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Hockey: Who is NEXT?

Mikael Granlund

AGE: 20 | BIRTHPLACE: Oulu, Finland | ALREADY: Won a gold medal at the 2011 world championship with Finland.
Since the Wild selected Mikael Granlund with the ninth overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, the diminutive forward (5 feet 10, 180 pounds) has grown into something of an outsize legend. Scouts laud the Finn's uncanny hockey smarts and creativity -- which manifested in an awe-inspiring cradle-to-top-shelf lacrosse-style goal that broke a scoreless tie in Finland's 3-0 win over Russia in the 2011 world championship semifinals. The goal, which helped propel Finland to its first world title since 1995, sparked an outpouring of cultural creativity. Broadcaster Antero Mertaranta's call ("Taivas varjele," which loosely translates to "Good heavens!") was remixed into a club music track that climbed to No. 2 on the nation's singles chart. Even Finnish philatelists became familiar with Granlund's feat after it was immortalized on a stamp. Now signed, sealed and delivered stateside by Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher, Granlund may be every bit as important to the Wild lineup as high-profile free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Granlund tallied 51 points in 45 games for HIFK Helsinki last season; still a teenager, he was facing off against much older players in Finland's top league. He was producing better than a point per game for the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston before being sidelined with a right ankle sprain. All of which makes him a favorite for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie whenever league play resumes. -- Mike Hume


Seth Jones

Seth Jones is in only his first season of major junior hockey, but the 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman already projects as a big presence on an NHL blue line. His size alone is impressive. But it's the 18-year-old's speed and ability to carry the puck from end to end that has scouts salivating. Says one Eastern Conference executive, "He's an immense talent and an athletic, mobile D-man who has size, can skate and is willing to battle." Jones flows down the ice with long, smooth strides, forcing opposing defensemen to back off and creating space for his teammates. Not coincidentally, he has drawn comparisons to Buffalo's Tyler Myers and Edmonton's Ryan Whitney, NHL defensemen who are also elite skaters. The son of former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, he chose hockey over basketball in part because he spent his formative years in Denver, where he idolized Joe Sakic and saw the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in person as a 6-year-old. But Jones made a name for himself at an early age as a standout in the U.S. national team development program, helping the U.S. to gold medals in the under-17 and under-18 world championships. He then eschewed the more traditional American route of NCAA hockey to play for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks. He has anchored the team's back end as a rookie; he had 17 points and was plus-17 through his first 24 games. The biggest question mark in Jones' game remains his offense. But that might not matter. NHL teams see shutdown defensemen like him as the cornerstones of Stanley Cup contenders, and the opportunities to land such players in the draft are few and far between. So come next June, Jones could become the first black player (and the seventh American) selected No. 1 overall in NHL draft history. "I am ready," says Jones. "It puts a smile on my face every time someone says something like that." He's not the only one who is giddy about his future. Says the Eastern Conference exec, "Jones just gets better every time I see him." -- Grant Sonier


Nathan MacKinnon

Nathan MacKinnon has been following in Sidney Crosby's strides most of his life. Both are from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia; attended the same Minnesota prep school (Shattuck-St. Mary's School); and starred in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. And like the Penguins star, MacKinnon has transcendent abilities on the ice. His superb skating, shot-making ability and flair for the dramatic have made his early career the stuff of legend. "He is an explosive skater and can score in a variety of ways," says one Western Conference scout of the 5-foot-11, 17-year-old center. "When he has that going for him, along with his grit and hand skills, there's little doubt that he is the best of the class." MacKinnon, who was the first overall pick in the 2011 QMJHL draft, has a target on his back every time he hits the ice for the Halifax Mooseheads, and he is consistently matched against top defensemen. Yet even when he's knocked for a loop, he continues to produce. He had 78 points in 58 regular-season games in 2011-12 with Halifax. At the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in August, he had five goals in five games, including a hat trick in a gold medal win against Finland. MacKinnon's physical play separates him from Crosby; he isn't afraid to take or dish out open-ice hits. Not since 2005 (after the last NHL lockout), when Crosby was taken No. 1 by Pittsburgh, has a player from the QMJHL gone first at the draft. MacKinnon could well be the second. -- Grant Sonier


Connor McDavid

Ever since Sidney Crosby skated his first game for the Penguins, we've been searching for his successor. So all the suggestions that Canadian wunderkind Connor McDavid could be the next Sid the Kid? Well, we've heard them before. But when the comparison comes from Crosby himself? Now that carries some weight. "I couldn't believe it," McDavid says of Crosby's comments in October that the 15-year-old reminded him of himself. While watching McDavid compete against older players for Erie, a Western Conference scout raised the ante on Crosby's assessment. "He has some Crosby in him; he also has some Steven Stamkos in him, and he has the hockey sense of Gretzky," says the scout. "At his age, to be doing what he's doing, you can tell that he's very special." McDavid, who is averaging more than a point per game in his first Ontario Hockey League season, showcased that innate hockey sense while he and his Erie teammates were on the power play in a recent game. He got the puck and drove the net. Other young players might have rushed a shot, but McDavid stopped, pulled back and found a teammate wide open in the slot, setting up a prime scoring chance. "The good players see the game as we see it from up here in the stands, where the game appears to be real slow," the scout says. "You get down low by the glass and it's a blur. They have the sense of seeing the game up high and slowing it down. That's how Gretzky and Crosby are." And it could just be where McDavid is headed. -- Craig Custance


Nail Yakupov

The Edmonton Oilers already have a high-scoring young winger with star potential in 21-year-old Taylor Hall. And no franchise knows better that champions are built around centers and defensemen; after all, the Oilers won three Stanley Cups with Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. But Edmonton's decision to buck traditional wisdom and take Nail Yakupov with the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft in June hinged on two factors: The preternaturally prolific right winger, who won a silver with Russia in the 2012 world junior championship, was the most skilled player available; and nobody brought more zeal for scoring than Yakupov. He had 49 goals in 65 games for the Sarnia Sting during his first season in the Ontario Hockey League, breaking Steven Stamkos' franchise rookie record. "Nail has a tremendous passion for the game," says Edmonton head amateur scout Stu MacGregor. "He wants to be the player who has the puck to make the play that makes the difference." It's that energy that makes Yakupov most likely to become the breakout virtuoso among Edmonton's impressive collection of young talent. In addition to his high-end skills, he loves scoring and he loves the spotlight. "I'm just excited and want to show something for the fans," says Yakupov of his exuberant goal celebrations. Sure, his play away from the puck needs improvement, as does his effort on defense. But give Yakupov a sliver of space on the ice to shoot and he doesn't miss. He's a game-changer, and possibly a franchise-changer. "When he's on the ice," says Sarnia assistant coach Alexander Galchenyuk Sr., "something always happens." -- Craig Custance

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