NHL Draft 2014: What Each Top Prospect Must Prove Before Next June
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The road to NHL stardom is long and paved with those who haven't been willing to put quite enough work in to make it to the top of the heap. For every player like Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos who works their rear off, there's another like Alexandre Daigle or Pavel Brendl who just seems to lack that extra push to be great.
Is there a Stamkos among the likes of Sam Reinhart, William Nylander and Leon Draisaitl? Do any of these top prospects have the wherewithal to truly commit to being an outstanding player?
It can be tough to tell with teenagers sometimes. Who brings it on a nightly basis and who just cruises through practice and pulls up a little early during suicides and crawlers?
An awareness of areas worth improving is paramount to these young players as they look to become stronger competitors and increase the likelihood of going first overall in the 2014 NHL draft.
All statistics, heights and weights appear courtesy of Hockeydb.com.
What He Already Does Well: Outstanding in his own zone. Poised with the puck. Already possesses NHL size (6'3", 200-plus pounds).
Where He Could Improve: You'll be hard-pressed to find a scout that can note a big hole in Aaron Ekblad's considerably well-developed game. While a lot of flashy defensive prospects are all about putting up points, Ekblad is a rock in his own end.
That said, he could stand to develop some foot speed. Ekblad isn't slow by any means—he just appears to lumber compared to a lot of other smaller, more peripheral-oriented forwards.
Once he's in the NHL, guys will actually be closer to his size, so he won't seem out of place as long as he doesn't downright neglect his skating. A summer or two of work should sand off the edges, making Ekblad the Seth Jones or Ryan Murray of this draft.
Projected Selection: He could get Jonesed and slip if teams are only out for offensive help early. The first team that's looking for help on the blue line will likely select Ekblad, though. It'd be shocking to see him slip outside of the top five.
What He Already Does Well: Explosive skater. Handles the puck remarkably well in traffic and close to the net. Above-average instincts in the offensive zone.
Where He Could Improve: There are players that dig in on the defensive side of things that just can't seem to get the hang of it, and then there are players like Ho-Sang. Instead of supporting his teammates in puck battles and expending energy trying to push the play back up the ice, he typically hangs around the blue line and waits to activate.
A guy with Ho-Sang's talent level can get away with that because he's going to be finishing so many of his chances that it kind of whitewashes those defensive lapses. That kind of floaty game isn't going to fly in the NHL, however.
Projected Selection: Ho-Sang has been on the radar since he was 14 years old and has continued to impress as he's evolved. He could end up as a top-10 selection in the draft, though there are several players who could overtake him as the season goes on.
What He Already Does Well: Breathtaking skater. Remarkable agility and ability to make defenders miss. Mature off the ice for a kid his age.
Where He Could Improve: Sometimes Jakub Vrana looks unstoppable out on the ice. Whether he's torching hapless teenage defensemen or skating circles around veterans of Sweden's top league, Vrana's skill set allows him to really stand out when he's on his game.
There have been some instances of mild disappearing acts, however—such as his so-so performance at the 2013 U-18 WJC—which could give way to questions about his consistency and ability to impact the game when the puck isn't on his stick.
Projected Selection: If you're looking for a guy who could shoot up the draft board with an outstanding season, Vrana is your guy. He could sneak into the top 10 if he continues to impress.
What He Already Does Well: Never panics in his own zone. Surprising release. Above-average outlet passer. Great skater.
Where He Could Improve: Listed at 6'1", 185 pounds, Roland McKeown is at least on par size-wise with his competition in the OHL. To really round out his game and secure himself a high selection at the draft, he'll need to show a bit more of a physical edge.
While open-ice hitting and scrums won't likely ever be a huge part of the offensively talented blueliner's game, McKeown could really be impressive if he started leaning on people and utilizing his size to his advantage.
Projected Selection: Aaron Ekblad is currently the unanimous top defenseman available at the draft. If there's anyone who can seize that distinction from him, it's McKeown. He'll likely be a top-10 pick, but he could muscle his way into the top five.
What He Already Does Well: Elite-level hockey IQ. Known as a skill guy but can play with an edge as well. Can battle with the best of them and is incredibly dangerous within 40 feet of the net.
Where He Could Improve: Sam Reinhart is probably the smartest player available in the 2014 draft. On top of his talent, he's also one of the feistier guys among the top prospects. While playing an edgy game in the WHL is all fine and well, putting your stick into the chest of Dustin Byfuglien is a different story all together.
