Many NHL teams are looking ahead to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but those who weren't fortunate enough to qualify are focused solely on the NHL draft.
The draft will kick off on June 27 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and it promises to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory. There is no sure-fire No. 1 overall selection, and while this year's class is considered somewhat weak compared to what is on the horizon in 2015, there is still plenty of talent to be had.
While the draft order will have a major impact on where top prospects ultimately land, it feels as though three players in particular have separated themselves from the field.
Any of them could potentially be taken No. 1 overall, and all of them have the ability to be NHL stars. Here is a closer look at the positives and negatives of the very best that the 2014 NHL draft class has to offer.
Sam Bennett, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Although he obviously had a ton of potential entering the 2013-14 season, Kingston Frontenacs forward Sam Bennett far exceeded anyone's wildest expectations. Bennett put up 40 points as a 16-year-old in 2012-13, but he reached an elite level in his age-17 season with 36 goals and 55 assists for Kingston.
Bennett was one of the OHL's best all-around players, and that led to him being named the top prospect in the draft by NHL Central Scouting, according to the OHL's official Twitter account:
In addition to his superb offensive game, Bennett brings a physical edge. He isn't afraid to throw his body around and mix it up with players who are much bigger than him. His chippy play led to 118 penalty minutes, and while some might view that as a negative, it is proof that he won't back down from tough situations.
That will come in handy, especially during the playoffs.
One concern regarding Bennett is the fact that he plays like a big man despite being just six-feet tall and 180 pounds. There is still time for him to grow and put on muscle, but durability could be an issue at the next level if he continues to play with the same style.
Who will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft?
At the same time, Bennett brings a great deal of versatility since he played both center and left wing at the OHL level. That gives the team that selects him some options. The Buffalo Sabres are the NHL's last-place team, which means that they have the best chance to win the lottery.
They have a ton of depth on defense as far as prospects are concerned, so the conventional thought is that the Sabres will take a forward. The worst they can do is land the No. 2 overall pick, so they'll have some options, with Bennett perhaps being among them.
The Sabres desperately need some players who can put the puck in the back of the net, and Bennett did that quite well this past season. With that in mind, Bennett shouldn't have to wait long until his name is called.
Aaron Ekblad, Barrie Colts (OHL)
Bennett may officially be the No. 1 prospect from NHL Central Scouting's perspective, but a case can certainly be made for defenseman Aaron Ekblad. In a draft that is light on elite defensive talent, there is no doubt that Ekblad is the cream of the crop.
The Barrie Colts' rearguard enjoyed another spectacular season in 2013-14, and he has a resume that rivals anyone in the draft. Ekblad set career highs in goals (23) and assists (30) this season, and he posted a rating of plus-29 in 2012-13, which proves that he is capable of contributing on both ends of the ice.
Ekblad is also the type of player who raises his game on the big stage. During Barrie's deep playoff run last season, he put up 17 points in 22 games and displayed some impressive leadership capabilities. If that wasn't enough, Ekblad already has an NHL body at 6'3" and 216 pounds. He seems to have all the tools necessary to succeed at the next level from day one.
Oshawa Generals color commentator Shane Hollinshead has gotten an up-close-and-personal look at Ekblad, and he views him as the No. 1 guy in the 2014 draft class:
I love Sam Bennett's game like everyone else but there is zero chance I would pass on Aaron Ekblad at # 1. Both phenomenal players of course— Shane Hollinshead (@InHollinsHead) April 8, 2014
In addition to the Sabres, the Edmonton Oilers will have one of the top selections in the draft. That has become somewhat of a tradition in recent years, and the Oilers have stockpiled talented forwards such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. They are unquestionably looking for a franchise defenseman, and Ekblad fits the bill.
According to Oilers Now on Twitter, TSN's Craig Button can't see Edmonton passing on Ekblad if he is available when it is on the clock:
“The Oilers better be sprinting up to the stage if Aaron Ekblad is there. The Oilers better take him.” @CraigJButton on Oilers Now.— OilersNow (@OilersNow) April 4, 2014
That could depend on Buffalo if it picks ahead of the Oilers, and it isn't outside the realm of possibility that the Sabres will go with Ekblad if they view him as the best prospect. When it comes to being NHL ready, nobody can touch Ekblad right now.
Sam Reinhart, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
After racking up 85 points in 2012-13, Kootenay Ice forward Sam Reinhart was considered the prohibitive favorite to be taken No. 1 overall in the 2014 NHL draft. Although Reinhart was even more productive this season, he enters the draft as the No. 3 prospect in the estimation of NHL Central Scouting.
Reinhart tore up the Western Hockey League this season with 105 points in 60 games along with 17 points in just eight playoff games. In fact, Reinhart put the Ice on his back through their first few postseason contests, according to Patrick King of Sportsnet:
For those debating the NHL draft, Sam Reinhart has 13 points in five playoff games -- including four tonight and we're still in 2nd period.— Patrick King (@SNPatrickKing) March 28, 2014
While Reinhart displayed great scoring touch with at least 35 goals in each of the past two seasons, he is viewed as an even better distributor. Reinhart dished out an incredible 69 assists this season, and he is the type of player who makes his linemates even more potent.
Reinhart also plays a great two-way game at center, and NHL coaches won't hesitate to play him against the opposition's top offensive line provided he develops as expected.
Even though Bennett is rated as the No. 1 forward, Button feels as though Reinhart is clearly superior, per Oilers Now:
"Sam Reinhart is the best forward in this draft. There’s no question." @CraigJButton on who the Oilers should draft if Ekblad is gone.— OilersNow (@OilersNow) April 4, 2014
Teams aren't tipping their hands when it comes to which players they favor, but the Sabres are itching for a No. 1 center. All signs point toward Reinhart developing into precisely that, so he could very well be the first guy off the board if Buffalo lands that top pick.
Regardless of who picks first, though, it is extremely difficult to envision Reinhart falling past No. 3. He, Bennett and Ekblad are in a class of their own with forwards Leon Draisaitl and Michael Dal Colle lurking just behind.
Even if there is no slam-dunk superstar in the 2014 class, there are three guys with the potential to turn misfortunes around quite quickly.
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