The last time as many as two European prospects were chosen among the top five players at an NHL draft was nine years ago, when Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were selected with the opening two picks.
While it's a long shot that we'll see a repeat of that at the 2013 NHL Draft, there's a good chance Aleksander "Sasha" Barkov of Tappara in Finland and Valeri Nichushkin of Chelyabinsk in Russia could be among the top five picks.
Barkov is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of draft-eligible European skaters that was released Wednesday, a position he also held when the midterm rankings were released in January.
The 6-foot-3, 209-pound center finished the regular season with 21 goals, 48 points and a plus-18 rating in 53 games for Tappara. He had four assists and a plus-3 rating in five playoff games before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury.
NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said the late-season injury would not affect Barkov's high draft status; scouts have seen enough of the exceptionally skilled center to formulate a glowing review.
"He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time," Stubb told NHL.com. "He's a very good stick-handler with great vision. He's one the better two-way players in this class and has shown more consistency than any other European over a full season."
Rounding out Central Scouting's top five European skaters are No. 3 Elias Lindholm of Brynas in Sweden, No. 4 Rasmus Ristolainen of TPS in Finland, and No. 5 Alexander Wennberg of Djurgarden in Sweden's minor league.
All five players represented their country at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. Barkov had three goals, seven points and a plus-2 rating in six games, and Nichushkin notched his only goal of the tournament in overtime of the bronze-medal game, a 6-5 victory against Canada.
At 6-4, 202 pounds, Nichushkin, who compares his style of play to Malkin, had two points and a plus-5 rating in six WJC games.
"He's a big, strong player with a high overall skill set," Stubb said. "He can score the big goals and can dominate games. He was a bit inconsistent at times, but he's very skilled and talented and, by far, the best Russian available in the draft this year. He had an outstanding playoff as well."
Lindholm, a center, had two goals and four points for the silver medal-winning Swedes, and Ristolainen was Finland's top defenseman, finishing with two goals, six points and a plus-5 rating.
"Lindholm played for a struggling team [in Brynas] and didn't play as well as expected," Stubb said. "It was tough for a young player to carry the struggling ex-champions, but he's still a guy with a lot of high-end talent. He's got all the tools needed to become really good."
The 6-foot, 192-pound player could turn out to be the steal of the draft if he does drop out of the top six. He had 11 goals, 30 points and a plus-1 rating in 48 games for Brynas this season.
Ristolainen had three goals, 15 points and 32 penalty minutes for TPS.
"He's a very mature young defenseman playing big minutes," Stubb said. "He can carry or pass the puck out of danger; is a good, solid skater; and uses his size and physical strength well in the defensive zone. He can play physical but does not take unnecessary penalties."
Wennberg, a center, finished with two goals, three points and a plus-2 rating for Sweden at the WJC, and had 14 goals and 32 points in 46 games in Djurgarden.
"Alexander improved a lot during the season since he had a big role and was a workhorse with good offensive instincts," Stubb said.
Three other Swedes who could hear their name in the first round are No. 6 Andre Burakovsky of Malmo, No. 7 Jacob de La Rose of Leksand, and No. 8 Robert Hagg of Modo Jr. Burakovsky and de La Rose are forwards; Hagg, who starred for Sweden at the World Juniors, is a defenseman.
Stubb told NHL.com "Hagg's draft chances went up after his performance in Ufa." He had 11 goals, 24 points and a plus-8 rating in 28 games as the captain for Modo in Sweden's top junior league.
Stubb's European sleeper at the draft might be No. 28 Peter Cehlarik of Lulea in the Swedish Elite League. The 6-2, 192-pound left wing had 17 goals and 37 points in 38 games for Lulea this season while making an impressive jump from the Under-18 team to the men's league.
"He's a Slovak-born player who has been a big positive surprise in the Swedish league," Stubb said.
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