The Central Scouting Bureau released its mid-season rankings Tuesday, with Portland Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones taking the nod as the top draft-eligible skater from North America. He was closely followed by Halifax Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon.
Given that both players are standouts at their respective positions, the team holding the No. 1 pick will likely make their selection based on positional need rather than drafting the best available player.
"It was just by a slim margin that Seth is sitting (ahead) in the first ranking right now," Central Scouting director Dan Marr said from Halifax. "But this is a very fluid first overall (position) heading into this year's draft."
Jones, from Arlington, Texas, came up through the U.S. National Team Development Program and has blossomed in the Western Hockey League, leading all rookie WHL blue-liners with 28 points in 33 games.
The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, the six-foot-three, 208-pounder has eight goals, 20 assists and a plus-29 rating with the Winterhawks. Jones also guided the American team to a gold medal at the recent world junior hockey championship.
"The fact that he's living up to his expectation, that really sits well with a lot of scouts," Marr said. "You can project players all you want but when they actually live up to the expectations — and he's on a path to where he's going to exceed those expectations — I think that just really highlights it for Seth."
Jones is aiming to be just the third American-born defenceman to be drafted first overall after Bryan Berard in 1995 and Erik Johnson in 2006.
Centre Aleksander Barkov of Tampere, Finland was the top-rated European-based player. He has 31 points (14-17) in 35 games for Tappara in Finland's top league.
"He might be the most NHL-prepared just because of the fact he has such an experience level playing in the elite league in Finland," Marr said. "All of these players have the talent and the abilities to play in the National Hockey League and to make a team out of camp.
"But then there's the pressure and the expectation that comes along with being drafted so high and he just might be a little further along in terms of being able to handle that pressure."
MacKinnon, from Halifax, leads his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team in scoring with 55 points (23-32) in 32 games.
Teammate Jonathan Drouin of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., was ranked third among North American skaters. He has 51 points (20-31) in 26 games.
Ottawa 67s centre Sean Monahan of Brampton, Ont., and Medicine Hat Tigers centre Hunter Shinkaruk of Calgary rounded out the top five.
Goaltender Zachary Fucale of Rosemere, Que., who has a 28-4-1-1 record and 2.50 goals-against average with the Mooseheads, is the top-ranked North American goaltender. Juuse Saros, who plays for the HPK junior team in Finland, leads the international netminder rankings.
The mid-season rankings list includes the top 210 skaters and 35 goaltenders in North America and top 116 skaters and 10 goaltenders from Europe.
While noting the last half of the season can produce big changes, Marr predicts that the first round of the 2013 draft will be solid but that the depth will drop off a bit in the second round.
"It's strong on the defence this year in the West and it's a strong year for Quebec with the forwards on the offensive side," Marr said. "It's a little leaner year on the goaltending side."
Nail Yakupov was a long-running favourite to go first overall in last year's draft, and the Edmonton Oilers did the expected and selected the Russian forward. The Oilers have held the top pick the last three years, taking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011 and Taylor Hall in 2010.
The 2013 NHL Entry Draft will be held in late June at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.