“No one in this draft class gets higher marks for hockey sense.”
“No one in this draft class gets higher marks for hockey sense.”
“Could be the best in this class. Must get stronger and land in the right spot.”
“All those points and didn’t play with Drouin. Great hands and speed.”
– JEFF MAREK
“A professional winger. His ability to finish gives him first-line upside.”
Michael Dal Colle raised eyebrows with his skill set and intangibles
BY JEFF MAREK
“I think he’s Jeff Carter,” says one scout.
“I see more Ryan Getzlaf in him,” says another. “He’s further advanced at this stage than both Carter and Getzlaf, actually.”
That’s pretty heady praise from two NHL bird dogs who’ve spent years sniffing Zamboni fumes in rinks across North America—but comparisons to the greats of today’s game jump out at you when you pay attention to what Michael Dal Colle has done in Oshawa.
Drafted seventh overall out of the Vaughan Kings franchise, he impressed as an OHL rookie, even with a modest 15 goals and 48 points. His numbers took a big jump in 2013–14 and he led the Eastern Conference champs in scoring.
Former Generals GM Jeff Twohey compares Dal Colle to a young Eric Staal. “Quietly confident, long and lean, although Eric was better defensively,” he says. “Both are very creative offensive players who can make others around them better . . . . [He’s a] front-line NHL player.”
Dal Colle’s best assets are his superb puck skills and an uncanny ability in tight spaces. He’s also an above-average playmaker, able to find teammates from anywhere. He flashed serious scoring skill this season, a big reason he moved into our top 10. “He will rarely miss an opportunity to finish when he gets the puck around the net,” says Twohey.
Dal Colle’s father doesn’t talk about vision or hands or scoring when discussing his son’s best attribute. “It’s his loyalty,” he says. “Michael played with one organization through minor hockey. He had opportunities to go to powerhouse teams but declined. Michael never wanted to leave.”
That loyalty is the type of intangible NHL teams look for after poring over the statistics and combine results. As his father says: “I tell Michael, ‘On June 27th, someone is going to open a door for you, then it will be whatever you make of it.’”
“The separation between Bennett and Reinhart goes two ways. One, Reinhart’s skating gets docked a mark…something that maybe improves with more strength and work. Two, Reinhart doesn’t make players around him better the way Bennett does… That won’t change at the next level.”
“Scouts who rank him in the top four give him top marks for hockey sense. Those who score him closer to No. 10 don’t like his skating and think his effort and impact were spotty after the world juniors.”
– GARE JOYCE
“A physically punishing winger with a diamond-cutter’s hands.”
Who goes No. 1 overall will depend on who holds the pick. But this year it’s between a kid who couldn’t do a pull-up and another who’s being nitpicked to death. – GARE JOYCE
For an NHL scout, ownership of the first-overall pick is a luxury—to tweak the clichéd refrain, with that pick, they’re all still on the board. And yet, for the second year in a row, the toughest and perhaps least enviable pick in the draft is No. 1. How do you compare the relative merits of a skilled and tenacious—if not physically imposing—centre and a man-child defenceman who, at the junior level, punishes anyone who skates into his space? That’s the choice between Kingston centre Sam Bennett and Barrie defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
Based on conversations with more than a dozen working hockey men, the scouting fraternity is split between them. But the pick here is Bennett over Ekblad, just as the pick here last year was Nathan MacKinnon over Seth Jones.
It comes down to positional bias. If not immediately, a skilled 18-year-old forward at this level is a year away from helping a team (and more to the point, a GM under the gun). Moreover, a centre who can both finish chances and service wingers makes players around him better by his presence. That’s how scouts project Bennett at the next level. “He plays for Doug Gilmour and wears [Gilmour’s] number, but really it’s not out of line,” one Ontario-based scout says. “Bennett has the same compete level, the same fire and skill, and probably has even better hands. He’s not big but he has huge heart, a huge motor.”
In contrast, a blueliner’s development will almost certainly be more protracted—perhaps he can step in and play right away, but he very rarely improves your team significantly as a first- or second-year player. History speaks to this—Drew Doughty was an exception in L.A., but Zach Bogosian, Victor Hedman, Erik Gudbranson and Erik Johnson? In the case of Hedman, No. 2 in 2009, we saw him emerge as an effective top-pair “D” this season—his rival for the top slot was John Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist a year ago.
More than position divides Bennett and Ekblad, mind you. During testing at the NHL combine, the physically immature Bennett failed in his single attempt at a pull-up, the one great comic moment at the event.
Meanwhile, Ekblad looked like a 10-year NHL veteran who wandered into the venue. Remarked one scout: “That’s a kid who would never get carded.” This would seem to be all to Ekblad’s advantage. The opposite is true in some scouts’ minds.
Said one scouting director whose view was echoed by others in the trade: “Ekblad is just too strong for players in junior hockey. He’s a man in a boy’s league. It’s another thing when he moves up to the next level and has to play against other men. He won’t be overpowering Milan Lucic. NHLers push back. Ekblad will get stronger, but how much stronger and how long is it going to take?”
The scouts who rated Ekblad No. 1 slotted Bennett right behind him. A couple of scouts whose first choice was
Bennett had Ekblad at No. 3 and 4 on their lists. Said one: “You want a franchise defenceman to be a first power-play point man. Ekblad has the big shot [to fill that role], but I don’t know if he handles the puck well enough or is creative enough to do that for you.”
A veteran scouting director suggests that those who have downgraded Ekblad are guilty of over-thinking: “He’s been the first overall for me from day one. As an under-ager he was the best defenceman on the [Canadian team at the] world juniors. End of story. It’s just that he’s over-scouted by now. He came into the Ontario Hockey League at 15 [on an exceptional-player exemption] and everyone has seen him for three years. We all know what he is, but people start picking him apart, just like they did with Tavares.”
If the first overall pick will be the ultimate gut-check this year, then some scouts and executives are bound to regard No. 2 as the easiest.