NHL Draft: Sleepers & risers for 2014 class

Hunter Smith. (Terry Wilson/OHL)

North Bay Battalion head coach and general manager Stan Butler put it best when he said players have the right to get better.

The scouting of prospects can be a fickle beast at times, but the true reward for several coaches mentoring young players is seeing the rise of a late bloomer. Not every player develops at the same pace, so the progress from month to month can sometimes be astonishing.

For every NHL Draft, you’ll find names of players who were under the radar — or completely off it – at the beginning of the season, but then shoot up the rankings by the time the final list is released. Samuel Morin, the hulking defenceman from Rimouski, is a prime example after emerging from relative obscurity to become the Philadelphia Flyers’ first-round pick (11th overall) last year.

Mock Drafts: King | Cosentino | Top 30 Prospects

Here’s a look at four risers and sleepers in this year’s crop of prospects.

The Risers

Nikita Scherbak, RW (Saskatoon, WHL)
Final rank: 15 | Midterm rank: 24 (North American Skaters)

Scherbak wouldn’t have been listed as a first-round talent a year ago if for no other reason than the fact he was toiling in the KHL’s lower league. What he achieved this season is nothing short of phenomenal. His 78 points in 65 games this season only begins scratching the surface of his story.

Consider he was adjusting to North American hockey, on a rebuilding team, with a revolving door of linemates while finishing with nearly double the points of his team’s next closest scorer and you’ve got a special talent. That success under those circumstances won’t go unnoticed by NHL teams and hints at his massive potential, which should be culminated by his draft position.

Hunter Smith, RW (Oshawa, OHL)
Final rank: 39 | Midterm rank: 140 (North American Skaters)

NHL teams will always covet size and finding a player who’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds is rare. But Smith brings much more than just his physical dimensions. He had just one goal and one assist in 45 games as a rookie a year ago before emerging with a 40-point, 100-penalty minute season in 64 games. Smith could be this draft’s version of Justin Auger, the Guelph forward who was taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft by Los Angeles.

Travis Sanheim, D (Calgary, WHL)
Final rank: 53 | Midterm rank: 167 (North American Skaters)

Few players’ stock has risen higher than Sanheim’s, who was nowhere near being on the radar when the season started. He had difficulty finding his way into the lineup at times before becoming not only a regular, but a fixture for the Hitmen. Sanheim improved his game so quickly that he concluded his season as one of Canada’s top defencemen at April’s under-18 tournament. Now Sanheim — who matches his size with a stout, two-way game — is considered a potential first-round pick and one of the top 15 defencemen available in the draft.

Edgars Kulda, LW (Edmonton, WHL)
Final rank: 145 | Midterm rank: – (North American Skaters)

The MasterCard Memorial Cup’s Most Valuable Player won’t experience the same fate as he did a year ago, when all 30 teams passed him over in the NHL Draft. Kulda made his mark in the national championship, but the book detailing his season and playoff achievements would have already been enough to hear his name called. Seeing how high he raised his game when it mattered most will only endear him more to the decision-makers and a top-60 selection is a legitimate possibility.

The Sleepers

Clark Bishop, C (Cape Breton, QMJHL)
Final rank: 104 | Midterm rank: 48 (North American Skaters)

His stats are everything but attention grabbing, which contributed to his slip in the rankings, but his style of play is the type coaches love. Bishop, the third-overall pick in the 2012 QMJHL draft, is the prototypical hard-working, defensively-conscious centre. His reliability and dependability in defensive situations is among the most finely-tuned in the draft. He’ll likely never become a point producer, but it’s easy to picture him in the NHL based on his defensive ability and leadership qualities.

Vladimir Tkachyov, LW (Moncton, QMJHL)
Final rank: 60 | Midterm rank: 14 (European Skaters)

Exposure can be a wonderful thing. Similar to his countryman Scherbak, Tkachyov was playing in the MHL before joining the Moncton Wildcats mid-season. He impressed with a highlight reel goal at the Subway Super Series in November and soon joined fellow Russian Ivan Barbashev in terrorizing QMJHL goaltenders.

Tkachyov has two main drawbacks: his small stature and the fear of commitment to the North American game. His skill set, however, is undeniable. Tkachyov’s abilities should earn him consideration as a first round pick. Instead, whichever team takes Barbashev may be well-advised to team them up once more by picking him in the second round or beyond.

Jake Walman, D (Toronto, OJHL)
Final rank: 47 | Midterm rank: 60 (North American Skaters)

Walman would have likely earned a lot more consideration had he made the jump to the OHL this season but instead dominated the OJHL and will take his game to Providence College next season. Walman, twice undrafted as a forward in the OHL draft, found his home on the blueline. His best attributes are his skating stride and offensive potential.

Ville Husso, G (HIFK, Liiga)
Final rank: 1 | Midterm rank: 1 (European goaltenders)

Husso went undrafted a year ago but could be among the first few goalies selected in this year’s draft. The Finnish goaltender grew his game by leaps and bounds this season, posting a 1.99 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in Finland. Although his spot duty at the world juniors wasn’t impressive, his league play was. He is ranked first on the Euro goalie list, but he’s unlikely to be the first one drafted.

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