NHL draft experts’ take on class of 2014: ‘Ekblad is the slam dunk’

Buzzing The Net

The 2014 NHL draft class doesn't follow the same storyline as the last handful of entry drafts.

Albeit some of the recent draft classes don't seem as cut and dry with hindsight vision, the storylines have been mainly based around two-horse races such as Nathan MacKinnon vs. Seth Jones in 2013, Nail Yakupov vs. Ryan Murray in '12 and Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin in 2010. There was other top-notch talent in those respective drafts such as Jonathan Drouin last year and Alex Galchenyuk in 2012, but the consensus was they were not in the running to go first overall.

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Ultimately, this year’s draft doesn’t appear to be as straightforward with various scouting services making strong cases for a handful of prospects. The race starts with Kootenay Ice centre Sam Reinhart and Barrie Colts blueliner Aaron Ekblad because they were the consensus top prospects prior to the start of the season; they were supposed to be this year’s two-horse race. However, Kingston Frontenacs sniper Sam Bennett, who’s NHL Central Scouting Service’s top ranked North American skater, and Prince Albert Raiders German centre Leon Draisaitl, who topped The Hockey News’ Future Watch draft ranking, have since earned their way into the conversation of who should don the first sweater in Philadelphia.

With that said, it seems there will be a bit more pressure on the team with the first pick this year. If the club goes with Ekblad, they will live and die by going with the clear-cut best defenceman in the draft. But when it comes to Reinhart, Bennett and Draisaitl, the margin for error is evident as it goes without saying that potential doesn’t always translate into production.

“There’s always only that one first overall pick, and sometimes it can be almost a detriment because the pressure to get it right is really high and many teams get handcuffed into making the safest pick at that time, as it’s the easiest to justify to their fan base,” says International Scouting Services head scout Ross MacLean. “We tend to think that the top pick has to be a significant game-breaking offensive talent or it’s a bust, but we fail to realize that is often the exception not the rule. I think teams realize the potential of high picks and how they can land an effective piece and while it’s nice to control your destiny, the pressure isn’t as high.”

When it comes right down to it, Ekblad seems to have the highest ceiling in the draft. The writing is on the wall that the 6-foot-4, 217-pounder has the potential to develop into a franchise defenceman. Yet despite his Shea Weber-like potential, his position may work against him on the draft floor as 18-year-old blueliners’ futures in the pros have predominately been harder to read than forwards.

“In my own opinion Ekblad is the slam dunk, but there is that fear over taking a defenceman first overall these days,” MacLean says. “Outside of that the appeal of each player in this range really differs depending on who holds what pick. It does appear to be more wide open at this point than in previous years, but I believe that with most teams the list of their optimal target is pretty small.”

Oshawa Generals centre Michael Dal Colle isn’t in the running to go No. 1 overall, but he could jump into the top four. He has an appealing 6-foot-2, 171-pound stature, consistency in his game and a 95-point season under his belt.

“If anybody (deserves to jump up into the top four) it would be Michael Dal Colle; I think he’s earned the right to be in this conversation all year long,” says MacLean. “In a draft with a lot of prospects who have high end potential muddled with inconsistencies, he’s a consistent player with strong potential and good project ability for the next level.”

Swedish sensation William Nylander came into the season regarded as just a half a step behind Reinhart and Ekblad. As the year has progressed, though, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound forward’s draft status has varied among scouts. He’s currently ranked fifth overall by ISS and NHL CSS slot him behind Kasperi Kapanen among European skaters.

“I can see Nylander going anywhere in the three-six range; his lethal offensive weapons, high-end speed and quickness as well as his instincts on the puck will have NHL teams salivating,” says ISS scout Steve Cocker. “William has shown the ability to compete and out-think his opposition at the highest level in MODO and Södertälje while maintaining his dangerous offensive abilities on the puck. His dynamic skill-set, elusive speed and instincts in the offensive zone show a promising future as a top-six scoring forward.”

Kapanen is Finland’s poster boy this year. The 6-foot, 181-pound winger, who scored seven goals and 14 points in 47 games in the SM-Liiga this year, is in a similar situation as fellow Finnish sniper Teuvo Teräväinen, who was selected No. 18 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, was in at the 2012 draft. Kapanen is in the running to have his name called with a top-10 selection, but he could drop into the latter half of the first round.

“In the end I see Kapanen being a top 10 pick and believe he has the upside to be amongst the middle of that group,” says Cocker. “At the age of 17 he has taken on a big role in the leagues worst lineup in KalPa. He has shown the ability to makes those around him better while bringing an energetic, exciting offensive game at the highest level.”

“In making comparisons to fellow countrymen (Alex) Barkov and (Teuvo) Teräväinen, I would say he is on a similar path that Teuvo was on at the same age. Putting up very similar numbers in their draft year at the SM-Liiga level with KalPa and Jokerit respectively, although Kasperi not having the supporting cast that Teuvo had in Jokerit.”

Russia doesn’t have an Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin in the draft, but they do have two prospects – the Moncton Wildcats’ Ivan Barbashev and Saskatoon Blades’ Nikita Scherbak – that are clearly established as first-round talent. Meanwhile, 6-foot-2, 203-pound forward Vladislav Kamenev leads the way among Russians playing in their home country.

“The top Russian, playing in Russia, is Vladislav Kamenev, coached by Mike Keenan in Magnitogorsk,” says Goran Stubb, head European scout of NHL Central Scouting Service. “Since KHL allowed five imports per team and Russian stars stayed at home it has been difficult for young Russian prospects to make a KHL team. That is a reason why so many of the top Russian prospects played junior hockey in North America this season.”

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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