While Sam Reinhart and Aaron Ekblad recently played for Team Canada at the World junior championship and will captain their respective teams during this week's BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, the two were ranked a little lower than expected in the NHL's draft rankings published Monday.
In a small surprise, Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs and Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders shot to No. 1 and No. 2 respectively among North American Skaters in Central Scouting's rank.
Central Scouting's Chris Edwards, who specializes in scouting the OHL, said he considers Bennett one of the most exciting prospects on the board.
"Bennett has not only been very noticeable but extremely effective every shift of every game so far this season," Edwards told NHL.com. "His puckhandling and playmaking are excellent and he has one of the best shots in this year's draft class.
"He has scored several goals from the high slot and coming in off the wing and has been very effective on the power play."
Bennett has 44 goals and 106 points in 100 OHL games spanning two seasons. [NHL.com]
The top of the draft board is not as clear-cut as it was in 2012, when Sarnia's Nail Yakupov was the obvious top forward prospect and Everett's Ryan Murray as the obvious top defenceman. While the big Ekblad doesn't have a lot of competition among other rearguards in the CHL, at least for now, there are five forwards stacking the top of the draft class that have evidently separated themselves. Those are Bennett, Draisaitl, Reinhart, and Kaspari Kapanen and William Nylander, ranked 1 and 2 in the European skaters section. Both are the sons of former NHLers Sami Kapanen and Michael Nylander, although neither played in the recent World junior tournament. A shoulder injury sustained during practice kept Kapanen off Team Finland and Nylander plain didn't make Sweden, but evidently neither team was missing a hotshot forward prospect on its team.
Back home, there's an argument to be made for either Bennett or Reinhart in the top spot but the big surprise is Ekblad falling to third. Ekblad is not only 9th in the OHL among defencemen in scoring, but he's the total package, standing a giant 6' 3.5" and 216 lbs, one of the biggest players on the board, and being a key shutdown player for the Barrie Colts as well. He played with the 2012 8th overall selection Derrick Pouliot on Canada's top pairing at the World junior championship, so the big shock is seeing him fall to third.
It's odd in juxtaposition with Draisaitl, who has had a tremendous start to his WHL career since being the 2nd overall pick in the CHL Import Draft in 2012. After picking up 58 points in 64 games in his rookie season, which was third among all WHL rookies but best among the 16-year-old class, Draisaitl now sits 11th in the WHL with 54 points in 35 games. Only Saskatoon's Nikita Scherbak sits ahead of him among first time draft eligible players. (Reinhart, however, has a slightly higher points per game rate with 53 points in 34 games. It's very close between the two, but Draisaitl is also the bigger player, listed by CSS as 6' 1.75" and 208 lbs. The old adage that a player can raise his stock at the World juniors, but not see it decline, seemed to come true with Draisaitl. He had a rough go as the captain for Team Germany, despite recording two assists in the final relegation game to keep Germany in the top flight, he also led the tournament in penalty minutes and was suspended twice.
[NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan] Marr said any time a player in his draft season is selected to participate in the WJC its viewed as a positive, but said scouts don't get caught up in over-analyzing a player after one tournament.
"We chose Draisaitl based on his play in the first half of the season for Prince Albert," Marr said. "At the WJC he isn't with his team, his coach, his system. We're judging him on his play with his team; that carries the most weight. All season long he's continued to develop as a prospect. You noticed him all the time last year and he's gone out there and become a dominant player for Prince Albert this year. We like him as a top-five pick."
Fifth spot among the North Americans is explosive Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals, who has 64 points in 43 games and one of the reasons the Gens are contending in the East.
Among the other surprises is Sarnia's Anthony DeAngelo ranked just 10th, despite leading all OHL defencemen in points and being just one of two, the other being Ekblad, to be at least a point-a-game with over 40 games played. Nikolay Goldobin, another flashy Sting forward (of which there have been numerous over the last few years it seems) was ranked just 14th. Goldobin sits third in the OHL in scoring behind Erie's one-two punch of Connor Brown and Dane Fox, who are in their 19- and 20-year-old seasons, respectively, giving them a significant advantage over the field.
In goaltending, the highest-ranked CHL player was Plymouth's Alex Nedeljkovic, who was 5th on the list behind Boston College's Thatcher Demko (the third goalie for the Americans at the World juniors), two US National Development Program goalies in Edwin Minney and Blake Weyrick, and Chase Perry of the Wenatchee Wild of the NAHL. The list doesn't inspire confidence in Canadian goaltending development. Nedeljkovic is from Parma, Ohio, so the highest-ranked Canadian netminder is Niagara's Brent Moran, ranked 6th.
The theme for the 2014 draft is that it's shaping up to be more top-heavy than the 2012 class and perhaps better on the forward end with more imports coming towards the middle of the first round with players like Goldobin, Swift Current's Julius Honka, and Moncton's Ivan Barbashev, the highest-ranked QMJHL player. Midterm CSS rankings mean little for final draft standing, so I don't think this will act as a shot of caffeine for a player like Reinhart, who recorded three points in his first game back from Malmo before headed to Calgary for the top prospects game.