With the Canadian Hockey League playoffs looming, NHL scouts are making their travel plans and shortening their lists, a few prospects becoming priority viewing. It’s not simply the best that are on the watch list, but those with both promise and question marks. Here’s the recent dope on a cross-section of elite draft-eligibles from a survey of scouts in the regions across the CHL and scouting directors who have inspected the meat from Atlantic to Pacific and back.
Sam Bennett (OHL, Kingston)
Probably not the highest priority to see, mostly because his value is pretty firmly established. Said one Ontario-based scout who has seen multiple games of all the top-10 North American skaters: “Bennett’s my best.
“I’ve seen him not quite a dozen times but I’d have a hard time if you asked me what his worst game was. Completely consistent in effort, win or lose, last game of a road trip, three-in-three [three games in three nights], none of it matters. If you’re looking at one of the top-three picks, you’ll focus on him and Reinhart and a couple of others, but of all those guys he’s the most consistent of them.” Trending up.
Sam Reinhart (WHL, Kootenay)
Like Bennett, not the highest priority for the same reasons. Says one scout who works the WHL: “He has just tremendous hockey sense. He does some little things that you might have seen [years back] but don’t really anymore. What sticks out for me is the way he can use his skates to make plays—I saw him make a move, letting the puck go back to his skates like he was over-skating it and then kick it up to his stick. He just bamboozled this defencman.
"When I was playing, there were a few guys who did stuff like that but it's a bit of a lost art. Maybe people had questions because he had a rough time at world juniors but he wasn't really put in a position to succeed there and a lot of guys, older players, struggled on [the Canadian under-20s]. When he came back, though, he raised his game." Trending up.
Leon Draisaitl (WHL, Price Albert)
The same scout who was effusive in his praise for Reinhart was critical of Draisaitl based on recent showings: "His effort wasn't there for me. One thing that troubles me is the speed of the game that he plays at—he likes to slow things down, a control game, which is fine if you can do it. But that's the one speed he likes to play at and he's going to have to skate faster and make quicker decisions when he gets to the next level. In terms of his commitment, willingness to go into traffic and take a hit to make a play, he's not there for me yet."
Another scout who was crossing over from Ontario was even more damning: "I would have trouble taking him. I don't think he's made the transition from the European game. Too soft. Not that I say that about all European players—I give him points for going to the Dub. But I wouldn't want to draft him and hope that he changes. Other guys are already there." Trending down, but in doing that scouts will be watching him even more closely in the last weeks of the season.
Aaron Ekblad (OHL, Barrie)
No reason to see him at all says a scouting director: "He is either the player you like best out of this whole draft class or just the top defenceman. Everyone knows what he is and they've known it for two years now." Trending up.
Jake Virtanen (WHL, Calgary)
Said one scouting director: "I've seen him four times this season and before. He has one dimension but it's a great dimension. He's going to score. He has 40 goals. You look and he's got half that [23 in fact] in assists. Forty goals for any draft-eligible is a big number but he only missed next year's draft by less than a month.
"He could have 50 goals, but Calgary spreads the ice time around. It's not like he gets rolled over on every power play or double-shifted or anything like that. And it isn't that he dazzles to put the puck in the net. He just makes his mind up and drives hard. He has really good size and strength. Last game I saw him he put two guys out of the game with hits because he wants the puck that bad." Trending up.
Nick Ritchie (OHL, Peterborough)
Said an Ontario-based scout: "Ritchie's game has been all over the place, but it's been a lot better in the couple of games I saw him play since Christmas. I think he's figured it out. It helps that the team is playing better since getting [centre Hunter Garlent] from Guelph. Physically he's the most ready player to move into the NHL next year. He could play this year. He's practically 230 lb.
"Some games [earlier in the season] it looked like he didn't want to play. But he's completely taken off. Every time I've seen him and every report I've read [from our other scouts] he has just taken it to another level. We had a guy there the night he scored five goals [three weeks back against Bennett and Kingston]. You can compare him to Lucic but Milan wasn't scoring five goals, not at 18, not at 19. To me, he's [Todd} Bertuzzi. Maybe better hands than Bertuzzi." Trending up.
Anthony DeAngelo (OHL, Sarnia)
Central Scouting has DeAngelo at No. 10 among North American skaters but according to the opinion of most that's a fair bit higher than his placement on their lists. Said one scouting director: "A defenceman under 5-foot-11... I'd want to see some dynamic skating from a guy that size if you're projecting him to play at the next level. It's not just that you have to be able to skate to get the puck—you have to have escapability.
"If you have Corey Perry or Jeff Carter bearing down on you when you're chasing a dump in, you gotta get out of the way. Maybe someone who sees him and likes him thinks he's like Andrew Ference, say. Well, Ference was a dynamic skater in the Dub and he was physically a tough guy. I haven't seen that in DeAngelo yet. But maybe someone else has seen something that I'm missing." Trending down.