The 2014 NHL Entry Draft is just a day away, and the Florida Panthers are on the clock!
|The best of the best - from left to right: Sam Reinhart, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett (via NHL.com)|
This year's talent pool does not have a generational player or players akin to what we've seen in previous years, but there are still plenty of player's ready to make a direct impact this year and beyond.
Who will the Panthers take with the #1 overall pick? Who's the best available talent in this year's draft? Here's a quick rundown of the best prospects at the top of the board, otherwise known as the players that have the potential to instantly change the fortunes of the NHL teams that need it the most. And boy do the teams picking high need some good fortune. And now.
#1: Aaron Ekblad, Defenseman, Barrie Colts (OHL) 58 GP, 23 goals, 30 assists
The consensus #1 in nearly every pre-draft prospect rankings, Aaron Ekblad is considered by many the best NHL-ready talent available in this year's draft. Ekblad's 6-foot-4, 213 pound frame allows him to dominate physically, and combined with with his skating ability, maturity and advanced hockey IQ, Ekblad has the potential to become one of the premier defenders in the game in a very short time. Similar to Seth Jones last year, Ekblad will have no problems stepping into the league and playing from day one.
#2: Sam Bennett, Centreman, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) 57 GP, 36 goals, 55 assists
After Ekblad, there is some debate as to how the order goes when ranking the best remaining top-tier talent. There is a group of about five players that each could be placed above, or behind, each other depending on what the general manager making the final call will settle on. For center Sam Bennett, he is an all-around talent at the position, with his superb puck possession, passing ability, speed, agility and high hockey IQ being his most impressive qualities. Bennett was infamous for being unable to complete a single pull-up at the scouting combine, so he will have to develop the strength in his game moving forward if it doesn't want to get steamrolled at the pro-level.
#3: Sam Reinhart, Centreman, Kootenay Ice (WHL) 60 GP, 36 goals, 69 assists
Sam Reinhart was named the WHL Player of the Year after totaling 105 points in 60 games for the Kootenay Ice. Ranked as one of, if not the best, offensive player in the draft, his incredible offensive skill set and hockey smarts that give him a healthy advantage in both categories over the other top prospects. Reinhart is guaranteed to be picked in the top-five by either the Sabres at #2 or the Oilers at #3 or the Flames at #4, and he'll be able to contribute right away to whatever team he goes to.
#4: Leon Draisaitl, Centreman, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) 64 GP, 38 goals, 67 assists
A German-born lad who came to North America to hone and develop his skills, Draisaitl is the most physically gifted forward of all the top prospects. He's most known for his incredible ability to hold onto the puck under serious pressure, while also being able to find the open space to get his shots off towards the net. Depending who the Sabres take at #2, the Oilers at #3 could pass over either Bennett and Reinhart and go with Draisaitl as their man. There's even been some discussion that the Sabres could take Draisaitl at #2, something that could shake up the draft just a bit.
#5. Michael Del Colle, Left Wing, Oshawa Generals (OHL) 60 GP, 36 goals, 56 assists
The four prospects listed above will all be drafted in some order to start the draft, leaving the New York Islanders with the decision of taking the best remaining talent on the board, which is Del Colle, or trading the pick and moving down. Standing at 6-foot-2, Del Colle is not as flashy or offensively gifted as the other three forwards ranked ahead of him, but he has the potential to become a very solid pro in the game that can be called upon to do different things, including playing the point on the power-play, killing penalties and scoring timely goals.
#6: William Nylander, Left Wing, MODO (SHL) 22 GP, 1 goal, 6 assists
One of the ultimate examples of a late, late bloomer, Nylander came on in the second-half of the season to tear apart the Swedish Hockey League and rocket up the draft boards of NHL teams. Son of former NHL and Boston Bruin forward Michael Nylander, Willie offensive game is elite in every aspect, with his puck possession, skating skills, vision, and his rocket of a shot making him the most pure offensive talent in the draft. His defensive game is nowhere close to any of the other top players, nor is his size or physicality. But his loads of scoring potential could prompt teams to take a change on Nylander, meaning he has a great chance to go in the top-ten.
#7: Jake Virtanen, Left Wing, Calgary Hitmen (WHL) 71 GP, 45 goals, 26 assists
All things considered, Virtanen is the best power forwards at the top of the pile. He's big at 6-foot, 208 pounds, has enough grit, toughness and muscle to perfect the role, and his goal-scoring ability isn't too shabby either. His acceleration is among some of the best in the draft, as well as is his puck possession in tight spaces. He isn't afraid to throw the body and get to the dirty parts of the ice, which is a trait that if you don't have already, good luck trying to learn it.
#8: Nikolas Ritchie, Left Wing, Peterborough Petes (OHL) 61 GP, 39 goals, 35 assists
If Jake Virtanen isn't the best available power forward in the draft, then you'd have no problems giving Nikolas Ritchie the title. Playing at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's a monster of a skater that could start plastering poor souls along the boards in the NHL today. His offensive game is not as polished as Virtanen's is, but what he lacks in an undeveloped scoring touch he makes up for in his brute physicality and strength. Ritchie has the potential to fall a bit down the board, possibly out of the top-ten, but whatever team finally gets the chance to draft him, they won't regret what it brings to their team.
#9: Hayden Fleury, Defenseman, Red Deer Rebels (WHL) 70 GP, 8 goals, 38 assists
The best defensive prospect not named Aaron Ekblad, Fluery stands at 6-foot-3, 204 pounds and comes with all the tools needed to thrive in the NHL at the position. A big man who can skate, Fluery has terrific vision in his own end, which allows him to find the outlet pass to break out of the zone without hesitation. If the pass isn't there, Fluery has the mobility to wheel the puck out of the zone himself to free up space and draw attention, allowing his teammates to creep in the backdoor to receive the pass.
#10: Nikolaj Ehlers, Left Wing, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) 63 GP, 49 goals, 55 assists
A smaller forward that plays much bigger than his size, Ehlers possess the offensive flash that can translate to the pro game. Halifax produced two big-time players taken in last year's draft, one being #1 overall pick and Calder Trophy winner Nathan McKinnon, the other Jonathan Drouin, picked at #3 for the Lightning. Scouts are hesitant to compare Ehlers to both McKinnon and Drouin, but the scoring track-record is there to be seen. His offensive gifts are evident, but Ehlers will need to beef up and continue to develop if he wants to become a goal-scorer at the pro level.
So there is a quick rundown of the best available prospects heading into tomorrow's Entry Draft. As always, these rankings are subjective and mainly based on personal opinion in the circles of the NHL. I've never been too big into mock drafts, especially ones that get into the 5.0 versions, but giving a brief glimpse into the best available talents, and the potential future stars of the league, is always fun.