NHL Mock Draft: Ekblad an easy No. 1 for Florida

Highly-touted prospect Aaron Ekblad has only one goal in mind: to prove to the team that will draft him that he can play in the NHL next season.

Consensus is a word that just doesn’t describe the NHL Draft this year.

2014’s crop of talent includes tons of skill at the top, but isn’t considered as deep as previous drafts—and doesn’t have a surefire franchise building-block at the top. Instead, there are a handful of very good prospects who could be future stars.

The Sams—Reinhart and Bennett—headline the group of forwards, while defenceman Aaron Ekblad brings size, skating ability and a solid two-way game. He could become the best player in his class.

The absence of a projected superstar actually makes this draft more intriguing. Shortly after winning the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery, the Florida Panthers made it known they would consider dealing it. And the New York Islanders took a calculated risk by holding on to this pick and sacrificing 2015’s, part of the Thomas Vanek trade trade with Buffalo.

This year could see a lot of activity given the varying skill level throughout the opening round. One team’s 10th-best skater could be another team’s 25th, which lends itself to an exciting game of snakes and ladders on the draft board.

Also: Click here for Sam Cosentino’s NHL Mock Draft

Without predicting trades, here’s my take on who will end up where come June 27 in Philadelphia.

1. Florida Panthers, Aaron Ekblad, D
The Panthers have a strong foundation down the middle after drafting Aleksander Barkov last year and with the emergence of Nick Bjugstad, making defence a more pressing need. Ekblad is the best option on the blueline by a country mile.

2. Buffalo Sabres, Sam Reinhart, C
Reinhart fell victim to a familiar trend—overexposure—and the emergence of a challenger made him less intriguing in recent months. Like other late birthdays who play three-plus years in junior (John Tavares in 2009, Taylor Hall in ’10), Reinhart will be vindicated come draft day. He’s a true pro with the vision and creativity that will make those around him better, the sign of a budding star.

3. Edmonton Oilers, Sam Bennett, C
Although he’s likely third on their list, Bennett would help cure what ails the Oilers. A true competitor with a winner-take-all approach, he can light a fire under teammates with his competitive drive. Best suited for one more year of junior seasoning, his addition would allow the Oilers to comfortably deal one of their other young, talented forwards to address a need on the blueline.

4. Calgary Flames, Michael Dal Colle, LW
The Flames made the most of a roster that was thin on talent last season. They have a few talented youngsters coming up, but the future of their team will need more skill up front and Dal Colle is arguably the most talented player remaining. His shot and release are superb and there’s little doubt he will evolve into a big-time point producer. Once he fills out his smallish frame, he should really take off.

5. New York Islanders, Leon Draisaitl, C
The Islanders have a deeper need for wingers but Draisaitl is a better option than the wingers available. He’s been dubbed the “German Gretzky” and the “Deutschland Dangler” for his natural offensive ability. His skating has been criticized, but so was John Tavares’s and he hasn’t been held back by it.

6. Vancouver Canucks, Jake Virtanen, RW
New GM Jim Benning can endear himself to the masses by taking the local product from nearby Abbotsford, B.C. Virtanen also makes sense for the Canucks because he’s a speedy, gritty forward with great hands and a nose for the net—ideally suited for the Western Conference.

7. Carolina Hurricanes, Nikolaj Ehlers, LW
The argument could be made the Hurricanes would be looking at a defenceman. But the availability of Ehlers, a pure offensive force with top-line potential, is just too good to pass up. He could form one of the league’s next dynamic duos with Jeff Skinner.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs, Nick Ritchie, LW
Ritchie embodies the type of player the Maple Leafs have coveted the past half decade: Big with brawn and loads of skill. He may be the best power forward in the draft, the knock on him is his sometimes indifferent nature. But when he’s on, he’s a difference-maker and would fit in well in Toronto.

9. Winnipeg Jets, William Nylander, C
The Jets are lacking depth down the middle, making Nylander a natural choice for need and skill alike. He is a tremendous playmaking pivot with creativity and solid setup skills. He is likely staying in Sweden next year, but his game is considered among the most NHL-ready in the draft.

10. Anaheim Ducks (from Ottawa), Jared McCann, C
The Ducks are blessed with one of the NHL’s deepest prospect pools would be weighing their options between McCann and defenceman Haydn Fleury. McCann would fit nicely into Anaheim’s system: He’s a two-way forward with underrated offensive skills.

11. Nashville Predators, Haydn Fleury, D
Fleury’s slide comes to an end perhaps a bit later than most anticipated. A pairing of Seth Jones and Fleury would be reminiscent of when Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were the twin towers. Fleury is an exceptional puck-mover who can manufacture offence and anchor the power play.

12. Phoenix Coyotes, Kevin Fiala, LW
A slick and creative playmaker, Fiala would be another solid addition to the Coyotes’—the type the team team can build an offence around. His ability to raise the level of his teammates makes him a tantalizing prospect.

