2014 NHL Draft Prospects Tearing It Up in the Playoffs
The scouting departments from each NHL team are paying close attention: The playoffs for Canada's three major junior hockey leagues are now underway.
Often, the postseason's offensive standouts at the junior level are the 19- and 20-year-olds who have already been drafted.
This year, a players like the Tampa Bay Lightning's Jonathan Drouin has made his mark, but the first round has been filled with big league performances from draft-eligible players all across Canada—in the WHL, the OHL and the QMJHL.
Some of these names are the top prospects who have been under the microscope all season, while others were ranked much lower on the midseason lists. A clutch playoff performance from these more obscure players, in particular, can have a big impact on where they're chosen come draft day on June 27.
Shining the spotlight from east to west, here are eight CHL forwards who have delivered in a big way during the first round of the playoffs.
Nikolaj Ehlers: Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
LW, Denmark, 5'11", 163 pounds
Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 4-6-10, fourth in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 63 GP, 49-55-104, fourth in league scoring
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 22 North American skater
In just his first year in Canada, the rangy Ehlers easily stepped into an important role on the defending Memorial Cup champion Mooseheads, finishing just four points behind 2013 No. 3 draft pick and teammate Jonathan Drouin in fourth place in the QMJHL scoring race.
Ehlers developed with Biel of the Swiss League and, despite his young age, had a chance to play 11 games with the men's club during the 2012-13 season. According to a January story from Dan Robertson on the Mooseheads' website, Ehlers credits Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin for convincing him to come to Canada for his draft-year season while the three were teammates with Biel during last year's NHL lockout.
Virtually unknown at the beginning of the season, expect to see Ehlers' stock rise significantly if the Mooseheads make another run to the Memorial Cup. Can he beat out Lars Eller, who was taken 13th overall in 2007, to become the highest-ever draft pick from Denmark?
Vladimir Tkachev: Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
LW, Russia, 5'8", 163 pounds
Playoff Stats: 6 GP, 7-2-9, seventh in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 20 GP, 10-20-30
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 14 European skater (as Vladimir Tkachyov)
After impressing in last November's Subway Super Series, Vladimir Tkachev left the KHL's Avangard Omsk organization to join the Moncton Wildcats in January, then promptly put up 30 points in 20 regular-season games.
In the playoffs, the diminutive winger stayed consistent with that point-and-a-half-per-game pace, though the No. 12 Wildcats fell to the No. 5 Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in six games. Moncton scored 15 goals in total in the series; the highly-skilled sniper Tkachev had seven of them.
Combined with his small size, Tkachev's limited body of work in North America may not be sufficient to attract top-level attention on draft day. He looks like a player with plenty of upside who's capable of scoring in bunches: a possible high-risk, high-reward choice for a team that's looking for goals.
Michael Dal Colle: Oshawa Generals (OHL)
LW, Canada, 6'2", 171 pounds
Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 5-5-10, second in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 67 GP, 39-56-95, sixth in league scoring
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 5 North American skater
Michael Dal Colle has been part of the conversation as a top-10 pick all season, and I targeted him as a 2014 prospect on the rise a couple of weeks ago.
Since then, all he's done is lead his Oshawa Generals in scoring as they swept the Mississauga Steelheads in a series that was much closer that it looked at first glance. Three of the four games went to overtime, but Dal Colle set the tone with two goals and three assists in Oshawa's 6-0 Game 1 win.
In a year without clear-cut picks for those top few draft choices, Mike Morreale of NHL.com suggests that there could even be room for the versatile Dal Colle to move up to the No. 1 spot in the Central Scouting rankings once their year-end list is released in April. His performance through the rest of the playoffs will play a big part in determining his eventual draft position.
Hunter Smith: Oshawa Generals (OHL)
RW, Canada, 6'6", 210 pounds
Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 2-8-10, third in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 64 GP, 16-24-40
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 140 North American skater
An unlikely name sits next to Dal Colle's on Oshawa's scoring lists after the first round. Gargantuan right-winger Hunter Smith exploded with 10 points in just four games—miles ahead of his usual production levels.
