As bad as the St. Louis Blues had to play to earn the No. 1 choice in Saturday's NHL Entry Draft, they're probably doing a lot more head scratching wondering who to select.
With teams heading to Vancouver for the draft, there are plenty of questions.
It's easy enough for NHL scouts to identify the top players available, but picking the order in which they belong is another question.
- Defenceman Erik Johnson from the U.S. national team development program is a 6-foot-4 prospect who has scouts frothing at the mouth. It'll be tough to pass on a big blueliner who will be ready to play in the league in a year.
- Peterborough Petes centre Jordan Staal is also 6-foot-4, has strong offensive skills and comes from a hockey family. His brother Eric is a star with the Carolina Hurricanes and another sibling -- Sudbury defenceman Marc-- was drafted No. 12 overall by the New York Rangers in 2005.
- Swedish centre Nicklas Backstrom is expected to be the top European drafted. The 6-foot, 183-lb. prospect isn't huge, but he plays big. Scouts have compared his playing abilities to Peter Forsberg.
- Centre Phil Kessel is at the University of Minnesota and has seen his ranking drop. Once considered the draft's top prospect, he was a third-liner this past season. Teams seem sour on his attitude, but the guy has amazing speed.
- Centre Jonathan Toews is coming out of the University of North Dakota, but is originally from Winnipeg. At the summer under-18 tournament in the Czech Republic, he had the best performance by a Canadian since Rick Nash. There are teams that would take him No. 1.
"What strikes you about this draft is there are about 5-7 guys at the top who could go anywhere and in any particular order," said a veteran NHL scout.
'NOT A LOT OF DEPTH'
"But then this draft experiences a real drop off from there. There's not a lot of depth in this draft. It's tough because you had Sidney Crosby last year in Ottawa and this year there's no Sidney Crosby. The guys at the top have the chance to be strong players, but they might not end up being superstars in the league."
By virtue of their horrible season, the Blues won the draft lottery and will have the No. 1 pick.
But there's already talk about whether the Blues will actually keep the pick and there's a strong belief GM Larry Pleau is entertaining offers.
The talk is Pleau would like to get a veteran goaltender and it's believed the San Jose Sharks (Evgeni Nabokov) and Anaheim Mighty Ducks (J.S. Giguere) have already touched base with the Blues to let Pleau know they're interested if he decides to make a move.
Actually, the first five drafting teams -- St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington and Boston -- could all be willing to deal.
"That's what happens when you don't have what you consider a franchise player in the draft," said a Western Conference scout. "Teams all get anxious and they want to make moves. I get the feeling you could see a lot of teams trying to switch around to make picks.
"If you want a player, you might give up something to go get them ... package up a couple of draft picks and move up to get something done."
Johnson, who had 49 points in 47 games with the American development team in Ann Arbour, Mich., is the odds-on favourite to be No. 1 whether the Blues keep their pick or trade it.
"If you have a chance to get a defenceman, you should usually take it because they don't come along very often," said one league executive. "They're tough to get at the best of times and you look at this guy and
he's got a lot of the tools. He's got strong offensive skills and he's big.
"Some teams like Staal. Some like Toews. Kessel was up there for a while. Johnson has been there most of the year. He's 6-foot-4 and he's going to be ready to play pro in about a year. Those teams at the top are going to want someone who is going to be ready to jump in right away."
Centres Peter Mueller (Everett, WHL) and Derick Brassard, Drummondville, QMJHL) are expected to be drafted high.
And after that, the quality drops off. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who actually have a No. 1 pick this year, will step to the microphone at No. 13 while the Senators are expected to go at No. 28.
"You should get a guy between No. 10-to-30 who will play in the league, but what strikes me this year is there's going to be a lot of teams who are going to have a lot of different lists," said the Western scout.
"People always feel differently about players. Guys are going to come out and say they got a guy who they didn't feel would be available because they had them ranked higher on their list.
"The later rounds, it's a crapshoot. That's where you find out how good your scouts are because you have to be able to find players in those third and fourth rounds to be successful."
NHL DRAFT ORDER
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Chicago Blackhawks
4. Washington Capitals
5. Boston Bruins
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
7. New York Islanders
8. Phoenix Coyotes
9. Minnesota Wild
10. Florida Panthers
11. Los Angeles Kings
12. Atlanta Thrashers
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
14. Vancouver Canucks
15. Tampa Bay Lightning
16. Montreal Canadiens
19. Anaheim/San Jose
20. San Jose/NY Rangers
21. NY Rangers/Philadelphia
22. Philadelphia/New Jersey
23. New Jersey/Calgary
27. Dallas Stars
28. Ottawa Senators
29. Detroit Red Wings
Selections 17-26, 30 depend on outcome of Stanley Cup final