Preliminary discussions with NHL scouts indicate that this year's first-round draft crop looks like one of the weakest in the past decade. "I'm not really excited about this draft right now after seeing Ontario (the past few weeks)...the OHL is brutal prospect-wise this season," noted one scout, who is off to Halifax to concentrate on the Quebec league standouts for a couple of weeks, including Jakub Voracek of the Halifax Mooseheads, rated first overall in Mckeen's preliminary rankings for the 2007 draft. The scout is not alone in being a little less enthusiastic about this year's group of forwards than recent draft classes that yielded the likes of the Staals, Johnsons, Malkin, Ovechkin and Crosby. "There just aren't a lot of guys jumping out at you, a lot of top end forwards like last year and the years before that," admitted another scout. "But it's early on...there's lots of hockey to be played yet." This time of year most NHL birddogs aren't working with hard player rankings. "The first half of the year we identify the players," explained one scout. "Then we cross (my list) over with other scouts' lists and start working on compiling rankings. But this time of year the meetings can be pretty rowdy at times. Players are all over the map, and there's some interesting debates." Early reports indicate a less than exciting group of European talent outside of Swede Mikael Backlund. Don't expect more than three or four European-based players selected in the first round, although that could change over the next five months. "Most of the top ones are playing over here," said one scout. "The ones from the Czech Republic at least. I haven't heard a who lot about Europe, and usually that means there aren't a lot of good ones, if there's no buzz in the scouting community." This year's strength lies in a deep group of North American defencemen. "There's some top-end guys on defence for sure," noted a scout this week. "As well as lot of projects." It looks like one of the deeper group of Canadian defence prospects in recent years, particularly out west with a much ballyhooed quartet of Ellerby, Alzner, Hickey and Blum. It would not be foolish to suggest that all four could be top 12 selections in the 2007 Entry Draft, something which hasn't happened since five WHL defencemen were taken in the first 13 selections of the 1996 draft. It's safe to say scouts are banking on this year's "Fab Four" turning out better than the top four of '96, which boasted the likes of Lance Ward, Jon Aitken, and Dan Focht. Most teams felt they'd been Focht by the time the returns came in from that draft. Here's the scouts top 10 early favourites from what I'm sensing - Jakub Voracek Angelo Esposito Keaton Ellerby Logan Couture Karl Alzner Pat Kane Sam Gagner Mikael Backlund Kyle Turris Zach Hamill Borderline top ten Nick Petrecki James Van Riemsdyk Colton Gillies Wildcards Mark Katic Ryan Hayes Others "slated" for the first round: James O'Brien Jon Blum Bill Sweatt Michal Repik Brandon Sutter Brendan Smith Mike Hoeffel Thomas Hickey PK Subban Sergei Korostin Jens Hellgren Fastest skaters: Kane, Brendan Smith, Katic, Tanguay, Gazley, Lombardi, Sweatt. Here are what some of the scouts are saying: Brandon Sutter - "He had a bad start. He's the anti-Sutter. He didn't grow up on the farm in Viking like the rest...he eats with a silver spoon." Dale Mitchell - "He's too fat, doesn't move fast enough, but he plays hard. Good skills, not the most creative player...he tries. He's surprisingly fast for his size." Angelo Esposito - "Very quick and skilled, plays on the perimeter. Been watching him since he was 15...you always love them early...then you overanalyse them. He's certainly talented on the power play if he has the room, but he's not anxious to get in there. But he's a talented player, a top ten for sure. Projection right now - A second liner and a power play specialist on a good team." Colton Gillies - "He can't score. He was a star at the under 18s, but he has one goal right now. A great skater, a big kid, but if you don't score in junior, what are you going to do in the NHL? Maybe he's a third liner...he does a lot of things well."