHL)
My List: No. 21 | CSS: No. 1 North American Goaltenders
Only five regular-season losses and just one in the playoffs is impressive. He does not fall into the "big" category for today's goaltenders (6-1), but he plays big for his size while having excellent athletic ability. He is square and set when making his first save and has the ability to scramble to make second and third saves. If he leads his team to the promised land, some NHL teams may be seriously considering moving him up their draft lists.
C Nicolas Petan, Portland (WHL)
My List: No. 25 | CSS: No. 33 North American Skaters
Playing on a team with the potential first overall pick is a good thing. Many marvel when watching the Winterhawks because of Jones, but there is much to be excited about with this diminutive point-producer. Petan notched 120 points in the regular season and now averaging more than a point a game in the playoffs, certainly is worth taking note. I am one scout who believes small players can make it at the NHL level, as long as there is more physical development -- read: strength training. If you project this skilled, high-character center two or three years down the road, I believe there will be an NHL team excited about this pick. He could easily help his team win the Memorial Cup. He is that good.
LW Remi Elie, London (OHL)
My List: No. 49 | CSS: No. 71 North American Skaters
He is almost an afterthought on this talent-laden London team, but he is much more than that. If he gets the minutes in this tournament that I believe he deserves, he could open a lot of eyes. Aside from his obvious strong skating and skills, his character and grit for playoff hockey are elite. And in the middle of the NHL playoffs, it is never more apparent how important high-character players are in order to win.
RW Oliver Bjorkstrand, Portland (WHL)
My List: 60-75 | CSS: No. 36 North American Skaters
His playoff performance has been very impressive, putting up big points and scoring key goals. This Danish forward could really grow on NHL teams at this tournament. I have struggled to like him in the same range as others, but he can prove me wrong and really improve his stock for the draft.
C Kyle Platzer, London (OHL)
My List: 75-90 | CSS: No. 110 North American Skaters
D Dakota Mermis, London (OHL)
My List: 80-105 | CSS: No. 195 North American Skaters