Few players go into the NHL draft with any clear idea about their destination. Most years only the first overall pick knows with metaphysical certainty where he’s going to land.
This year isn’t one of “most years.” Maybe Aaron Ekblad or Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett has been advised by Florida with the first pick or Buffalo with the second that they’ll be selected there if available. This verbal guarantee would be, like other verbal guarantees, worthless. In this case it would be rendered moot because neither the Panthers nor Sabres can guarantee with a straight face and without crossed fingers that they’ll be holding onto their pick at 8 p.m. on Friday night in Philadelphia.
The implications cut far deeper than Nos. 1 and 2. Consider for a moment the case of Michael Dal Colle, a left winger with the Oshawa Generals.
“I don’t really have any idea where I’ll end up,” he says. “I talked to 23 teams at the combine and a couple more have said that they want to talk to me [at the draft].”
In the ranks of scouts Dal Colle is considered to be at the very front of the second tier of prospects. To a man, the scouting fraternity will tell you the names of four of the five top draft-eligible players: Barrie defenceman Ekblad and three centres, Kootenay’s Reinhart, Kingston’s Bennett and Prince Albert’s Leon Draisaitl. A good number of scouts will include Peterborough winger Nick Ritchie as a wild card in that mix—some will even tell you he’s No. 2 or 3 on their scroll while others don’t have him in their personal top 10 or even top 15. If you’re following along you’d put together that there’s not really a consensus on the scouts’ order of preference within this group.
That brings us to Dal Colle who scored 39 goals and racked 95 points for the Generals last season. It was a breakthrough sophomore campaign for the native son of Richmond Hill, Ont. In his first run through the OHL he put up respectable numbers for a 16-year-old (15 goals and 33 assists in 63 games), enough to get a spot on the Canadian team at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament last August. He was invited to play on the OHL team in the Subway Series against the touring Russian under-20 team and will be heading to the national junior evaluation camp in a few weeks time.
These are all impressive lines on his CV. And for scouting purposes you’d also highlight his age: He just turned 18 last week, so he would be one of the younger players among possible first-rounders. I know we’re talking about a matter of months—maybe half a year with late birthdays—but months matter when you’re talking about the physical maturity of 18-year-olds.
So how isn’t Dal Colle in that mix for the top four (or five) slots?
Said one NHL scouting director: “You look at Bennett, Reinhart and Draisaitl and they’ll make a creative play, something with a high puck-skill level, that gets you sitting up in your seat. Ekblad it’s physical play and a big shot and with Ritchie it’s the same sort of thing. Dal Colle is just really consistent and reliable.”
And that’s how Dal Colle thinks of his own game. “I was shut out a few games this year, but not two games in a row too often,” he says. “I don’t think I really had a bad streak or slump and really that was the same for our team. We went into the season not even expected to make the playoffs and we finished first in the Eastern Conference and made it to the conference final.”
With regard to his reliability and consistency, Dal Colle credits his linemates in his rookie campaign in Oshawa: Boone Jenner, who played with Columbus last year, and Tyler Biggs, a Maple Leafs’ first-rounder who spent the season with the Marlies. “For a 16-year-old seeing the league for the first time, I learned what it takes from them… how to show up every game and every practice and focus,” Dal Colle says. “Don’t take a shift off.”
On draft lists, many scouts will have Dal Colle’s name above at least a couple of players who are capable of the spectacular and it’s by reason of his greatest virtue as a player, reliability. Take the case of William Nylander of Modo in the SHL. A lot of scouts concede that the son of former NHLer Michael Nylander might turn out to be the most skilled player to come out of this draft. The knock against the younger Nylander is one that marked his father’s career, namely that he was in and out in terms of performance and effort. “You see [William Nylander] play scared sometimes,” one scout says. “Dal Colle just grinds it out. To me he’s a safe pick. Maybe even safer than the top kids you’re talking about. Could be that he makes the league before some of these others. Maybe it seems like his ceiling isn’t as high as theirs is but then again his team in Oshawa was a lot better than anyone expected and he was the guy there. Maybe he’s not given enough credit when it comes to his ceiling.”
If form holds and Dal Colle goes somewhere between Nos. 5 and 10 Friday night he could land in Vancouver with the fifth pick, in his hometown as a Maple Leaf with the eighth or in Winnipeg with the ninth. But given that these teams and others are looking to move up before the draft—or maybe even down to add picks when names start being called—there’s no guessing where he’ll end up.
Dal Colle isn’t hazarding a guess how it plays out on Friday but says for the record how it will play out in the longer run. “I think I can play in the NHL next season,” he says. “As a player you just have to think that way.”