When NHL Central Scouting Service released its preliminary list of players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft on Monday, scouts working for the league reached a virtual consensus with regard to the top of its lists.
“You can try to look too smart,” one NHL scouting director said.
This was directed at CSS’s naming centre Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs as the No. 1 overall skater in North America.
Before breaking this down, let’s lay out some background. Start with the fact that scouts consider this a middling draft. Also consider that not one but two players from next year’s draft, Erie’s Connor McDavid and USDT’s Jack Eichel, would be the No. 1 pick if eligible for this year’s sweepstakes. Okay, done.
So what has team scouts second-guessing Bennett's ascension to No. 1?
Well, no one is saying that Bennett is Angelo Esposito redux or Kyle Turris 2.0; that is, two players who floated to the top of CSS’s list as if aided by helium and not reflecting the ratings of the rank and file of team scouts.
(Esposito was a mid-season No. 1 who dropped to season-end No. 8 North American skater, a reflection of CSS recognizing the error of its way. Turris, meanwhile, ended up at No. 1 by CSS though nobody in the field had him ahead of Patrick Kane or James van Riemsdyk.)
Scouts like Bennett. "I have him in my top five, still," a veteran scout based in Ontario said. "I've seen him a lot. And he looked great last week. But, no, I see him at the front of the second tier of guys."
Who exactly is in that top tier? To start, the next three players on the North America list: No. 2 Leon Draisaitl of Prince Albert; No. 3 Aaron Ekblad of Barrie; and No. 4 Sam Reinhart of Kootenay.
All three of those players played at the World Junior Hockey Championships a couple of weeks back, so you think they would have had a perfect opportunity to showcase their stuff for scouts. That's not the way scouts see it.
One scout who worked world juniors said it wasn’t a fair measure of their ability. “Those kids were put in position to fail,” he said. “It’s a big step up for draft-eligible players and they usually fade physically as the tournament goes along. That was the case with these kids. It’s just the way scouting goes. After a while, in something like that, you start picking them apart, projecting what they can’t do.”
These three are in the conversation for No. 1 but understand that need will be a huge factor on draft day -- Ekblad could be everyone’s No. 1 but if the top pick falls to Buffalo, it’s hard to see the Sabres going with him based on their depth chart.
Said one scout with a team that will almost certainly be in the mix in the lottery: “I didn’t think Ekblad hurt himself as much as the others (Draisaitl and Reinhart). If you looked at the exhibitions and opening-round games, I thought he might be the best defenceman in the tournament. But when you hit the game against the U.S., the quarters and the rest, (coach Brent Sutter) just kept asking him to do more and more … up until he was asking him way too much.
“Reinhart wasn’t as extreme that way, but yeah, it was a very unsettled situation with the team, wingers moving to centre, centres moving to the wing. That’s tough stuff for 19-year olds, even guys who have already played in this tournament. It’s a real handicap for (draft-eligible players).”
Draisaitl was even more at the mercy of circumstance for obvious reason: It’s hard to impress when you’re the lead guy on a German team trying to play its way out of relegation. “Draisaitl just had no surrounding talent to work with at the U-20s,” said a scout who works out the WHL. “He didn’t look like the guy you see in Prince Albert at all. He’s a great playmaker, very heady, a kid that makes everybody around him better. But he can’t make them that much better. He can create chances for other people -- that’s his strength. A lot less so creating chances for himself -- and against older players on deeper teams. It’s a pretty thankless job.”
I suspect Sam Bennett will be a top-five pick -- even those who put Ekblad and others ahead of him have him in that bracket. But Bennett managed to rise up by playing against thinned-out OHL teams. He was in a position to succeed. That worked out for him in these rankings but as Angelo Esposito would tell you, that mid-term gold is pyrite.