2014 NHL Draft Ranking: Part 1
1. Aaron Ekblad – D – Barrie (OHL) – 6’3 – 216lbs – Shoots R – 6/7/1996
Aaron Ekblad was the first defenseman in OHL history to be granted “exceptional player” status, and for good reason. My friend Mike Farkas of Hockey’s Future quipped to me recently that Ekblad “already had a full beard, and keeps a spare one in his pocket.” All joking aside, Mike is right. Ekblad is a high-pedigree defenseman capable of impacting the game in all zones in an extremely responsible and efficient manner. Ekblad’s skating is fluid and powerful for a man of his size. He logged monster minutes in excess of a half hour per game for the Colts and showed no signs of fatigue. His hockey IQ is perhaps the highest in this draft, which leads to contributions to both ends of the ice in a responsible manner. Plays physical with the occasional big hit, but is responsible with his approach to physicality. Ekblad excels one on one against forwards in both the boards and open ice. He controls the pace and flow of the game like a general and is extremely efficient at handling and distributing the puck. His heads up style of play enables him to survey the ice and make sound decisions that are backed up by his top-flight skill set. Ekblad’s shot from the point is accurate, effortless, and booming. His ability to work the puck through traffic is almost uncanny and is another testament to his heads up style of play. Ekblad also features an arsenal of distinct shooting styles, each one with it’s own benefit. I expect Ekblad’s skating to improve, and while it is not a deficiency, I believe his game will be enhanced as he grows and is forced to improve his footwork at the pro level.
2013-14 OHL Statistics: 58GP – 23G – 30A – 53P – 91PIM – +7
2. Sam Bennett – C/LW – Kingston (OHL) – 6’0 – 181lbs – Shoots L – 6/20/1996
You can teach and train a man on how to do a pull-up, but it can be much more difficult to implant a high hockey IQ into a player. Sam Bennett may have failed to do a pull-up at the combine this year, but he also, by my assessment, may have covered more ice than any player in the CHL this year. Bennett is an exceptional skater with a 200 foot mentality and a true understanding of the game. Bennett’s skating is the first thing that jumps off the screen to me. His first step and acceleration from a stop is lethal, he skates with a low shoulder and his footwork and edging are among the best in this draft class. His ability to maneuver so effortlessly makes him a difficult player to catch and a difficult player to separate from. His shot and hands are both above average but the truly lethal component to his game is his pass. His release off the stick and accuracy with placing the puck make him an excellent set-up man. Bennett projects as the rare mix of forward that can eat top six minutes in both a shutdown and playmaker role. He’s an excellent compliment to other skilled players and has a tendency to bring out the best of his teammates. Size is a concern here, but the attitude for Bennett is top notch and his work ethic is second to none in this draft class. He’s a fighter in the tough areas of the ice and plays with a sort of reckless abandon when fighting for loose pucks. The path to having a large impact at the NHL level might be longer than some of his peers, but Bennett is an extremely coachable forward that should be coveted in today’s NHL. This is a young forward that you can ice when you need a goal late in a game or when you’re looking to shutdown a team in the final run at even-strength or on the penalty-kill.
2013-14 OHL Statistics: 57GP – 36G -55A – 91P – 118PIM – +37
3. Sam Reinhart – C – Kootenay WHL) – 6’1 – 185lbs – Shoots R – 11/6/1995
Sam Reinhart has developed an ability to think one step ahead of his opponents in his three years of CHL tenure. His breakout season in 2013/14 was based on his high Hockey IQ and his penchant for putting the game into slow motion and creating passing lanes for his teammates. Future wingers of Reinhart need to have their heads on a swivel because Reinhart can create lanes via controlling the speed of the game and by magically working the puck through areas where no lane existed. Reinhart’s skating is what I would describe as average and good enough to not be an outstanding deficiency. His shot can be deceptive. His dedication to the defensive side of the game is continually improving and grew by leaps and bounds this year. Perhaps better than both of his brothers that were drafted before him, Reinhart projects as a bit of a playmaking specialist who can also grind pucks out along the wall and play a gritty style of hockey. As a captain, Reinhart lead by example on the ice and brought the same compete level shift after shift. Reinhart simply sees the ice differently than many of his peers and might break down the play in the offensive zone as well as anyone to step to the stage in recent NHL drafts. While he lacks the flair of some of his predecessors, this is a truly talented set-up man who is always one step ahead.
