The 2014 NHL Draft will test the mettle of scouting staffs and general managers across the league. It seems likely that Aaron Ekblad will be selected first, regardless of whether or not Florida keeps the pick. After that, will it be one of the Sams? Or will we see a surprise?
There are enigmas such as Peterborough’s Nick Ritchie, who is the best power forward available when he’s on his game … but, he’s not always on his game. Then you have the ultra-talented Josh Ho-Sang of the Windsor Spitfires. He stood out above the crowd in the BMO Top Prospects game against most of this draft’s top competition. What about Anthony DeAngelo of Sarnia? He’s as good an offensive defenceman as there is, but he — like Ho-Sang — has had some off-ice issues.
You have any one of three goalies that could be first-round picks in Boston College’s Thatcher Demko, Charlottetown Islanders’ Mason McDonald and Plymouth Whalers’ Alex Nedeljkovic.
Defenceman will be at a premium. Look for the likes of DeAngelo, Haydn Fleury and Julius Honka to be first-round picks before a drop-off at that position.
The World U-18 Championship changed the complexion of the draft on a couple of different fronts. There were huge performances from players like Vlad Kamenev of Russia, Travis Sanheim of Canada, Kevin Fiala of Switzerland and Jakub Vrana of the Czech Republic. Both Kamenev and Sanheim are now in the conversation as potential first rounders; the others improved their first-round status.
While it’s never easy to get inside the heads of NHL GMs, here’s how I see the 2014 NHL Draft shaking down:
1. Florida Panthers, Aaron Ekblad, D
A future pillar on the back end, Ekblad is mature beyond his years. He’s got added value because he’s a right shot and this draft is thin on high-end d-men.
2. Buffalo Sabres, Sam Reinhart, C
Although Buffalo has changed its philosophy on developing young players, Reinhart’s hockey IQ is so high that he might force himself into the Sabres lineup next season.
3. Edmonton Oilers, Leon Draisaitl, C
The Oilers need size and strength down the middle of the ice. While he’s not overly physical, Draisaitl will hold his own as he showed playing for Germany at the worlds.
4. Calgary Flames, Sam Bennett, C
Getting Bennett at No. 4 will feel like déjà vu for the Flames. He’s Sean Monahan with more bite, fulfilling the truculent needs of Brian Burke.
5. New York Islanders, Michael Dal Colle, LW
Good size and skates well. He has a deadly shot, but has no issues also distributing the puck. Dal Colle is a good transition player in that he’s committed to the back-check and can get it going the other way with great swiftness. Having faced adversity away from the rink should help drive him.
6. Vancouver Canucks, Jake Virtanen, RW
Virtanen is a skater and he’s a scorer. He’ll do both in the NHL, but with his size, the Canucks will want a little more physicality from him. He’s not unlike Ryan Kesler.
7. Carolina Hurricanes, Nick Ritchie, LW
High risk, high reward. The best power forward prospect available in this draft. Ritchie has been inconsistent and scouts wonder how hard he’ll work to get to the next level. If he figures it out, people will look back and ask: how did he end up seventh?
8. Toronto Maple Leafs, Nikolaj Ehlers, LW
The Maple Leafs have players on the back and up front that are ready to graduate from the Marlies. As an organization, the No. 1 need is high-end skill. With his skating and shooting ability, Ehlers is as dynamic a player as this draft has to offer.
9. Winnipeg Jets, William Nylander, C
The Jets are a team that can afford to pick a smaller player. Arguably the most skilled player in the draft, Nylander was beyond brilliant at the World Under-18 Championship, leading the tournament in scoring. He’ll be more effective playing with players of a similar skill set.
10. Anaheim Ducks (from Ottawa), Haydn Fleury, D
You can guarantee he’ll take care of business in his own end of the rink. The question is how much offensive upside does he have? If that gets unearthed, the Ducks will have hit a home run.
