Stock Watch for Top Prospects in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
It seems like only yesterday that the Colorado Avalanche called out Nathan MacKinnon's name at the 2013 draft, but NHL scouts have already put in countless miles and many hours finding the next elite talent for their team.
Early returns had this year's draft being shallow without a strong top end, but as we near the Christmas tournaments, momentum is building.
Here are updates on the 10 best prospects available for the 2014 NHL entry draft.
10. Nicholas Ritchie, LW, Peterborough (OHL)
Strength and Weakness: Ritchie is a power forward with offensive ability. Along with his size and speed, he possesses the assets to make him a lottery pick—if he can stay healthy. The No. 1 issue with Ritchie is staying in the lineup.
Key Indicator: So far this season, Ritchie has been healthy (he's missed six games in 2013-14) and is delivering (28GP, 15-11-26) impressively. The combination of size, speed and skill is highly valued by NHL scouts, and at 6'3" and 205 pounds, he's getting noticed in every game.
Stock: Falling. There's enough injury concern about Ritchie that it will likely keep him from the top five, but it's a good bet some NHL team will grab him inside the top 10.
9. Conner Bleackley, RW, Red Deer (WHL)
Strength and Weakness: Entering the season, Bleackley was seen as a power forward option for NHL teams, possibly in the first round. His offense was a question mark, and like most teenagers, he would need to add size and pay attention to his play away from the puck.
Key Indicator: Bleackley has blossomed offensively, and at this point, is the fastest moving prospect in the top half of this year's first round. He's scoring (35GP, 17-24-42) at a rapid rate before Christmas and scouts are excited about his progress this season.
Stock: Rising. If he continues to play at current levels he'll make the top 10 overall in 2014. If Bleackley takes another step forward offensively, he could be taken in the top five overall.
8. Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer (WHL)
Strength and Weakness: Fleury is a tall, rangy defenseman (6'3", 198 lbs) who is already a top defenseman and provides steady, reliable play. He's regarded as being a mature player and does have offensive ability, although he is unlikely to be a major contributor to an NHL power play.
Key Indicator: He's posting better offensive numbers than predicted (33GP, 5-17-22 with three power-play goals and nine assists with the man advantage) and, considering his size and range of skills, there's a large group of positives in every scout's notebook about Fleury.
Stock: Rising. If Fleury can maintain his point total he'll easily make the top 10 overall. If he can edge nearer to a point-per-game average, Fleury might sneak inside the top five in 2014.
7. Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagra (OHL)
Strength and Weakness: Perlini is a trending player in the 2014 entry draft, due mostly to exceptional skill and good size. Among the top-end talents available this season, Perlini's potential may be the greatest. Comparisons to NHL forward Jeff Carter have scouts excited.
Key Indicator: Perlini is currently just outside the OHL's top 10 scorers (34GP, 19-29-48) and is having a strong run (3-4-7 in his last three games) heading up to the Christmas break. Scouts are raving about his shot and quick release, and with his size (6'2", 205 lbs), it's an attractive combination.
Stock: Rising. Perlini has come from a long way back already this season; It would be foolish to think he can't push higher up the final list. He's a very attractive draft prospect for 2014.
6. William Nylander, C, Rogle (Allsvenskan)
Strength and Weakness: He's a skilled center and is regarded as one of the best playmakers in the draft. Nylander is an outstanding passer and a fast skater, and the puck wizard comes from great hockey genetics (former NHLer Michael Nylander is his father). His size (5'11, 169 lbs) is the one main concern for NHL scouts.
Key Indicator: Nylander has been playing at two levels of Swedish hockey this season, including the elite level. For a player his age to play against men who are 15 years older (in some cases) is a testimony to his skills. Although he isn't scoring yet (10GP, 0-2-2 in SHL) Nylander is getting regular shifts and performing well.
Stock: Falling. Nylander's size is going to be the drawback for his selection, but those quick hands and his sublime passing ability make him likely to go just outside the top five overall.
5. Michael Dal Colle, C, Oshawa (OHL)
Strength and Weakness: He is a very good skater with plus skills, and just above average in size. Scouts love the skills but were looking for more consistent play from him this season.
Key Indicator: It has been a watershed season for Dal Colle. The 17-year-old winger is ranked third in league scoring, a major accomplishment for a player of his age. What's more, his offense (35GP, 23-33-56) translates at a very high equivalency in the NHL (82GP, 16-23-39) should he end up playing there next season.
Stock: Rising. His offensive outburst in the OHL season has Dal Colle marching up the top ten and he could easily be taken inside the top four at next summer's draft.
4. Sam Bennett, LW, Kingston (OHL)
Strength and Weakness: He's an intelligent player with a wide range of skills. Scouts talk about his ability to do it all—score, kill penalties and he's a demon on the forecheck—and Bennett has been called a "complete" player by several scouts.
Key Indicator: Bennett's offense has been better than expected (31GP, 19-26-45) as he easily passed his totals from last season. Scouts liked his work ethic and intelligence, the added offense brings him to another level.
Stock: Rising. There might be a feeling that Bennett is ranked too high based on a small body of evidence (his recent scoring isn't reflective of last season) but his overall skills make him impossible to pass on. It's my guess we hear his name called in the top five at the 2014 draft.
3. Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert (WHL)
Strength and Weakness: He is a playmaking center with size and exceptional skill. Draisaitl is sometimes called "the German Gretzky" because of his excellent skills and anticipation. Scouts love the tool box inside his 6'1", 209-pound frame, but would like him to use his size more often.
Key Indicator: Born in Cologne, Germany, Draisaitl is having an excellent season in the WHL (33GP, 18-33-51) and currently sits in the top five in league scoring. His range of skills and size suggest he might be a plug-and-play center as early as next season.
Stock: Rising. Draisaitl began the year outside the top 10 on several famous draft lists, but has been moving up smartly each month since the season began in October. Barring anything unforeseen, he should be a lock for top five overall in the summer.
2. Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (WHL)
Strength and Weakness: NHL scouts love to find players who have the widest possible range of skills. Sam Reinhart is such a player, equally adept in the offensive zone with the puck as he is marking his man defensively. Reinhart's weaknesses are few, but every 17-year-old prospect could add size and strength.
Key Indicator: Reinhart has been strong in the offensive zone this year (33GP, 16-34-50) and is as advertised as an overall talent. His goals breakdown by discipline as follows: eight at even strength, six on the power play and two shorthanded goals.
Stock: Reinhart began the season as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 entry draft, but has fallen to second place. In this case, the change has less to do with Reinhart and more to do with the player who is rising.
1. Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)
Strength and Weakness: He is 6'4" and a major worry for the opposition at both ends of the ice. Ekblad's skills are married to a huge frame and NHL teams will be lining up to select him in June 2014. He has great speed and mobility, allowing him to close gaps in a heartbeat.
Key Indicator: Scoring at close to a point-per-game pace (29GP, 10-15-25), he weighs in at 217 pounds and is a load at 17-years-old. His improvement in his overall game has scouts giving him high marks.
Stock: He entered the season ranked second, but has moved up and now sits on top of the draft heap. There are organizations that prefer to take a forward because defensemen traditionally take longer to develop, so we'll see how it all turns out. On merit, Ekblad ranks No. 1 overall at Christmas 2013.