2013/14 WHL Statistics: 60GP – 36G – 69A – 105P – 11PIM – +24
4. Leon Draisaitl – C – Prince Albert (WHL) – 6’1 – 209lbs – Shoots L – 10/27/1995
I placed Leon Draisaitl at number four in this ranking because when this young player steps on the ice, the flow of the game operates through him more often than not. Draisaitl has a strong hockey IQ and a penchant for dictating the pace of the play. His patience and vision take precedence over his speed in that regard. He’s an average south to north skater but struggles with agility and doesn’t have a finesse style of skating. Draisaitl is also excellent in the tougher areas of the ice without playing an overtly physical style of play. Nicknamed “The Deutschland Dangler,” he uses his slick hands and long frame to protect the puck along the boards and elongate the attack to give his teammates time and space. The consummate playmaker, Draisaitl has a quick, crisp, and accurate pass that he distributes with a great sense of anticipation. His defensive game continued to round out as the season progressed. He did not play well on bigger stages this year but for circumstances that may have been out of his control. Draisaitl produced consistent offense for Prince Albert and employs the style of game that can become very annoying for opposing defenders over a long duration of time. His body of work is large and consistent enough to make him a low risk type of player, but the ceiling is something that will have to be determined. His largest intangible might be his ability to forecast the play very well and put himself in control of the game at even-strength.
2013/14 WHL Statistics: 64GP – 38G – 67A – 105P – 24PIM – +7
5. Nikolaj Ehlers – LW – Halifax (QMJHL) – 5’11 – 163lbs – Shoots L -2/14/1996
One of the more prominent points of discussion in discussing Nikolaj Ehlers is that he spent time playing with Tyler Seguin and Patrick Kane during the truncated lockout season of 2012/13. I make mention of it here because there are elements of each of those NHL stars within Ehlers’ game. Nicknamed “The Electric Ehl,” this small forward is the fastest player in this draft class. His offensive game features flair and explosiveness. Ehlers has a wrist /snap shot that could quickly find itself as lethal as some of the NHL’s top goal scorers. His skating ability is almost uncanny. He has the ability to go from stop to top speed in a short period of time. There are many levels to his speed and he can play the game at any pace. He has the ability to beat defensemen one on one with his speed and by dangling the puck to the side to make himself more narrow. He can be knocked off the puck and lose board battles because of his size, but his speed almost makes him immune to the big, open ice hit. He’s extremely elusive in traffic and difficult to mark around the net. Ehlers has excellent hands and the puck seems magnitized to his stick from time to time. Ehlers also has a soft touch and great vision that make him a more than competent distributor of the puck. He has a bag of tricks in tight and can stick handle in a phone booth. He almost never takes the same approach offensively shift to shift in that he tests defensemen in a variety of ways. His defensive game will continue to round out, but his speed can cover for most of the deficiencies he may have in his own end. Overall, there is a very high reward with this player from an offensive standpoint.
2013/14 QMJHL Statistics: 63GP – 49G – 55A – 104PTS – 65PIM – +65
6. Michael Dal Colle – C – Oshawa (OHL) – 6’2 – 171lbs. – Shoots L – 6/20/1996
Michael Dal Colle is a well-rounded offensive center that has a top-flight set of hands. He’s extremely competent along the wall and in front of the net and will continue to add dimensions to his approach as he rounds out with his weight. Dal Colle has an elite wrist shot and can creatively play the puck as well as anyone in this draft class. His skating is not an eye-sore, but his top gear would be well served to improve with age. His offensive instincts are above-average and his ability to position himself for success with and without the puck is second nature. Dal Colle is a shooting technician. His wrist shot is quick and powerful. He protects the puck well in all situations and can be difficult to solve for when he has the puck in traffic. He’s got an uncanny ability to disrupt the breakout of the other time by applying timely pressure or anticipating breakout plays. His game is extremely north-south but that suits his skill set perfectly. There is an underlying dimension of a power-forward to his game, but I would not categorize him as such because of his success in shooting from high percentage scoring areas and dangling in tight areas. However, as he continues to bulk up, his net front presence will become even more of an issue for defenders. His defensive zone play was bolstered this year by Dal Colle’s place within the Oshawa lineup. His linemates necessitated that his defensive game improve, and he certainly took strides in that department this year by learning quite a bit from his linemates. Overall, this is a strong player that was an important catalyst in what was the most potent offensive team in the CHL.
