2014 NHL Draft first overall selection Aaron Ekblad
The first round of the NHL Draft is in the books, and for draft-crazed fans like myself that means it’s almost time to start looking ahead to the 2015 draft. Before that though, let’s take a look at some of Friday night’s results.
For most of the last year, this draft has been knocked for a lack of high-end talent at the top and lack of overall depth. While the 2014 class didn’t tout a Nathan MacKinnon at the top, I wouldn’t be surprised to see each of the top three picks in the NHL this fall. Let’s start there.
Aaron Ekblad, First, Florida Panthers
If I had to guess, I’d guess Ekblad was the top player on most NHL teams’ draft boards. I didn’t see a lot of him this season–just the World Junior Championship and the Top Prospects Game. In those games, it was clear he was head and shoulders ahead of the rest of this draft class. He could have played second-pair minutes in the NHL this past season. At worst, Ekblad projects as a top pair defenceman, if not a true number one. He’s strong, agile, has a heavy shot, off-the-charts hockey sense, and the sort of mean streak everyone assumes players with his size should have. It’s inconceivable to me that Ekblad won’t be a star in the NHL very soon.
(It’s also worth mentioning Tyler Myers’ current lack of stardom was inconceivable to 2011 me)
Sam Reinhart, Second, Buffalo Sabres
Because he’s a late ’95 birthdate, Sam Reinhart’s been around the WHL a year longer than most of the other players in this year’s draft class. And even though he wasn’t even 16 when he joined the Kootenay Ice, he went straight to work dominating the much-older competition. Reinhart scored 62 points in 67 games as a rookie, then tallied another 190 over the next two seasons. He takes all of Kootenay’s big face-offs, he was arguably Canada’s best forward as an underager at the WJC. He looks smaller than the 6’1″ he’s listed at, but plays bigger, so although he’s not the prototypical 1C size, he does everything else you could ever ask for in one. If he can withstand the physical rigours of the first nine games of next season, there’s no good reason to ever see him in a WHL jersey again.
Leon Draisaitl, Third, Edmonton Oilers
It’s interesting to see how expectations can warp our impressions of a player. Coming into the season, Leon Draisaitl appeared to be the definition of a power forward: he’s big, bordering on hulking. He scores. He makes his linemates better. The knock against him was that his skating was merely passable. As the season moved along, and his Prince Albert Raiders struggled to meet expectations, and his German team at the WJC (which was basically him and 20 tier 2 guys) flopped, and Draisaitl didn’t turn any heads at the Top Prospects Game, his stock plummeted. His “compete level” was questioned, his skating was downgraded from passable to poor, and he slid down rankings and mock draft boards. But somewhere along the way, scouts and teams remembered last season, when he ousted Mark McNeill as PA’s top centre at 16, and scored 105 points for a really bad PA team this season. His skating may still hold him back, but if he improves that area of his game, he may end up leaving all three of Edmonton’s first overall picks in his dust.
Now, a look at how the Canadian teams fared. Along with the belief about the lack of high-end talent at the top, this draft was also saddled with a belief about a lack of depth. Nobody’s going to confuse this with the 2003 draft, but the first round was littered with gems waiting to be unearthed. Most of the players in this next section have a couple of elite skills, but lack well-rounded games. For many of these players to reach their potential, they’ll need strong support from their new teams’ development staffs.
Sam Bennett, Fourth, Calgary Flames
After Calgary struck gold with Sean Monahan in last year’s draft, Flames fans were hoping for a repeat this time around and they may have it in Bennett. I haven’t seen Bennett in person at all this season, so I’m going mostly from reports about his ability. I have some concerns about his rapid rise to the top of rankings, but by all accounts he’s a pretty complete player. Much was made of his inability to do pull-ups at the Combine, but considering Brian Burke signed off on new GM Brad Treliving picking him, we can probably safely bury that story. I’m excited to see what he can do when he comes to Calgary and to see whether or not he’ll stick at centre. If he can, the Flames have a nice trio in him, Monahan, and Joe Colborne to rebuild around.
Jake Virtanen, Sixth, Vancouver Canucks
I’ve been watching Virtanen for the last two seasons, hoping he’d develop into a top pick. By the end of this season, I was convinced Virtanen would be a mid-round player at best. The big winger has a pro-ready shot–heavy with a lightning quick release, and he can skate like the wind. But after that, there are questions about his hockey sense (45 goals and just 26 assists last season), his two-way game, and his ability to take his game to the next level. There won’t be much room for interpretation with this pick. He’ll either put it all together and become a high-end scorer in the NHL, or he’ll be considered a bust. I’ll be very surprised to see him stick with Vancouver this season; 2015-16 seems more realistic for him to join the club full-time. If you’re a Canucks fan who can’t wait to see more of Virtanen, he figures to have a prominent role with Canada’s WJC team this winter–especially if Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett stick with Buffalo and Calgary.
