NHL covets Kovalchuk, Spezza

Jason Spezza or Ilya Kovalchuk?

NHL Central Scouting ranked the two forwards as the best draft prospects in North America and Europe respectively Tuesday in the bureau's final rankings of the season.

The Atlanta Thrashers will have their choice with the first pick at the June 23-34 draft in Sunrise, Fla.

It's possible the Thrashers might go for a sleeper pick, but that would be a risk in the face of so much talent in two players.

"Even right now, there's a big question facing the team with the No. 1 pick, whether you take Kovalchuk or you take Spezza," said Frank Bonello, director of NHL Central Scouting.

"They bring different things to the table."

Kovalchuk is faster off the mark and has more natural leg and hand speed than Spezza, said Bonello, but Spezza is a more mature hockey player physically and in the way he handles himself on the ice.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell said recently the player they pick will be the best one in the draft.

He said Spezza is a better team player, but the Russian has great skill.

"Offensively, he's a very creative player who knows how to dish the puck off and has great instincts," Waddell said of Spezza.

"Kovalchuk is a much more individual player. He does a lot by himself, maybe to a fault.

"He's got the best individual skills in the draft, no doubt about it."

Scouts had a chance to see the two players in the same environment at the world junior hockey championship in Russia.

Spezza, six foot two and 214 pounds, was named top centre of the tournament, with three goals and three assists in Canada's bronze-medal effort.

Kovalchuk, six foot two and 207 pounds, had four goals and two assists in seven games for Russia, which finished seventh.

Kovalchuk was recently named the tournament MVP at the world under-18 championship.

Kovalchuk turned 18 on April 15 while Spezza turns 18 on June 13.

Central Scouting rated the top 180 skaters in North America, top 30 North American goaltenders, as well as the top 129 European players and top seven European goaltenders.

Spezza and Kovalchuk maintained their positions from the Central Scouting's mid-season rankings.

Prince George Cougars defenceman Dan Hamhuis moved past Plymouth Whalers forward Stephen Weiss into the No. 2 position in North America.

"By the end of the year, we've had more time to see a player like Hamhuis, whereas Weiss is right under our nose and we see him all the time," said Bonello.

"Hamhuis is an above-average skater, really mobile, and handles the puck well."

Weiss is at No. 3 followed by American defenceman Mike Komisarek and American centre R.J. Umberger.

Kovalchuk's Russian junior teammates Alex Svitov and centre Stanislav Chistov are rated second and third among Europeans.

Finnish forward Mikko Koivu, younger brother of Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, and forward Tuomo Ruutu, younger brother of Vancouver Canucks rookie Jarkko Ruutu, are fourth and fifth respectively.

Pascal Leclaire of the Halifax Mooseheads and Dan Blackburn of the Kootenay Ice are ranked 1-2 among North American goaltenders.

Czech goaltender Tomas Duba is the No.-1 ranked European goaltender.

He helped the Czechs to a gold medal at the world junior tournament and carried the best goals-against average and save percentage through the tournament.

Some players who made big moves from the mid-season rankings were Peterborough Petes defenceman Lucas Krajicek (16th to sixth), Red Deer Rebels right-winger Colby Armstrong (15th to eighth), Shawiningan Cataractes defenceman Jason Pominville (45th to 22nd) and Kelowna Rockets centre Kiel McLeod (36th to 24th).

Some players who dropped several notches were Brampton Battalion defenceman Jay Harrison (seventh to 19th), St. Michael's Majors defenceman Drew Fata (18th to 27th) and North Bay Centennials centre Chris Thorburn (13th to 26th).

By Donna Spencer