13. Washington Capitals, Brendan Perlini, LW
Although rich in forwards and probably strongly considering a defenceman for this pick, the Capitals may be hard-pressed to pass on Perlini who represents good value at this stage in the draft. He’s big and offensively skilled, his game grew by leaps and bounds in his sophomore OHL season.

14. Dallas Stars, Julius Honka, D
Every team needs a puck-moving, playmaking blueliner. The Stars have Alex Goligoski filling that role now, but by the time Honka is ready, he would be an obvious successor Honka’s skill set in a draft weak for puckmovers could see him go higher, an obvious choice for the Stars otherwise.

15. Detroit Red Wings, Robby Fabbri, C
For the first time in what feels like an eternity, the Red Wings aren’t a dynamic, high-scoring team. There’s help on the way with a prospect cupboard featuring Anthony Mantha, Martin Frk, Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen, but the depth down the middle could be shored up. Fabbri is a high-end talent with off-the charts offensive ability.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets, Ivan Barbashev, C
Barbashev is the complete package with strong skating, a responsible two-way game, grit and leadership. He does everything and plays with an urgency to win that is infectious. His skill set would complement recentdraft picks Kerby Rychel, Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano quite well.

17. Philadelphia Flyers, Travis Sanheim, D
The Flyers’ defensive cupboard is rather thin and their NHL D-corps is mostly old. They began filling the gap with the selection of Samuel Morin in last year’s draft and could use another stud to build around. Sanheim improved rapidly throughout the season, to the point where he was one of Canada’s best defenders at the April under-18 tournament. He brings size, skill and a two-way game.

18. Minnesota Wild, Thatcher Demko, G
There is good reason to believe Darcy Kuemper is the future between the pipes in Minnesota, but the Wild’s depth in goal is questionable at this stage. They used five different goalies this past season and aside from Kuemper, none of the other four will be around once Demko is ready. The consensus top goalie in the draft makes a lot of sense for the Wild.

19. Tampa Bay Lightning, Dylan Larkin, C
The type of player who helps a team win in the playoffs with his drive and determination. Larkin is a solid, reliable two-way forward who will probably round into a defensive contributor in the NHL.

20. San Jose Sharks, Jakub Vrana, RW
The Sharks hit pay dirt the last time they dipped into the Czech Republic pond with Tomas Hertl. Vrana is similar in that he is an offensive workhorse and his offensive abilities are among the best in the draft. His attention to defence is a concern, but he brings an element every team covets.

21. St. Louis Blues, Nick Schmaltz, C
The obvious storyline revolves around the fact the Blues drafted his older brother, Jordan, two years ago. Although some consider it a bit of a reach, Nick is considered by many a late first-round pick. He has sharply-tuned offensive abilities and could develop into a future offensive catalyst.

22. Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Tuch, RW
A longshot to fall this far in the draft, but if he’s available, it would be hard for the Penguins to overlook his blend of size and skill. Although not considered an aggressive player physically, he has the size to impose his will if he develops a mean streak.

23. Colorado Avalanche, Brendan Lemieux, RW
No one knows better where Lemieux is coming from than Patrick Roy, who played with his father, Claude, in Montreal and Colorado. With an antagonizing style, Lemieux is a near clone of his dad. There are more skilled options at this point in the draft, but he’s the type of player whose value can’t be measured on the stat sheet.

24. Anaheim Ducks, Kasperi Kapanen, RW
The ‘Son of Sami’ is similar to his father with blazing speed and a playing style predicated on offence. Kapanen has room to grow with his defensive game, but his offensive abilities represent good value as a late first-rounder. His skating will fit in well with a fleet-footed group in Anaheim.

25. Boston Bruins, Jack Dougherty, D
The Bruins get a potential gem in a two-way defender with a nasty edge to his game. Dougherty’s offensive game took off this season and he could be a multi-faceted defender for the Bruins to build around.

26. Montreal Canadiens, Nikita Scherbak, RW
He could be an absolute steal at this point. The Russian was well above a point a game as a first-year player for the Saskatoon Blades on a team devoid of talent with a revolving door of a roster. His potential could be huge and the Habs are in definite need of adding an offensively gifted player to their core.

27. Chicago Blackhawks, Anthony DeAngelo, D
The Blackhawks are so deep in prospects that they have the luxury of gambling on a player whose character concerns will surely scare off other teams. DeAngelo is a pure offensive defenceman who needs a lot of work defensively.

28. Tampa Bay Lightning (from Rangers), Roland McKeown, D
After adding a forward at No. 19, the Lightning can focus on defence with this pick. His defensive game needs some work, but McKeown is a prospect worth investing in thanks to puckoving and skating ability.

29. Los Angeles Kings, Adrian Kempe, LW
The Stanley Cup champions would be pleasantly surprised to see a talented forward of Kempe’s calibre this late. He brings good speed and a shoot-first, ask-questions-later offensive approach.

30. New Jersey Devils, Sonny Milano, LW
Could be a good fit alongside Stefan Matteau, Jr. thanks to a bit of an agitating style. Milano, however, is more known for his smooth-skating and offensive dimensions. He has top-six scoring potential.

Also: Click here for Sam Cosentino’s NHL Mock Draft

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