2013/14 OHL Statistics: 67GP – 39G – 56A – 95PTS – 34PIM – +8
7. William Nylander – C – Sodertalje (SWE) – 5’11 – 174lbs – Shoots R – 5/1/1996
Son of former NHL great Michael Nylander, William Nylander is a small, electric forward with a wide variety of offensive tools at his disposal. His skating is top-flight and puts him at an immediate advantage. His ability to start/stop on a dime and change the pace of his attack is complimented by an ability to turn on his top-level speed and deke through a crowd. Nylander has a potent wrist shot that boasts pinpoint accuracy and a lethal release. His vision and understanding of the offensive side of the game enable him to also be an effective playmaker. The caveat with that is that Nylander has a tendency to want to shoulder the burden of the teams offense on his own shoulders. While his end-to-end dangles work more than they fail, it’s not conducive to a pro game and can result in botched opportunities or, even worse, turnovers. That being said, Nylander is capable of playing in the tough areas of the offensive zone, but he will need to bulk up to remain effective in the tough areas. His defensive game has seen improvements and must continue to moving forward. Nylander has some of the most electric one-on-one moves in this class and can shoot off the rush through traffic with a high level of efficiency. He can be difficult to take one on one because of his speed and elusive nature. He was able to address many concerns by playing against men in the Swedish Elite League at a young age. Overall, this is a dynamic young talent with the ability to singlehandedly impact a game with the potential for a very high ceiling.
2013/14 SEL Statistics: 22GP – 1G – 6A – 7PTS – 6PIM – -3
8. Nick Ritchie – RW – Peterborough (OHL) – 6’3 – 229lbs – Shoots L – 12/5/1995
The first thing that should stand out to you about Nick Ritchie’s vitals are his size. He is the first pure power-forward that we’ve come across in this ranking. But the added bonus to Ritchie’s game is his agility and speed. While he may not be traditional burner, he has the ability to drive wide when breaking up ice and take defenders wide with success. However, despite that ability, Ritchie can also bowl over the biggest of defenders and is more than a handful in front of the net. His shot is elite because of release time and it’s almost deceptive nature. He’s a possession monster in the boards and can control the puck with easy thanks to his long wingspan and strong upper-body. Ritchie is also unafraid to drop the gloves, but that can come with negatives as well. With a player of his ilk, it’s always difficult to accept the fact that he’ll spend five minutes in the box, especially if it’s unnecessary. Ritchie is adequate defensive and his physical presence is a constant in each zone. Overall, Ritchie is an extremely tough customer with a game that’s predicated on a great combination of physicality and skill riding the wave of a fantastic breakout season.
2013/14 OHL Statistics: 61GP – 39G – 35A – 74PTS – 136PIM – +4
9. Brendan Perlini – LW – Niagara (OHL) – 6’3 – 205lbs – Shoots L – 4/27/1996
Brendan Perlini is a dangler in the body of a power-forward. His skating is akin to Jordan Staal, it features long, powerful strides that almost seem like he’s moving in slow motion, but before you know it he’s beating you wide and created space for himself. This is a young player with a high offensive hockey IQ with great vision and the ability to manipulate the puck in all situations. Perlini has a great, crisp pass and an elite, quick wrist-shot. His net front presence makes him difficult to handle because of his size, yet he also has an elusive nature to his game. His ability to keep the puck away from defenders along the wall. His ability to get his stick on the puck is uncanny and makes him effective in all aspects of the game. He is excellent at corralling loose pucks or gathering in bouncing passes. Overall, he has the potential to continue to develop into an elite sniper and has the ability to get the puck on net from areas that are clogged with defenders. His skating preference takes him wide to inside quite a bit. Overall, more physicality will be necessary for Perlini, but it should come naturally given his size and skill set. This is a very dynamic winger that provides quite a bit in every zone.
2013/14 OHL Statistics: 58GP – 34G – 37A – 71PTS – 36PIM – -2
10. Jake Virtanen – LW – Calgary (WHL) – 6’1 – 210lbs – Shoots R – 8/17/1996
Jake Virtanen is a talented young forward that is aware of how good he is when you watch him play the game. He has top-flight patience and will hold onto the puck and dangle through trouble to create space for himself and his teammates. His skating is above-average in nearly every aspect. His offensive understanding of the game is at a high level. He’s not overly physical, his game is primarily dictated by puck skills. Virtanen has the ability to snipe from high percentage areas and take the puck to the crease in tight spaces. His ability to corral the puck on the fly puts him a step ahead of the competition. His release on his shot and pass is quick with an extreme sense of precision. Virtanen’s skating is bolstered by his agility. He won the 30 metre sprint at the CHL prospect game going both directions. It’s that sense of explosiveness that permeates throughout his game. Virtanen needs to be more willing to distribute the puck and can have a penchant, although not overbearing, for basket-hanging. His game was simply not there some nights throughout the year. If he can keep his compete level even and continue to round out some of the finer points of the game, his ceiling will continue to grow as it is bolstered by his already potent offense.
2013/14 WHL Statistics: 71GP – 45G – 26A – 71PTS – 100PIM – +23
Stay Tuned For 11-20