Not even ranked among Central Scouting's top 100 North American skaters, Smith is a player on the rise. He was named third-most improved player of 2013-14 in the OHL's Eastern Conference Coaches Poll and also won player of the week honors for the first week of the OHL playoffs.
Josh Sterk is another member of the Generals who has come out of the weeds to make some noise. Ranked at No. 195 on the Central Scouting list of North American skaters, Sterk posted eight points in Oshawa's sweep of Mississauga.
The Generals currently hold down four of the top six spots in the OHL playoff scoring race despite having played just four games.
Sam Bennett: Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Center, Canada, 6'0", 181 pounds
Playoff Stats: 6 GP, 4-4-8, ninth in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 57 GP, 36-55-91, ninth in league scoring
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 1 North American skater
Ranked as the top North American prospect by Central Scouting in January, Sam Bennett is expected to be one of this year's top NHL draft picks.
I saw Bennett as rising in my recent prospect stock watch. His final draft position could come down to whether or not he outduels the WHL's Sam Reinhart during the playoffs.
Reinhart has been strong as his Kootenay Ice have moved on to the second round, while Bennett's Kingston Frontenacs will face the Peterborough Petes in a do-or-die Game 7 on April 1 for a chance to advance. A star turn in an important game would be the type of attention-grabber Bennett needs to boost his case for No. 1 overall.
Jaedon Descheneau: Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Right Wing, Canada, 5'9", 186 pounds
Playoff Stats: 6 GP, 7-10-17, first in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 70 GP, 44-54-98, seventh in league scoring
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 122 North American skater
Averaging nearly three points a game, two names sit atop the WHL playoff scoring race. With 17 points in Round 1 alone, we have top prospect Sam Reinhart—and his lesser-known teammate Jaedon Descheneau, who sits at No. 1 thanks to more goals scored.
While Reinhart has played up to his usual high standards, Descheneau has outshone him so far in the playoffs.
He was named the WHL's player of the week on March 31. In four games, he was awarded the game's first star honors three times and second star once as the sixth-seed Kootenay Ice upset the third-seed Calgary Hitmen in six games.
Descheneau finished seventh overall in WHL regular-season scoring, so his outburst is not a complete surprise. Still, his dominance over the Hitmen makes a good case for a big jump in those final prospect rankings when they're released in April.
Sam Reinhart: Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Center, Canada, 6'1", 183 pounds
Playoff Stats: 6 GP, 5-12-17, second in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 60 GP, 36-69-105, fifth in league scoring
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 4 North American skater
Don't lead Descheneau's heroics distract from Sam Reinhart's equally impressive performance so far in this year's playoffs. The Kootenay captain has been one of the most high-profile prospects of his year's draft class, and he's delivering.
Despite missing games for the World Junior Championship tournament over the holidays, Reinhart still finished the season in the top five in WHL scoring and will now see how far he can take the Ice into the playoffs.
Reinhart's draft prospects were seen to dip a little bit in the second half of the regular season. He could push himself right back to the top of the rankings if he can continue to build off his impressive first-round postseason surge.
Jayce Hawryluk: Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Center, Canada, 5'10", 190 pounds
Playoff Stats: 4 GP, 5-5-10, third in league scoring
Regular-Season Stats: 59 GP, 20-40-64
Central Scouting Midterm Ranking: No. 42 North American skater
Not only is Jayce Hawryluk of the Brandon Wheat Kings third in scoring through the first round of the WHL playoffs, he accomplished that feat while spending two days in hospital between Games 3 and 4 of Brandon's first-round upset of the Regina Pats.
From Neate Sager of Yahoo! Sports' "Buzzing the Net," Hawryluk experienced shortness of breath and lightheadedness after scoring a hat trick and adding an assist in the Wheat Kings' 5-4 win over Regina on Wednesday. He was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure and put through a battery of tests, which all came out negative.
Hawryluk was released on Friday in time to suit up for Game 4. Not only did he play, he added another goal and assist to his totals as seventh-seed Brandon completed its sweep of No. 2 Regina.
If the underdog Wheat Kings can build any sort of playoff momentum going forward, Hawryluk could get some serious attention from NHL scouts for his impressively unwavering commitment to his team in the face of some scary adversity.