The NHL team that ends up picking first overall in June's draft appears as though it will have to select between a pair of Russian forwards — Nail Yakupov of the OHL's Sarnia Sting and Mikhail Grigorenko of the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts.
Let the debate begin. Yakupov was named the top North American-based skater in mid-season rankings released Wednesday by NHL central scouting, but has been receiving a strong challenge from his compatriot in the bid to be selected first in the 2012 draft.
"The potential is there that some teams would not have (Yakupov) No. 1," Dan Marr, the NHL's director of central scouting, said in an interview. "Grigorenko is making a strong case for himself as a first overall candidate. It's close.
"As we said in the meeting there, we're almost at the point where we sort of like to reference them as 1A and 1B."
If that continues, it could end up being a situation similar to the one that played out in 2010 when Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin entered the draft in a virtual dead heat. The Edmonton Oilers ended up taking Hall at No. 1 while Seguin landed with the Boston Bruins.
Yakupov and Grigorenko were teammates on the Russian team that won silver at the recent world junior championship, where Yakupov suffered a right knee injury that will keep him on the sidelines until the end of the month.
The 18-year-old winger has 21 goals and 53 points in 26 games for the Sting this season.
"There's very few times where you leave a rink and say 'there's some players worth the price of admission,' " said Marr. "He's got the ability there to just take over a game. He's got that high-energy, high-speed game and he's got a scoring touch.
"He's capable of being a difference-maker in a game."
Grigorenko is a centre who has compiled 25 goals and 58 points in 36 games for Quebec. Both he and Yakupov are vying to become the first Russian selected No. 1 since Alex Ovechkin in 2004.
Other contenders include Ryan Murray of the WHL's Everett Silvertrips, who at No. 3 is the highest-ranked Canadian player. He is one of seven defencemen ranked inside the top-10 in a draft class that appears to be deep on the blue-line.
The top European-based skater midway through the year is Swedish forward Filip Forsberg, who plays for Leksand in his country's domestic league. He won gold with Sweden at the world junior tournament.
An interesting name to keep an eye on is Alex Galchenyuk, Yakupov's Sarnia teammate who hasn't played this season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during exhibition play. As a result, he wasn't listed in Wednesday's rankings by NHL central scouting.
"Going into this season, a lot of people were arguing he might be the best '94-born player," said Marr. "I think its most teams' eyes, the consensus if you'd have done the straw poll would have been that he's a top-five candidate for the draft.
"I think teams are still going to hold that view and opinion of him."
The NHL draft will be held June 22-23 at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center.
Yakupov was also listed No. 1 in initial rankings released by NHL central scouting in November, prompting fans of struggling teams to urge them to continue to "Fail for Nail."
With Grigorenko and others creeping into the picture, a new campaign slogan might need to be drafted.
"A couple other players have kind of closed the perceived gap that there was with him at the top," Marr said of Yakupov. "But we went through it all.
"He's going to have continue his fine play because there's some other players nipping at his heels there."
The NHL's central scouting service is in its 37th year of operation. It employs eight full-time and 16 part-time scouts throughout North America and another six scouts in Europe.
Notes: Malcolm Subban of the Belleville Bulls — the brother of Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban — is listed as the top North American goalie ... Russian Andrei Vasilevski is No. 1 on the European goaltending list ... Five of the 12 highest-rated North American skaters hail from Europe.Suggest a correction