Barrie Colts blueliner Aaron Ekblad is the odds on favourite, though it’s tough to say who will don the first sweater at the 2014 NHL draft. It’s not as cut and dry as past storylines such as Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin in 2010 or John Tavares vs. Victor Hedman in 2009.
Both Kootenay Ice sniper Sam Reinhart and Kingston Frontenacs centre Sam Bennett have earned first-overall rankings from various scouting services. In addition, Prince Albert Raiders superstar Leon Draisaitl has worked his way into the conversation to pave the way for a “fantastic four” storyline.
To put together an in-depth look at the 2014 draft class, BTN has teamed up with scouts to breakdown the top 10 prospects headed to Philadelphia.
1. Aaron Ekblad, defence, Barrie Colts (OHL) – Ekblad has been touted as the “slam dunk” pick of the draft. He has garnered this high praise because the combination of his 6-foot-4, 217-pound stature, offensive abilities (23 goals, 53 points, 58 games), hockey smarts and physicality leads many to believe he will be a superstar in The Show. The only question is how much of an impact will he make. If he reaches his full potential, it seems he could win a Norris Trophy down the road. But at the other end of the spectrum, it’s tough to tell how high his ceiling is because he has developed physically much faster than most of his peers.
Scout’s take: “Aaron Ekblad certainly has safe aspects to his game; Ekblad is safe in the fact that his size, structure and pedigree should allow him to make the easiest transition to the NHL,” says Sean Lafortune, McKeen’s Hockey scout. “He will no doubt have his issues, adjusting to the pace that the NHL game brings and the transition from moving from the CHL to the NHL, but that isn't uncommon for 18 year olds. Once he adjusts to the speed of the NHL and learns to allow the game to come to him, he should start to establish himself as a safe, secure minute eater who stifles offensive chances while making a smart first pass.”
2. Sam Reinhart, centre, Kootenay Ice (WHL) – Reinhart comes into the draft with not near as much hype as Steven Stamkos in 2008 or Tavares in 2009, but the North Vancouver native does have the raw talent to follow their footsteps in becoming one of the top forwards in the NHL. He plays a smart and responsible two-way style while possessing the skill to have the ability to take control of a game. The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder, who scored 36 goals and 105 points in 60 games, is more of a playmaker, but his quick and hard wrist shot is as good as junior hockey has to offer.
Scout’s take: “I would disagree with anybody who would claim he doesn’t have the potential to be a future franchise player,” says Ross MacLean, head scout of International Scouting Services. “I don’t think he’s the ultra-exciting offensive player that people tend to associate with branding someone as a franchise player. He does the little things well; he’s a well-rounded player who plays a very calculated and intelligent game. He is the kind of player that wins hockey games. Reinhart can do the things the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar can do and he can think the game at that level. He is not all flash and dash but as a base for a team, but he’s got everything you want to build a winner.”
3. Sam Bennett, centre/wing, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) – The 6-foot, 181-pound Bennett could very well go on to become the top player of the 2014 draft class. The 18-year-old, who scored 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games, plays hard at both ends of the ice with a physical edge to his game. This style of play has elicited comparisons to Leafs legend Doug Gilmour, who happens to be the GM of the Frontenacs. Bennett’s inability to do a pull-up at the combine garnered some negative attention, but it’s really not that big of deal. More to the point, if Bennett has been able to dominate like he has without being physically mature, how good will he be when his body fully develops?
Scout’s take: “Sam Bennett kills it in the hockey IQ department and it's noticeable in all three zones of the rink,” says Brendan Ross, Mckeen’s Hockey scout. “A forward who can play a complete two-way game is valuable, but a centerman who excels in three-zones can change a game on so many different levels. Beyond an impressive hockey sense, Bennett's competiveness is off the charts and his tenacity wreaks havoc on opposing defences. The fact that Bennett can play that style of game in his rather immature physical build is remarkable, leaving us to believe he's got so much more room to get even better as he gets bigger.”
4. Leon Draisaitl, centre, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) – Regarded as the “German Gretzky,” Draisaitl has the potential to become the best hockey player ever to hail from Germany. His size (6-foot-1, 209-pounds), strength and skill has some scouts comparing him to San Jose Sharks star Joe Thornton. He showed glimpses of his elite talent in his rookie major junior season last year, but really took it to the next level this year. He tied Reinhart for fourth in scoring in the WHL with 38 goals and 105 points in 64 contests.
Scout’s take: “I love his vision and playmaking ability with the puck on his stick,” says MacLean. “He has game-breaking offensive instinct and ability and can really dominate at times. The other side of that coin is that while he shows the potential to do so, he doesn’t always show the will to do so and that can leave you loving his game or hating it.”
