When NHL general managers prepare their ranked lists ahead of each year's amateur draft, they have to decide between two strategies. When their turn comes around, do they choose the best player available, or do they draft based on position in an attempt to fill specific holes in their roster?
Only the best 18-year-olds can step in and help an NHL team right away, and the Class of 2014 is not considered to be particularly strong. If an organization sees a gap that it wants to fill over the long term, here's a look at the top two draft-eligible players for each position on the ice.
WHL - Kootenay Ice
Born November 6, 1995
6'1", 185 lbs
2013-14 stats: 29 GP, 16 G, 30 A, 46 PTS
Sam Reinhart was an early favorite to go first overall in the 2014 NHL draft. He's backing up the scouts' faith in him with another solid season with the Kootenay Ice.
Reinhart came into the year with a reputation for strong on-ice vision and solid two-way play. He's added a stronger offensive touch this year, leading his team in scoring and ranking fifth overall in the WHL with numbers that should easily surpass last season's 85 points.
Hockey Canada announced Monday that Reinhart is one of just two players from his draft class to be invited to the World Junior Championship selection camp, along with wunderkind Connor McDavid from the Class of 2015. Some well-known older players were left off the list, so the invitation is a feather in the cap of the Reinhart, who already has a long list of impressive international hockey accomplishments on his resume.
WHL - Prince Albert Raiders
Born October 27, 1995
6'1", 208 lbs
2013-14 stats: 28 GP, 15 G, 27 A, 42 PTS
Leon Draisaitl entered the new WHL season with a chance to become the highest-ever NHL draft pick from his native Germany. The big center has improved dramatically this year and looks poised to do just that.
Draisaitl's 42 points rank him seventh in WHL scoring, and he was just named WHL player of the week Monday after collecting seven points in two games during two close wins for the Raiders.
Finland - Kalpa
Born July 23, 1996
5'11", 172 lbs
2013-14 stats: 21 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 PTS
The 2014 draft class is uncharacteristically short on strong prospects at right wing.
At first glance, Kasperi Kapanen's stats don't look impressive. But there's a big difference between Canadian major junior hockey and a Finnish senior men's league, which is where Kapanen is plying his trade alongside his NHL-veteran father, Sami.
Kapanen has been a strong performer in international tournaments so far in his young career. A good showing for Finland at this year's World Juniors could help vault him back into the conversation as one of this season's top prospects.
OHL - Windsor Spitfires
Born January 22, 1996
5'11", 166 lbs
2013-14 stats: 27 GP, 15 G, 15 A, 30 PTS
As the junior hockey season wears on, skill forward Josh Ho-Sang is quickly climbing the rankings.
Of Jamaican and Chilean descent, Ho-Sang's on the small side, but he has great hands and a real nose for the net. He has the dynamic offensive style that can pull fans out of their seats.
ISS Hockey moved Ho-Sang up 12 spots in its November rankings, good enough for 14th place. If a general manager has his heart set on a scoring right winger, Ho-Sang's stock could rise even higher on draft day.
OHL - Oshawa Generals
Born June 20, 1996
6'2", 184 lbs
2013-14 stats: 29 GP, 18 G, 30 A, 48 PTS
Versatile forward Michael Dal Colle hovers just behind the top prospects on many draft rankings. He can slot in at left wing or center, plays a solid two-way game and uses his body well to make space for himself and his teammates on the ice.
Dal Colle and young phenom Connor McDavid were the only two not-yet-drafted forwards to join the OHL team for the Subway Super Series against the Russians in November. As a younger player on that squad, Dal Colle saw limited ice time. The experience should help him continue his development into a well-rounded forward by the time NHL teams need to make their final decisions on draft day.
Sweden - Rogle
Born May 1, 1996
5'11", 169 lbs
2013-14 stats: 18 GP, 4 G, 4 A, 8 PTS
Spending his season in Sweden, away from the scouting spotlight, Willie Nylander remains high in the mix of available left wingers for the 2014 draft.
The son of former NHLer Michal Nylander, Willie was born in Calgary while his father was playing for the Flames, but he has embraced his Swedish roots.
Nylander's assets are his skating, his puck-handling and his nose for the net. He's still undersized for an everyday NHLer, but his raw talent is hard to ignore. Nylander might be a project, but he could also blossom into an offensive superstar.
OHL: Barrie Colts
Born February 2, 1996
6'4", 216 lbs
2013-14 stats: 26 GP, 9 G, 14 A, 23 PTS
Aaron Ekblad is the most tempting defensive prospect to come along in quite some time.
At 17 years old, he's already a giant at 6'4" and over 215 pounds—and can even grow a full beard. But Ekblad's much more than a big, burly body. He skates well, has a great point shot and can create offense while staying defensively responsible.
Ekblad and Sam Reinhart are the only two members of their draft class to be invited to Team Canada's World Junior selection camp. As a younger player, he may not see a big role at the tournament in Malmo over the holidays, but it will be his first major appearance on a national stage.
WHL - Red Deer Rebels
Born July 28, 1996
6'2", 207 lbs
2013-14 stats: 27 GP, 4 G, 14 A, 18 PTS
Haydn Fleury's skill set isn't quite as formidable as Ekblad's, but he's a solid blue-line prospect in his own right.
His bread and butter is the defensive aspect of his game—shutting down the opposition's top players and playing a physical game. Fleury's also a very good skater and is adding more offense to his repertoire with each passing year.
In many ways, Fleury's prospect profile looks similar to previous top WHL defenders like Dion Phaneuf, Dan Hamhuis and Chris Phillips. He'll be a valuable asset for the team that drafts him for many years to come.
OHL - Plymouth Whalers
Born January 7, 1996
6'0", 183 lbs
2013-14 stats: 26 GP, 3.32 goals-against average, .914 save percentage
In a weak year for goaltending, TSN's Craig Button has American Alex Nedeljkovic ranked highest at his position, at No. 26.
In his rookie season with the Plymouth Whalers, Nedeljkovic stepped up to assume the starter's role as the season wore on and backstopped the team to a solid playoff run. This year, Nedeljkovic has continued his progress, snagging goaltender of the week honours for the entire CHL early in the season and impressing between the pipes for an offensively challenged Plymouth team.
With good fundamentals and a strong will to win, Nedeljkovic has the tools to evolve into a solid NHL netminder.
Finnish Junior League - Blues
Born August 16, 1996
6'1", 192 lbs
2012-13 stats: 28 GP, 2.43 goals-against average, .917 save percentage
After the New York Islanders defied tradition by drafting Roberto Luongo fourth overall in 1997 and Rick DiPietro with the top pick in 2000, general managers have returned to more of a waiting game when drafting goalies—usually no earlier than late in the first round.
For 2014, the top European choice is Kaapo Kahkonen of Finland. He drew some positive attention due to his strong international play in the Ivan Hlinka tournament. TSN's Craig Button has Kahkonen ranked 64th among this year's prospects, but we've seen plenty of Finnish goalies come out of nowhere to dominate in the NHL. Kahkonen could be a pleasant surprise for a team that's willing to take a chance on him.