1 – Florida Panthers
Aaron Ekblad, RHD - Barrie Colts (OHL)
6'3.5", 215 lbs.
The Panthers are weak down the wings, but it's too hard for them to pass up an all-situations cornerstone on the back end to kick off the 2014 draft.
If there's a can't miss prospect in this class, Ekblad may be it. A "man-child" among his junior peers, Ekblad has top-pair tools that suggest he can perform as an elite NHLer in very short order. He's smart with a very fluid skating stride, he plays a shutdown defensive game, and he can absolutely pound the puck on the power play. Ekblad topped all OHL defenders with 23 goals in 2013-14, including 16 with the man advantage.
The eye test suggests a Shea Weber-like figure on the back end, while his self assessment drops the name Lidstrom as a stylistic model. The Panthers are more than happy to add a 25+ minute a night workhorse to a developing blueline stable that includes Boston College talents Mike Matheson and Ian McCoshen, as well as 22-year olds Erik Gudbrandson and Alex Petrovic.
Heck, turning Ekblad loose on the NHL next season could inspire Ed Jovanovski, who grew up 15 miles from Ekblad's hometown before becoming a first overall pick exactly 20 years ago, to put on his teaching hat in the final year of his deal. Even if Jovanovski's hip issues limit his effectiveness, sharing the experience of his own teenage leap relative to an 1,100+ game career could prove invaluable to Ekblad's development.
2 – Buffalo Sabres
Sam Reinhart, C - Kootenay ICE (WHL)
6'0.75", 186 lbs.
Two first-round forwards in 2012. The first-round defensemen in 2013. Buffalo goes back on the offensive to get a smart glue guy down the middle to help it all come together.
There is little flash to Reinhart's game, but the lack of sizzle is made up of amazing smarts, character, and poise that put the productive pivot at the top of the forward class. Reinhart is equal parts leader and gifted playmaker, but his greatest standout quality is his calm and confident circulation of the puck. His natural instincts allow him to read and anticipate better than anyone else in his class, and his sense sees him find soft spots in the defense to get space at even strength. Add in timely goal scoring aptitude via a swift release, and the Sabres get a legit and highly disciplined scoring line center prospect who knows where everyone is at all times.
Box score scanners will tell you that Reinhart was the hottest player in junior hockey since Jan. 1, scoring 20 goals and 55 points in 27 regular season games following his time with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, and then adding another 23 points (6+17) in 13 playoff outings. What they can't tell you is that he's a dedicated defensive player as well who goes deep in his end to support his defenders and help get the puck quickly and astutely out of his zone.
Elite smarts and playmaking talent are welcome any day of the week, and Reinhart's body of work over the past two seasons is too much to pass up. The right-hand shot is a bonus down the middle with J.T. Compher being the only notable right-hander in the pipeline.
3 – Edmonton Oilers
Sam Bennett, C/LW - Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
6'0.25", 178 lbs.
No stranger to the top of the draft, the Oilers' dream scenario sees Ekblad falling into their lap, but instead Craig MacTavish and company are poised to add a dynamic forward to their young core if they stay in their current spot.
Edmonton could afford to another high-end rearguard, but staying at No. 3 doesn't offer them that luxury. It does, however, allow for the chance to fill another gaping organizational hole down the middle. Connor McDavid's former linemate in midget, Bennett packs a great skating game with superior skill and speed make to things difficult for the opposition at both ends of the rink. If energy is your thing, then the pesky producer is your guy.
Bennett's total effort and year-over-year trajectory have been quite remarkable, and he has clearly earned the right to be considered for the first overall selection. The Oilers can either pony up for Ekblad, bounce down a few spots and gain some assets, or take a player who can contribute at both ends while finishing plays at a high-rate of speed. High-end offensive potential with a "win at all costs" attitude is in play, giving the Oilers a versatile forward who could fill a clear need for a complete No. 2 centerman.
4 – Calgary Flames
Leon Draisaitl, C/LW - Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
6'1.5", 204 lbs.
I've had this great narrative cooking that about how the Flames haven't selected a member of the Calgary Hitmen, a WHL team owned by the NHL club, since 2000, and how they might be overdue. After all, the Flames have perhaps the best read on Jake Virtanen given how he plays his home games at the Saddledome. This might reaching a little, but it's not reaching a lot. Still, I only see Virtanen going to the Flames if they move down a few spots, not at No. 4.
Instead, the Flames select another import player from the WHL (Sven Baertschi, 2011) by tabbing a prospect with the very unfortunate nickname "The German Gretzky".