For Reinhart to maintain his valuable push-back attitude, he'll need to pack on more muscle. He's currently listed at 6'1" and weighs in at 186 pounds, so the frame is there. He just needs to put in some time in the gym before he goes out and pushes around NHL competition.
Projected Selection: While Reinhart isn't quite the consensus first overall selection at this point, he's close. No early mock drafts have him falling outside of the top two or three picks.
What He Already Does Well: Hard worker with outstanding attention to detail. Good defensive side to his game. Solid vision.
Where He Could Improve: Considered a power forward at this stage of his development, Blake Clarke is a strong player that likes to drive to the net with speed off the wing. Compared to the other top forwards available in the draft, however, his game seems mildly one-dimensional and flat in the offensive zone.
Clarke is a north-south player, and to thrive in that role, he needs to add some grit to his game. He's 6'1" and comes in at more than 190 pounds, so that shouldn't be an issue physically. There's just some questions about whether or not he's mentally willing to engage in close-quarter battles frequently enough to be effective at the next level.
Projected Selection: One of the more boom-or-bust players at this point, Clarke could slip outside of the top 10 if he doesn't meet expectations this season.
What He Already Does Well: Electric offensive talent. Magician in the offensive zone. Outstanding skater and an even better stick-handler.
Where He Could Improve: You can't teach size, and that's unfortunate in William Nylander's case. He's only 5'10" and doesn't punch in at more than 170 pounds at this juncture. Power is never going to be a part of Nylander's game, and he needs to prove that he can withstand the bumps and bruises that come with being an undersized player.
No one questions Nylander's ability to embarrass defenders with his offensive ability, and he hasn't shown a tendency to get gun shy after absorbing big checks. He'll need to continue on that path this year to maintain his status as one of the best draft-eligible players.
Projected Selection: Over the last few years, we've seen teams roll the dice early on enticing talents like Max Domi despite a lack of size, so Nylander shouldn't slip outside of the top 10 as long as his play doesn't.
What He Already Does Well: Plays a responsible 200-foot game. Tough to outwork. Fearless forechecker.
Where He Could Improve: No sane scout would question Nick Ritchie's work ethic after seeing him play for a shift or two. He's a scavenger on the puck, always harassing the carrier and trying to force turnovers.
While that kind of two-way game is important in the NHL, Ritchie really needs to flex his offensive muscle during the upcoming season if he hopes to hang with the truly elite offensive talents in this draft.
There will always be a place for gritty, hard-working guys like Ritchie at the next level, but he has an opportunity to really set himself apart with a strong offensive season.
Projected Selection: Think Bo Horvat when trying to project Ritchie. Toward the bottom of the top 10 is likely, but he probably won't fall outside of the top 15 or so. He's just too smart and brings too much energy every night.
Michael Dal Colle
What He Already Does Well: Commitment to strong play in all three zones. Protects the puck well. Great at mucking in the corners and in front of the net.
Where He Could Improve: For Michael Dal Colle to be considered a top talent in this draft, he'll need to be constantly physical. Constantly. It's in that area where he is at his best, and it's when Dal Colle gets away from that aspect of his game that he tends to be less noticeable.
He also needs to add some muscle to his large 6'2" frame. He's lanky at this point, weighing in at 170 pounds. To be truly effective as a professional, Dal Colle will need to show a willingness to put the extra time in with the weights over the next year.
The stronger this guy gets, the more impressive he'll be.
Projected Selection: Dal Colle is hardly a lock to crack the top 10, and he'll need to impress early and often to maintain his solid current standing.
What He Already Does Well: Embarrassingly gifted in the offensive zone. Supreme passer. Outstanding amount of finish and polish to his offensive game.
Where He Could Improve: If all goes according to plan for Leon Draisaitl, he could eventually be known as the most outstanding German hockey player ever. His hockey IQ is elite-level, and he can shed defenders with his nasty stick-handling and wicked shot.
Draisaitl has the makings of an elite offensive talent, but he needs to work on his skating to get there. It's not a huge problem right now because he's so good at making defenders miss, but if Draisaitl could add another gear, then he'd be borderline unstoppable at his current level of competition.
Projected Selection: There's a lot of competition to be a top-five selection at the 2014 draft, but Draisaitl could easily end up there with another strong season this year.