5. Michael Dal Colle, wing, Oshawa Generals (OHL) – The 6-foot-2, 171-pound Dal Colle appears to be a slight step behind the fantastic four; however, it’s so close that some scouts wouldn’t be surprised to hear his name called with a top four pick because of his enticing blend of hockey smarts, play-making abilities and a strong shot. The Woodbridge, Ont., native has the stats to back up his talent as he topped his previous 48-point rookie season with 39 goals and 95 points in 67 matches this year.
Scout’s take: “He's an extremely intelligent player who knows the offensive zone like the back of his hand,” says Ross. “His confident puck skills and deadly shooting arsenal are his best attributes. Dal Colle's shot is among the best in this draft, but I often caution people not to underrate his playmaking skills as well, because his ability to quarterback a power play is elite. The scariest part of Dal Colle's upside is that he still hasn't grown into his frame and hasn't quite learned how to use his size; when he conquers that, he'll be on a whole new level.”
6. William Nylander, centre/wing, Sodertalje (SWE) – Nylander is somewhat of a wildcard in the draft’s top 10. He’s arguably the most skilled forward, but there are concerns surrounding his defensive play and how he will compete in a heavily physical game. The writing is on the wall that the Sweden native, who’s the son of former NHL star Michael Nylander, will go the way of a boom or a bust.
Scout’s take: “He’s that explosive and slightly enigmatic offensive player we see almost every year in a similar position,” says MacLean. “His ceiling is extremely high, but it’s hard to tell just how deep his basement could be and that’s what has everybody shying away a bit. He is creative and very quick with the puck and knows how to create offense but he likes to do some from the outside and on the smaller ice surfaces in North American that can be a very difficult transition to make. I think a team in the five-eight range will take a gamble on his extremely high skill level and see what they can do with him.”
7. Nick Ritchie, wing, Peterborough Petes (WHL) – At 6-foot-3, 229-pounds, Ritchie is a man among boys in the OHL. He has the skill to go with his size, too; he potted 39 goals and 74 points in 61 contests. There are, however, some concerns surrounding Ritchie’s consistency. Some scouts believe this area in his game will dictate whether he follows the footsteps of Boston Bruins star Milan Lucic or just develops into a physical third-liner.
Scout’s take: “Nick Ritchie is the draft's most intriguing player,” says Ross. “Few players can combine size, skating, skill and nastiness like Petes forward Nick Ritchie can and because of that, I see Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic as a comparable for him. Ritchie might not be quite as nasty as Lucic, but he arguably has a higher offensive upside to his game. When he's on his game, Ritchie is dominant and his old-school style will certainly attract some suitors early.”
8. Brendan Perlini, wing, Niagara IceDogs (OHL) – The Shelby Township, Ont., native has an enticing combination of speed, skill and size at 6-foot-3, 205-pounds. He put it all on display in his second year of OHL puck as he broke out into a superstar with 34 goals and 71 points in 58 matches. The scary thing about Perlini is his breakout season seems to be just a sign of greater things to come.
Scout’s take: “It’s rare that you see a player with that big of a frame who has that lively foot speed and raw offensive tools,” says Lafortune. “He’s still a bit of a work in progress, but the one thing that grabs you is his potential to become a goal scorer at the next level. He came into the year determined, stronger and more focused. His best offensive weapon is a prime snapshot with a tricky release point that fools goaltenders.”
9. Nikolaj Ehlers, wing, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) – The Denmark native burst onto the scene in his rookie season with the Mooseheads. He notched 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games while riding shotgun with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin. His explosive speed and creativity put him in the conversation of the top 10, but concerns regarding his slender 5-foot-11, 163-pound frame has kept him from being a lock.
Scout’s take: “Ehlers is a dynamic, creative and explosive offensive winger,” says MacLean. “He’s a great playmaker who sees the ice very well and can find outside of the box ways to set up teammates. He is a great skater who doesn’t show much trepidation in going to any area of the ice and plays with great energy. He is very elusive and difficult to contain off the rush. His explosive skating and puck control sets him apart and makes him a very exciting offensive prospect for the next level.”
10. Haydn Fleury, defence, Red Deer Rebels (WHL) – The 6-foot-3, 198-pound Fleury, who scored eight goals and 46 points in 70 games, is regarded as the second best defenceman in the draft. He’s ultimately the complete package with size, a smooth stride, physicality and hockey smarts. The Carlyle, Sk., native’s style of play has elicited some comparisons to St. Louis Blues blueliner Jay Bouwmeester, who happens to be his idol.
Scout’s take: “Personally, I do feel that he’s the second best defenceman in the draft and it would seem that our scouts as collective group are of a similar opinion,” says MacLean. “He is very reliable and stable and shows promise with just about every facet of the game. He’s got good size, moves well, shows some grit and isn’t afraid to join the rush. He’s got the potential to be a valuable jack-of-all-trades type defender who could insulate a top pairing and play in all situations.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen