There's been a changing of the guard on TSN's Mid-Season 2013 NHL Draft Ranking, or more specifically a change to a rearguard.
Portland Winter Hawk defenceman Seth Jones has eclipsed Halifax Moosehead centre Nate MacKinnon for the No. 1 spot in a TSN survey of 10 NHL head scouts.
Jones was ranked No. 1 by seven of 10 - MacKinnon garnered the remaining three first-place votes - in a survey done on Jan. 17, exactly one month after a pre-World Junior Championship survey of the same scouts had MacKinnon at No. 1 by the same 7-3 margin over Jones at No. 2.
So what happened in the space of one month?
Well, the World Junior Championship, for starters.
Jones played a prominent role in helping to lead Team USA to the gold medal. MacKinnon, meanwhile, was used in a limited role on Team Canada, which failed to win a medal of any colour for the first time since 1998.
Of the seven scouts who voted MacKinnon No. 1 just prior to the WJC, five of them switched over to Jones, but one of the three who voted Jones No. 1 in December actually changed his vote to MacKinnon in January.
The net effect was MacKinnon's 7-3 edge in December being flipped to the exact 7-3 margin for Jones.
"The whole world junior thing tends to get overblown a bit," said one scout who switched from MacKinnon to Jones. "A lot of us have been waiting for Jones to step up and play at a really high level for more than a period or two at a time and he happened to do that at the World Juniors. I don't think MacKinnon did anything to hurt himself there. He wasn't in as prominent a role as Jones. That's just the way things are with Team Canada. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went first overall in his draft and he got cut by Team Canada, didn't even make the team.
"To be honest, it's really, really close between these two (Jones and MacKinnon). I said MacKinnon in December but Jones was real close for me and I say Jones now but MacKinnon is real close. I think it will probably come down to a positional thing. If the team picking first needs a defenceman, they'll take Jones and if they need a No. 1 centre they'll take MacKinnon. I could see these two flip-flopping all the way to the draft."
Another scout agreed.
"We're only human and the last impression you get is often the strongest impression," the scout said. "When I picked MacKinnon No. 1, I'd just seen him score five goals in a game. When I came back from the World Juniors, I'd just seen Jones take it to another level."
But one scout who went from MacKinnon to Jones said his view changed not so much because of the WJC but how Jones played since he returned to his Western Hockey League team in Portland.
"He's been a man amongst boys since he got back," the scout said. "It was almost laughable watching opposing players in the WHL try to beat him one on one. It was like peewee kids against a midget-age player. And he's learned to play to the score, play to the game. If his team is ahead, he's playing a safe, solid defensive game and not running around trying to force things. If his team is behind, he's stepping up and trying to make things happen offensively. He's reading all the situations a lot better than he did before."
A fourth scout who switched from MacKinnon to Jones said the defenceman's strong effort at the WJC is just part of a tremendous growth in his game that started from the time he arrived in Portland for his first WHL season.
"I just really think he's matured very quickly playing in the WHL," the scout said. "He's demonstrated to us that his hockey sense is better than we thought it was. He's gained a lot of confidence. And what a lot of people forget is that Jones is older than MacKinnon."
By almost a year. Jones was born on Oct. 3, 1994. Had he been born three weeks earlier, his draft year would have been last year (2012). MacKinnon was born on Sept. 1, 1995. Had he been born two weeks later, his draft year wouldn't have been until 2014.
"At this age," one scout said, "an 11-month difference can be a lot in terms of the development curve."
As for one scout who switched from Jones to MacKinnon from December to January?
"I was watching the CHL Prospects game and I was looking at MacKinnon and how fast and skilled and tenacious he is and I realized that a centre who has those tools is tough to beat," he said. "They're both gifted players. You can't go wrong either way."
In addition to his seven first-place votes, Jones was ranked No. 2 by three others. He's the only player who didn't get a third-place or lower vote. MacKinnon had three first-place votes, four second-place votes and three third-place votes.
The scouts all agree on one thing: Jones stands alone as the premier defenceman prospect in this draft. The next closet blueliner to him in the rankings is Finn Rasmus Ristolainen, at No. 7. MacKinnon, meanwhile, is facing a challenge for top forward status and that challenge comes from none other than his linemate, dynamic offensive left winger Jonathan Drouin. Two of the 10 scouts surveyed had Drouin ranked ahead of MacKinnon, but the majority of them believe MacKinnon is the top forward in the draft.
"Drouin's hockey sense and skill level is elite, off the charts," said one scout who ranked Drouin ahead of MacKinnon, adding that Drouin, not MacKinnon, seized the opportunity for more icetime and a prime-time role on Team Canada.
But just as MacKinnon will be challenged by his linemate, Drouin, and to some extent MacKinnon, could also be challenged by big Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov, who is ranked No. 4 on the TSN midseason list.
One scout ranked Barkov No. 2 overall, behind only Jones, and three more ranked him No. 3, trailing only Jones and MacKinnon. The Finn plays a big, pro-style game and many scouts feel he's ready to jump into the NHL immediately and contribute.
Swede Elias Lindholm, a gifted offensive centre, checked in at No. 5, followed by Ottawa 67's strong two-way centre Sean Monahan at No. 6, Finnish blueliner Ristolainen at 7, Medicine Hat Tiger offensive forward Hunter Shinkaruk at eighth and a pair of Russians to round out the TSN Top 10 - big London Knight defenceman Nikita Zadorov at No. 9 and big Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin, who was a star at the WJC, at No. 10.
Five of the top 10 are Europeans - two Finns, two Russians and one Swede, although Lindholm leads a group of five Swedes ranked in TSN's Top 30 and two of them - Alex Wennberg at No. 11 and Andre Burakowsky at No. 14 - have Top 10 potential.
It's also a very strong year for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which is often the poor cousin in the draft to its WHL and Ontario Hockey League counterparts. On this mid-season ranking, seven of the top 30 are from the Q and four of the seven are Francophones. There are another six QMJHLers ranked between 31 and 60 on TSN's current list. The OHL has eight and the WHL six in the Top 30.
The No. 1 ranked goalie, and the only netminder to be ranked in the Top 30, is the QMJHL's Zach Fucale of Halifax. Tri-City's Eric Comrie (ranked No. 38), who recently underwent season-ending hip surgery, and Mississauga's Spencer Martin (ranked No. 46) are amongst the goalies who could challenge.
Forwards, 21 of them, dominate TSN's Mid-Season Top 30, followed by eight defencemen and one goalie.
The NHL draft will be held on June 30 in Newark, N.J.
The draft lottery is on April 29 and this year, for the first time ever, all 14 non-playoff teams will have a shot at securing the No. 1 overall pick. Unlike past years, when the lottery winner could only move up a maximum of four spots in the draft order of selection, the winner of the lottery will be guaranteed the first overall pick. But the NHL and NHLPA haven't worked out the details yet of exactly what the weighted odds will be for each of the 14 non-playoff teams.