William Nylander, Eighth, Toronto Maple Leafs
Entering the season, William Nylander was considered the top European skater in the draft, and a player who could challenge for first overall. By all accounts, Nylander is a complete player–but is undersized at just 5’9″, which may have helped him fall to the Leafs. It’s unlikely he joins the Leafs this season, and I don’t want to fill Leafs fans’ heads with false hope or anything here, but considering Nylander fell mostly because of his size (and a little because he wasn’t great in Sweden’s top league this season), there’s a chance he’ll be considered the “steal” of this draft several years from now.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Ninth, Winnipeg Jets
Ehlers epitomizes my belief many of the players taken Friday night are great at one or two things, and need to round out their games. Ehlers is a tremendous skater and has an unbelievable nose for the net. He was by far one of the most electrifying players at the Top Prospects game, and helped the Halifax Mooseheads fill the void left by Nathan MacKinnon’s departure. Among the players I’ve seen in person, Ehlers is the second or third-best pure scorer in this draft.
Jared McCann, 24th, Vancouver Canucks
Having two first round picks in one draft will give a boost to any team’s prospect pool, and few teams need that boost the way the rebuilding Canucks do. McCann’s been all over the rankings this season, looking to scouts and evaluators like a potential All-Star some nights, and a potential AHLer others. If the consistency comes, Canucks fans will be pretty happy with this selection (even though he’ll always be the guy they got for Ryan Kesler).
Nikita Scherbak, 26th, Montreal Canadiens
All Nikita Scherbak does is score. He skates a little too, but mostly he scores. Highlight reel goals, garbage goals, and everything in between. He led all WHL rookies last season, piling up 78 points and making Saskatoon a must-watch team. He’s got great hockey sense, gets my vote as the best pure scorer in the draft, and is an electrifying player. As a fan watching, you rarely have to look for Scherbak–he’ll announce himself when he gets onto the ice. If the Habs are planning to continue to let their dynamic guys be dynamic (as this pick would suggest), this has the potential to be a match made in heaven. If everyone’s going to play boring grinding hockey like LA, Scherbak probably won’t find a home in the NHL.
And lastly, some quick thoughts on the other WHLers taken in the first round.
Haydn Fleury, Seventh, Carolina Hurricanes
I’ve been watching Fleury for two years with Red Deer, and I’ve yet to see what all the fuss is about. He’s fast, and he moves the puck quickly, but I’ve yet to see him make a “WOW” play that shows he’s got the sort of off-the-charts hockey sense that would justify taking him this high. His work in his own end is… we’ll call it a work in progress. A very interesting selection for Carolina, a franchise that doesn’t have much history in developing their d-men the way he’ll need.
Julius Honka, 14th, Dallas Stars
Honka started the season on a tear, and never really cooled off, collecting 56 points in 62 games from the blue line. He is diminutive, like Ryan Ellis sized, but he can do it all. And he could have a much worse role model in Dallas than Trevor Daley.
Travis Sanheim, 17th, Philadelphia Flyers
Now here’s a meteoric rise. Sanheim wasn’t even on Central Scouting’s “watch list” to start the season, but his stellar play with the Hitmen moved him up their depth chart, up the scouting rankings, onto Canada’s Ivan Hlinka roster, and into the first round of the draft. Sanheim had three points before the WJC tournament, but took off after scoring his first WHL goal in January, and posted 26 points in the second half of the season. He’s got outstanding mobility, makes great reads, and is pretty competent in his own end. If his development continues at the rate it did in the second half of this season, look out world.
Conner Bleackley, 23rd, Colorado Avalanche
Nothing to see here folks, just the Avs picking up yet another very good centre. Bleackley’s production didn’t quite meet expectations this season, and his Rebels didn’t succeed the way some thought they might. He became something of an afterthought among this strong WHL crop. He plays a simple, hard game, has good hands and a nose for the net. Don’t be surprised if he’s anchoring Colorado’s third line two years from now, and running their PK two years after that, and getting a lot of nods as the league’s most underrated player.
John Quenneville, 30th, New Jersey Devils
I didn’t see him at all this season. First time I’ve missed out on every Brandon game. I’ve seen him described as a no-nonsense kind of player. He goes out there, does his work and does it well. He’s perhaps a bit unheralded because of it. Brandon has designs on returning to the contenders ranks next season, and Quenneville is expected to be the centrepiece of those plans.