A big body with a big shot, Draisaitl's hands are among the best in the draft class. Mix in an engaged physical game, a growing ability to play a faster style, and top notch stickhandling, and you have a methodical yet hard-driving NHL package that should hit top potential - be it as a wing or down the middle - with better overall consistency and continued skating work. Draisaitl's World Junior performance was less than impressive for an overmatched German squad, but he closed well in the WHL to stake his claim to a top-five draft position, and a key role in the Flames youth movement.
And yes, calling anyone "The German Gretzky" is silly. Stop it. Now Mini-Jagr? Maybe.
5 – New York Islanders
Michael Dal Colle, LW - Oshawa Generals (OHL)
6'1.5", 182 lbs.
The Islanders have held pick No. 5 twice since 2010, both times taking wingers -- Nino Niederreiter (2010) and Ryan Strome (2011). It's fair to think that the Isles go forward again after plucking quality rearguards Griffin Reinhart, Ville Pokka, and Adam Pelech as part of an all D draft in 2012, and following that up with the selection of hard-shooting blueliner Ryan Pulock (2013) with their first pick a year ago.
A 39-goal scorer in the OHL as a 17-year old, Dal Colle is a hard-skating, high-skill shooter with good playmaking instincts and an NHL-friendly frame. He uses his size to protect the puck and compete for position down low, and he does a good job getting to the middle of the ice to improve his angle and leverage his quick release. Dal Colle is a committed player in the defensive zone as well, giving the left wing sniper a solid platform to build from as he continues to gain mass and add quickness to his burgeoning power forward game.
6 – Vancouver Canucks
William Nylander, RW/C - MODO (SHL)
5'11", 170 lbs.
It's reasonable to think that the Canucks are eyeballing some defensive depth at the 2014 draft, and Trevor Linden has hinted that he wouldn't mind getting a player with local roots regardless of position (Virtanen was raised 40 miles outside of Vancouver in Abbotsford, B.C.), but the newly-named team president also saw firsthand the effect that MODO products have had on the Canucks franchise with hall of fame names like Sedin and Naslund.
Born in Calgary when his father Michael was playing in the NHL, Nylander is a dashing winger whose speed, shiftiness, shooting skill, and bloodlines make him a viable target for teams appreciative of straight offense. He is excellent on the big European ice, but his explosive first three steps and ability to quickly read plays are sure to make him an effective professional when he makes his North American re-entry.
The moves and hands are in place, as evidenced by his six-goal, 16-point performance in six games of the U18's, so it's all about building physical and mental maturity to round out the package in the final year of his SHL contract before determining next steps.
7 – Carolina Hurricanes
Nick Ritchie, LW - Peterborough Petes (OHL)
6'2.25", 226 lbs.
Peterborough was good to the Hurricanes in first round back in 2003 (Eric Staal). Perhaps the boys down on Tobacco Road go back to the storied junior franchise for another kick at the can?
Carolina could use some wing depth, and it makes sense that the former Whalers get one of the bigger ones in the class. A bull forward who gets around well for his size, Ritchie is an offensive force who glides into space and can produce down low with his long reach. While Ritchie is often described as a scorer, he does possess very good eyes for the passing game that make him more than a one-trick pony around the net. The size and hands are nice, but the cherry on top is a mean streak that emerges when pushed just a little.
Ritchie, whose brother Brett scored 22 goals for Texas this season an AHL rookie, will want to cut a little weight and improve his shift-to-shift consistency as he eases his way into the pro game. Regardless, the all-around package presents unquestionable impact potential to make him a surefire top-10 pick.
8 – Toronto Maple Leafs
Nikolaj Ehlers, LW - Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
5'11", 165 lbs.
Brendan Shanahan's Leafs will have a hard time passing up a power forward, but hey, Nikolai Borschevsky scored 34 goals for Toronto in 1992-93. Nikolai Kulemin scored 30 in 2010-11. Maybe Nikolaj Ehlers can do the same a few years down the line?
An electrifying sniper, Ehlers has enjoyed a steady rise all season by piling up 49 goals and 104 points as a QMJHL rookie while spending a large chunk of the year on a line with Tampa prospect Jonathan Drouin. Ehlers is quick with the puck off the boards, and his ability to get separation to gain scoring position (and leverage his accurate shot) has you thinking that he'd produce offense even when paired with a merely average pivot. For those curious, Ehlers produced six goals and 14 points in seven games while Drouin was away with Team Canada.
Skill and speed obviously matter in the NHL, and Ehlers has both in abundance while functioning rather well in his own zone assignments. In other words, he can help produce and prevent shots on goal, which should be appealing to the growing masses of analytics-oriented Leafs fans.
