The next generation of NHL stars arrives Sunday with the 2013 NHL draft. If you've followed our coverage all season long, you'll know by now that this year's draft class projects to be one of the best in recent history and perhaps the best since the legendary class of 2003. There is both elite talent at the top and high-quality depth in this class. Even teams drafting late in the first round should be getting a quality prospect. And for teams with multiple picks -- like the Calgary Flames, Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars -- this could be a pivotal opportunity for the future of the franchise.
The toughest decision may be in differentiating the top prospects. That job will fall to the Colorado Avalanche, who hold the No. 1 overall pick. The Avs have publicly said they're leaning toward Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon, who has topped my rankings throughout the draft cycle. While I agree with their assessment of MacKinnon, you can really build a case for several players as the No. 1 pick, including MacKinnon's Halifax teammate Jonathan Drouin and American defenseman Seth Jones. It's a good year to have a top-three pick.
While to me those are the clear top three, the high-end prospects go deeper. Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm and Valeri Nichushkin have big upside, though they carry somewhat more risk than the top three. After No. 6 there's a bit of a drop-off, and another after pick No. 10 or so. But the rest of the first round will put a lot of talent in the NHL over time.
Here's an in-depth look at the top prospects in 2013 with my final top 50 list.
Note: Statistics are for regular season only
TEAM: Halifax (QMJHL)
MacKinnon finished off the season in star-like fashion, helping his team win the Memorial Cup -- where he was a standout. He is a special player who has special qualities and is suited for the NHL game. His skating is dangerous, especially his quickness, which is critical in gaining body position to win one-on-one battles. His hands are equally quick and he makes puck decisions before he has possession -- a trait shared by most star NHL players. Speed of execution, especially under pressure, is another in a long list of standout qualities for this player. Since the CHL season has ended he has carried himself in the public eye like a true pro. His presence at the NHL combine and on various TV and radio shows indicates to me just how mature this player already is.
TEAM: Halifax (QMJHL)
This Claude Giroux-like forward perhaps has the best skill set out of any player in the draft when it comes to individual puck skills and playmaking. Whatever team selects this winger is getting a player who has the chance to find chemistry with linemates and create offensive magic. Don't underestimate his grit level and willingness to compete -- all while being an elite offensive player.