Countdown to the NHL draft

In June, you'd think the NHL's toughest battles play out on the ice as the final two clubs fight it out for the Stanley Cup. In reality, some of the most intense action takes place in war rooms across North America as 30 teams prepare to draft 18-year-olds you've never heard of.

Yes, on June 22, NHL suits will be gambling on kids from Okotoks (Canada), Omsk (Russia) and Okene (Nigeria). And finding the next Alexander Ovechkin in such far-flung locales isn't easy.

"I'm not home very often," says Keith Gretzky, Wayne's younger brother and the director of scouting for the Coyotes, who have the third pick in this year's crapshoot. (The Blackhawks pick first.)

But landing the next NHL superstar is worth every bumped flight. Which is why, between now and the draft, scouts and GMs are on the clock to roll a seven -- and earn some serious job security.

Five players to watch
ALEXEI CHEREPANOV, RW (Omsk): He broke Pavel Bure's rookie scoring record in the Russian Super League this year, potting 18 goals. Scouts agree that the Siberian Express is the top international player in this year's class.

PATRICK KANE, RW (London Knights): The OHL's top scorer (62 goals)
and rookie of the year is a Daniel Briere clone. (As it happens, Kane hails from Buffalo.) Says E.J. McGuire, director of the NHL's Central Scouting Service, "He plays with speed and skill and has incredible vision." A combination every GM in the new NHL would kill for.

JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK, LW (U.S. U-18s): A 6-foot-3, 205-pound power forward, the Middletown, N.J., native plans to skate for New Hampshire next season, which won't faze scouts who rave about his combination of size and speed.

MARK OWUYA, G (Djurgarden): The No. 2-rated international goalie was a contestant in Sweden's version of "American Idol." He's a rapper who goes by the handle "Mark in da Park" when onstage. 'Nuff said.

KYLE TURRIS, C (Burnaby Express): A Western Conference
scout says Central's top prospect (66 goals) is in the "same mold as
Paul Kariya: He sees the ice three plays ahead of everyone else."

Four teams under the gun
COYOTES: After a 31-46-5 season, GM Mike Barnett was axed. Until he's replaced, scouting honcho Gretzky is calling the shots. Phoenix could use some. "We have two first-round picks and need goal scorers," he says. Yup: Only Shane Doan had more than 20 this season.

OILERS: GM Kevin Lowe was blistered when he dealt local boy and captain Ryan Smyth at the trade deadline for prospects and a first-rounder, giving him three in Columbus. So what's the plan? "At the very least, it gives us the opportunity to talk trade with other teams," says Kevin Prendergast, VP of hockey ops. And maybe win back some bitter fans.

FLYERS: Philly started the season by firing coach Ken Hitchcock. Wait, it gets worse: GM and icon Bob Clarke resigned, and the Flyers had the NHL's worst record, missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons and didn't even win the draft lottery. (They pick second.) The last time Philly picked this high? In 1975, when more than three-quarters of the current team hadn't been born yet.

BLUES: The bad news? They've missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, after making 25 consecutive trips. The good news? Prez John Davidson recently signed 2006 No. 1 overall D Erik Johnson and has three first-rounders and at least $11 million in cap room. Let the rebuilding begin!

Three years of futility ...
... led to three consecutive draft day gems. No. 1 Sidney Crosby (2005) and No. 2s Evgeni Malkin (2004) and Jordan Staal (2006) are the core of the Penguins and saved the franchise. Literally.

"A lot of people and politicians saw what they have in those kids and decided it was smart to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh," says Greg Malone, the former Penguins director of scouting who's now with the Coyotes. "We were lucky, too. We won the lottery the year Crosby was eligible."

True that about the luck: The Pens beat out 29 other teams to draft the face of the new NHL. The final two for the Crosby lottery were Pittsburgh and Anaheim. Think Ducks GM Brian Burke doesn't wish he had Sid the Kid for this spring's Cup run?

Two players with family ties
Sam Gagner, C/W (London Knights): A linemate of Kane's, Gagner tallied 118 points this season. Dad Dave played in 15 NHL seasons, his best with the North Stars. His boy is ranked sixth on Central Scouting's list. Coached by Dad and former Caps headhunter Dale Hunter, Sam plays hard-nosed hockey with a scoring touch.

Colton Gillies, C (Saskatoon Blades): Uncle Clark is a living legend in New York after leading the Islanders to four consecutive Cups (1980 to 1983). If you listen to scouts, Colton has the same physical presence as his uncle, though he hasn't yet developed into a scorer. But Gillies' size (6-foot-3, 189 pounds) makes him tough to move in front of the crease. Must be in the genes.

List to end all lists
Ranking the top players from North America (210 skaters, 30 goalies) and abroad (175 and 16), Central Scouting's prospects list is a magnet for emotions. This year is no different: The list caught heat because its preseason rankings bore little resemblance to the final ones, released in April.

McGuire, who oversees a staff of 24 scouts in North America and nine in Europe, deflects the shots. "Our list is an imprecise predictor of the draft," he says. "It's used as a guideline for teams to scout players."

For the kids, just making the list is a big deal.

"For a lot of guys, it's the beginning of the draft process and getting closer to your goals," says van Riemsdyk. "Guys bust your chops depending on where you are on the list."

Players get one last chance to impress, or depress, GMs at the NHL combine in Toronto on May 29. And for some clubs, that'll send the whole process back to square one.