11. Nashville Predators, Ivan Barbashev, C/LW
Over-scouted to some degree, Barbashev doesn’t present the flight risk normally associated with his countrymen. He plays a North American style of game with a high skill level.
12. Phoenix Coyotes, Brendan Perlini, LW
Seen as a surefire top 10, Perlini slips because of a mediocre U-18. Scouts have questioned his ability to play a heavy game commiserate of someone his size.
13. Washington Capitals, Dylan Larkin, C
A versatile player that marries skill and competitiveness to play a solid two-way game. Larkin is difficult to play against and was lauded by his USNTDP teammates.
14. Dallas Stars, Nikita Scherbak, RW
Has tremendous upside, hasn’t stopped growing and was very successful on a bad team. Big-league shot, is agile and gets around well for a big man. Can play the coveted right wing despite being a left shot.
15. Detroit Red Wings, Jakub Vrana, C
There’s some Pavel Datsyuk hiding in there. Enough said.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets, Sonny Milano, LW
Magic hands, solid character and enjoys the game to the fullest. NHL shot and release are already in place and he’s an elite skater.
17. Philadelphia Flyers, Alex Tuch, RW
Many think Tuch has more to give than just being a guy who had great net-front presence. He was the third option to have the puck as a result of playing on a line with Milano and Jack Eichel.
18. Minnesota Wild, Travis Sanheim, D
No one player has had a greater rise to prominence than Sanheim. Thanks to a strong second half and a brilliant U-18s, Sanheim went from a likely third-round pick in January to a top 20 pick in June.
19. Tampa Bay Lightning, David Pastrnak, RW
Has already shown versatility in playing different roles and different positions. He competes hard enough to mask some of the inconsistencies in his game.
20. San Jose Sharks, Kevin Fiala, LW
Fiala has proven to be a success regardless of the age or level of competition. Failure to participate in the physical testing at the NHL Combine did raise some flags though.
21. St. Louis Blues, Jared McCann, C
He has an NHL-ready shot and release. He will play the 200-foot game effectively. Issues about his character have slowly gone away. He will be a steal in this spot.
22. Pittsburgh Penguins, Robby Fabbri, C
The obvious concern is size and how much strength he can pack into his smallish frame. Guelph coach Scott Walker swears he’ll sell more jerseys than anyone in this draft. He’s as good a goal scorer as he is a passer and he’s not afraid to go to dirty areas on the ice.
23. Colorado Avalanche, Hunter Smith, RW
The Avs go way off the board here. They want to get bigger and stronger, and want kids with playoff experience. While it’s a long reach, there’s plenty of knowledge about what they’re getting and they don’t have a second-round pick.
24. Anaheim Ducks, Kasperi Kapanen, RW
More skilled but not the same busy-bee worker his father Sami was when he played. A tough guy to get a read on during the year because he missed some of the most scouted events.
25. Boston Bruins, Conner Bleackley, C
He’s a safe pick in this spot. While his ceiling may not be as high as those picked around him, his character will make up for those shortfalls.
26. Montreal Canadiens, Julius Honka, D
Has great hockey sense, carries the puck with confidence and makes good decisions. He’ll initiate and support the rush. Is a competitor who uses body positioning and a good stick to be a better defender than someone his size might otherwise be.
27. Chicago Blackhawks, Nick Schmaltz, C
The Hawks will try to hit on the next Patrick Kane. Schmaltz is wildly inconsistent in his work ethic, but that will likely change when he suits up for North Dakota next season. He’s one of the top three skilled players in this draft class.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning (from Rangers), Anthony DeAngelo, D
With two first-round picks, Tampa can afford to take a chance on character because there is no chance-taking with his talent.
29. Los Angeles Kings, Adrian Kempe, LW
This hard-working Swede has good size and will be even more difficult to play against when he fills out. He will provide enough offence to see him swing between the second and third lines. He’s a perfect fit for the Kings’ style of play.
30. New Jersey Devils, Brendan Lemieux, LW
All everyone says about this guy is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The tree won two Stanley Cups with Devils.