9 – Winnipeg Jets
Jake Virtanen, RW - Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
6'0.75", 208 lbs.
A year after investing in six-foot defender Josh Morrissey (13th) and 5-foot-9 pivot Nic Petan (43rd), the Jets could use another beefy frame up front to play with Mark Scheifele while budding winger Adam Lowry continues to develop at the AHL level.
A powerful downhill player with excellent speed and a pro-ready frame, Virtanen is a physical finisher who gains an extra gallop when around the net. His skating ability gets him space when backing off defenders, and his one-on-one game allows him to succeed when they step to him. You'll have a hard time finding a better release off the rush in this class. Add in a willingness to drop the mitts (four majors in 2013-14), and the 17-year old represents a very compelling NHL prospect.
The power forward structure is clearly in place, and scouts were pleased to see Virtanen block shots and battle hard in his own end as the season played on. Continuing to build the other dimensions to his game will only bring more value, but for now Virtanen's 61 goals (with just 11 of them coming on the power play) over the past two WHL seasons provide more than enough upside for the Jets to pull the trigger.
10 – Anaheim Ducks (via OTT)
Brendan Perlini, LW - Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
6'2.25", 205 lbs.
As the Ducks begin a post-Selanne era, another speedy Finnish forward is still on the board. It'd be a nice story, but Anaheim would do well to keep up with the Western Conference arms race by getting a big, skilled body to complement Nic Kerdiles down the line.
Perlini has the size, reach, and three-zone effort to creep into the top-10. His powerful skating, quick wrist shot, and heavy one-timer on the power play make him a very effective finisher, but his playmaking in the pressure spots and very fluent backhecking game have been noticeable developments that landed him the Most Improved Player honor in the OHL's Eastern Conference Coaches Poll. A solid performer at many facets, Perlini should be a competent top-six forward after a few more years of big game experience and strength development.
11 – Nashville Predators
Kasperi Kapanen, RW - KalPa Kuopio (Liiga)
6'0", 180 lbs.
The Predators have taken six Finns over the past four drafts, and there's a very, very good chance they snag another if he lasts past the top 10. The fact that Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has endorsed him as a "heck of prospect" should be good enough for most, including the Preds.
Son of former NHLer Sami, Kapanen's speed, core strength, creativity, and knack for finding open space is precisely what the Preds' system needs more of as they wait for Filip Forsberg's game to come together. The 17-year old winger has already developed a pro level skating game that includes an elusive extra gear when he has the puck and a mature dedication to the backcheck. Nashville was spoiled a bit with the accelerated development of 2014 top pick Seth Jones, but they may need to exercise some patience with Kapanen having two years remaining on his Liiga contract.
12 – Arizona Coyotes
Alex Tuch, RW - United States NTDP (USHL)
6'3.5", 213 lbs.
It's the 10th anniversary of the Coyotes' bold selection of college-bound forward Blake Wheeler with the fifth overall pick. While none of the 30 players selected in the first round of the 2013 draft went on to play college, the wily Desert Dogs could end the trend early by taking a player who has some Wheeler-ish elements to his game.
A year after selecting smallish yet feisty Max Domi with the 12th overall pick, the Coyotes add size down the right side to balance things out with the selection of Tuch, an excellent skating power forward prospect with a nose for the net. The Boston College commit has been a steady riser all season thanks to his 13 goals and 32 points in 26 USHL tilts as a 17-year old, and while the Yotes could think about adding another solid defender, Tuch's upside could be too much to pass up if they are willing to exercise a little patience.
Tuch, who grew up in the same Baldwinsville, NY neighborhood that produced former NHL forward Tim Connolly, does all of the things you'd hope for from a young player of his size. He goes north/south to the net when entering the zone, he works hard to dominate the corners, and he uses his body to maintain possession of the puck.
13 – Washington Capitals
Haydn Fleury - LHD, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
6'2.5", 203 lbs.
Being selected as the top defenseman at the U18 World Championship generally bodes well for an NHL career. The Caps are happy to add a big left-hander to a nice group of prospects being acquired in DC.
A long-limbed defender who is comfortable handling the puck, Fleury is a steady defensive option with some developing offensive upside. He's strong on his skates with very fluid stride, and his passing out of the zone is crisp and accurate. In his own zone, Fleury can play a punishing physical game when called upon, but he generally executes in a smart, disciplined manner, staying focused on his reads and positioning while using his size and reach to disrupt shooting and passing lanes.
Fleury's vision comes in handy when starting the transition game, but he uses it to get shots through from the point as well. The draft is low in defenders at the top, but Fleury has earned his place.