The puck can't drop on the major junior hockey season without having draft rankings to discuss. On the eve of the Canadian Hockey League regular season, the NHL's Central Scouting Service revved up for the road to the 2013 draft by releasing its preliminary rankings of "A," "B" and "C" grade prospects.
Central Scouting has tweaked its criteria; Grade-A prospects are considered the cream of the crop, potential first-round picks. Grade B prospects are pegged as second or third-round selections, while Grade C fall into the fourth round or later.
Eight players out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, eight Ontario Hockey League young guns, and seven Western Hockey League skaters made the A list.
Although the lists were in alphabetical order, it is safe to say Halifax Mooseheads star Nathan MacKinnon topped the QMJHL's A-list players. The Harbour, N.S., native is regarded as the top forward of the 2013 draft class by the vast majority of scouts.
The 5-foot-11, 179-pound centre took the bull by the horns in his rookie season in Halifax last year, notching 31 goals and 78 points throughout 58 games. He went on to have an even more impressive post-season. MacKinnon scored 13 goals and 28 points in 17 games to lead the Mooseheads to within two victories of the league final.
"Nathan is a great skater with overall exceptional skills (good playmaking ability and hands, good vision and a great shot)," says Michael Charron of Central Scouting Service. "He is very competitive, can play physical when he needs to be, and will skate into traffic to jump on a loose puck or to find his way to the net for a scoring chance.
MacKinnon's teammate Zachary Fucale was the only goaltender to earn Grade-A status.The 6-foot, 166-pounder maintained a 2.88 average and a .904 save percentage in 17 playoff games as a 16-year-old. That came after he set a rookie record for games played.
The OHL's A-listers were highlighted by Ottawa 67's centre Sean Monahan and Windsor Spitfires centre Kerby Rychel, who also made BTN's top 10 draft ranking.
Monahan blossomed into a star in his sophomore season in Ottawa, netting 33 goals and 78 points in 62 games. The 6-foot-2, 193-pounder has proven to be a consistent scorer. His longest pointless streak last year was only four games.
Rychel, similar to Monahan, broke out by scoring 41 goals and 74 points in 68 games. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder has made a name for himself as a hard-working, unselfish forward. The combination of his appealing character and goal-scoring abilities has elicited some comparisons to Los Angeles Kings star Mike Richards, who suited up for the Kitchener Rangers from 2001 to '05.
Out of the eight A-list players out of the Dub, the names of Portland Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones, Medicine Hat Tigers winger Hunter Shinkaruk, and Edmonton Oil Kings centre Curtis Lazar stood out as the most familiar names.
Jones has scouts drooling over him as a future cornerstone blueliner. He has an appealing 6-foot-3, 201-pound frame and possesses elite defensive and offensive instincts. As it stands, he is challenging Mackinnon as the No. 1 prospect of the draft.
Jones, who is the son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones, anchored the back end for the U.S. Development Program last year, posting eight goals and 31 points in 52 games. Seth Jones chose the major-junior route after being traded from the Everett Silvertips to the Winterhawks, who have a second-to-none track record of developing tier-1 NHL prospects in the WHL.
Shinkaruk possesses top-notch goal scoring abilities. The Calgary native lit the lamp 49 times last year, adding 42 apples as a 17-year-old. He seems poised to net 100-plus points in this third year with the Tigers last year. The writing is on the wall for Shinkaruk to be selected with a top 10 pick next June.
Lazar only has a 20-goal, 31-point season to his name with the Oil Kings. Nonetheless, the diamond-in-the-rough potential is there. This potential was fulfilled in Edmonton's Ed Chynoweth Cup run. The 6-foot, 189-pounder scored eight goals and 19 points in 20 playoff games, proving to be one of the Oil Kings' top performers.
Outside of the CHL in North America, five players out of USHL made the A list. Forwards Hudson Fasching and J.T Compher were noted by scouts in BTN's column on prospects catching steam outside the top 10.
Barkov is regarded as the best forward prospect out of Finland since Minnesota Wild star Mikko Koivu, who was selected sixth overall in 2001. Barkov has a towering 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame and possesses impeccable play-making abilities.
He will return for a second season in Tappara to play in the Finish Elite League next year. Since he is already playing in a pro men's league, Barkov appears to be one of the most NHL-ready players available in next year's draft.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen