TORONTO - The winner of the NHL draft lottery is going to have a tough decision to make.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the WHL's Red Deer Rebels jumped to first among North American skaters in the final rankings released by NHL Central Scouting on Monday, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be taken with the No. 1 pick in June.
"It was close," said NHL scout Dave Gregory. "It was not a slam dunk by any means and there was a lot of debate but he nudged his way as the top guy this year with a very close vote."
Nugent-Hopkins was third in the mid-season rankings and overtook left-winger Gabriel Landeskog of the OHL's Kitchener Rangers.
Either of those players could end up hearing his name called first in the NHL draft this spring, as could Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson, who is listed as the top European prospect.
The decision will lie with the winner of Tueday's draft lottery (TSN, 8 p.m. ET). Edmonton is the most likely to earn the top pick with a 25 per cent chance but Colorado (18.8 per cent), Florida (14.2 per cent), the New York Islanders (10.7 per cent) and Ottawa (8.1 per cent) are also in the running.
No matter how the ping-pong balls fall, Gregory believes each of those teams could end up happy.
"I think the talent is deeper at the top and there's a lot more parity there (than in the past)," he said. "It's sometimes more difficult to say there's not a Taylor (Hall) vs. Tyler (Seguin)—two elite guys—or a Sidney Crosby, who you could put his name at the top of the board before you start the meetings.
"What these players have done is play at such a high level."
Ranked behind Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog is centre Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs, defenceman Dougie Hamilton of the Niagara IceDogs and defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, also of the Sea Dogs.
"I think there are four or five guys (who can have an immediate impact), for sure," said Senators GM Bryan Murray. "If we stay where we are right now, we feel fairly confident we'll get a good player who will have a chance to play next year."
The final ranking covers the top 210 skaters and 30 goaltenders in North America as well as the top 140 skaters and 10 goaltenders from Europe.
Nugent-Hopkins finished the regular season with 31 goals and 106 points in 69 games for Red Deer. The NHL scouts believe he raised his game late in the year.
"He did a lot," said Gregory. "His game became more complete and more dynamic. He is an extremely dynamic player, has all the skills. ...
"He just had a tremendous second half."
The NHL draft is scheduled for June 24-25 in St. Paul, Minn., where Nugent-Hopkins will be looking to become the first WHL player taken at No. 1 since Ottawa's Chris Phillips in 1996.
Even among teams without a high pick, there is hope this draft class will yield solid prospects.
"I think there are good players throughout the entire field," said Vancouver Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman. "The distinction between this draft and a lot of prior drafts is that after the top three or four players it's fairly wide open. I think there will be a disparity among the lists that teams have.
"A lot of teams are going to get players when they pick that they didn't think would be available, particularly in the first round."
There NHL Central Scouting rankings spark debate virtually every year.
Seguin was placed ahead of Hall at the end of last season, but the Oilers chose to ignore that when making the No. 1 selection. The NHL employs 23 scouts in North America—eight full-time and 15 part-time—and spend a lot of time working on their list.
"Amazingly enough, we can debate our way right down to the last guy," said Gregory. "We always have the philosophy—'let's get the list right with what we know.'
"It makes for some heated debate at times but we do feel that we get it right."
With files from Chris Yzerman in Ottawa and Jim Morris in Vancouver.