The NHL draft signals the true beginning of the NHL's offseason, as teams across the league use the event to build toward both the immediate and long-term future.
Although the 2014 draft hasn't received as much hype as the 2015 draft already has, there is no question that some game-changing players are up for grabs. A handful of them could become stars as soon as next season, while others will need a bit more time to develop.
There isn't necessarily a surefire top player in this class, so it should make things quite interesting at the top of the draft since the first several picks could go down in any number of ways.
With the draft quickly approaching, however, here is a full first-round mock draft predicting how the first 30 picks will play out.
1. Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)
The Panthers have three or four potential stars to choose from with the top overall selection in this draft. Florida has focused on forwards in recent years and Ekblad may be the most polished player in the entire class, so taking the complete defenseman is likely.
2. Buffalo Sabres: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (WHL)
At this time last year, it seemed likely that Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart would be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft. While Reinhart certainly didn't do anything to hurt his stock since, he may have to wait a pick longer than initially expected. Florida's need for a defenseman and Ekblad's impressive ascent may cost Reinhart the distinction of being the top guy, but it will benefit the Buffalo Sabres greatly.
The Sabres were far and away the NHL's worst team this past season, but they fell just short in their bid to win the lottery. Buffalo is so stocked with defensive prospects, though, that the No. 2 position should work just fine. The Sabres desperately need players who can create offense and score goals, and Reinhart definitely fits that description.
According to Jeremy White of WGR 550 in Buffalo, Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine thinks quite highly of Reinhart's passing in particular:
Kevin Devine describes Samson Reinhart's playmaking ability is as good as anyone the last 10-15 years.— Jeremy White (@JeremyWGR) June 4, 2014
It is easy to see why, as Reinhart is coming off a season in which he dished out 69 assists and racked up 105 points. Like Ekblad, Reinhart is a player who should be able to play in the NHL immediately.
Per WGR 550's Paul Hamilton, that appears to be Reinhart's expectation as well. "The biggest thing for me I think is if I'm ready, that comes with speed and strength I think," Reinhart said. "The best thing for me this year was going to Switzerland for a few days and practicing and played an exhibition game with the pros and felt very comfortable and gained a lot of experience."
The Sabres could opt to keep Reinhart in juniors next season should they take him since 2014-15 isn't expected to be a great year for Buffalo. Reinhart would play a huge role in the Sabres' future plans, though, and he would be viewed as the key to Buffalo's long-term success.
3. Edmonton Oilers: Sam Bennett, C, Kingston (OHL)
Edmonton has loaded up on big-time forward talent such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov over the past few years. As much as the Oilers would have loved to have landed Ekblad, an all-around forward like Bennett is a great consolation prize.
4. Calgary Flames: Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert (WHL)
If Reinhart and Bennett are the most complete forwards in this draft, then Draisaitl may be the most-skilled. With center Sean Monahan already in place, adding Draisaitl would really send Calgary in the right direction.
5. New York Islanders: Michael Dal Colle, LW, Oshawa (OHL)
The Isles had to choose between keeping this year's first-rounder or next year's first-rounder stemming from a trade with the Sabres. New York decided to retain its 2014 selection, so it will need Dal Colle to live up to his promise as a dominant power forward.
6. Vancouver Canucks: Nick Ritchie, LW, Peterborough (OHL)
Vancouver took a big step backward last season, but the future is still bright. After drafting promising forward Bo Horvat last year, adding a power forward like Ritchie to the mix would set the Canucks up nicely for years to come.
7. Carolina Hurricanes: William Nylander, RW, Sodertalje (Sweden-2)
As the son of former NHL star Michael Nylander, William Nylander has impressive bloodlines. He is considered by many to be the top European prospect in this draft, and the Hurricanes would benefit greatly from his playmaking skills.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary (WHL)
Although the Maple Leafs have a talented group of forwards, many of them are on the small side. Toronto would be wise to diversify their roster by bringing in some wingers with skill and size, and there is no doubt that Virtanen fits the bill.
9. Winnipeg Jets: Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa (Finland)
Unlike Toronto, Winnipeg's forward group is notable for its considerable size. The Jets could stand to add some speed to their stable, and Kapanen is among the fastest forwards in this draft. His father, Sami Kapanen, was productive in the NHL for many years, and Kasperi will look to follow in his footsteps.
10. Anaheim Ducks (from Ottawa Senators): Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara (OHL)
The Ducks acquired this pick from the Senators in the trade that sent forward Bobby Ryan to Ottawa. Perlini is no Ryan, but he does have a similar skill set and could potentially be viewed as a replacement down the line.
11. Nashville Predators: Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Nashville has a spectacular corps of defensemen led by Shea Weber and Seth Jones. Scoring has pretty much always been a problem for the Preds, but selecting McCann could be the first step toward finding a long-term solution.
12. Phoenix Coyotes: Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax (QMJHL)
With 49 goals and 104 points for the Halifax Mooseheads this past season, there is no denying the fact that Ehlers is an offensive dynamo. His diminutive size and defensive struggles could hinder him at the next level, but he's worth a gamble at this juncture.
13. Washington Capitals: Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer (WHL)
While he is several notches below Ekblad, most would probably agree that Fleury is the No. 2 blueliner in this draft. The Capitals have struggled to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard during the Alex Ovechkin era, but Fleury would help change that.
14. Dallas Stars: Alex Tuch, RW, USA U-18 (USHL)
United States Development Team product Alex Tuch is arguably the top American player in the 2014 draft class. The first American going off the board at No. 14 might seem a bit late considering the progress of USA hockey in recent years, but Tuch is big and skilled enough to outperform this position in a big way.
At 6'4" and well over 200 pounds, Tuch is a true power forward. He took major steps forward this past season for the USA U-18 team (32 points in 26 games), and he showed a noticeable edge to his game as well. Danton Cole, who coaches the U-18 team, believes that Tuch has what it takes to dominate stretches of games, via Mike Morreale of NHL.com:
He's always been a big body and has skated well, but I think he's just starting to realize how big and strong he is. He imposes his will on the game sometimes, and that's a good compliment. If he makes it to the second round of the draft, a lot of (NHL) people made a mistake because I feel Alex is a legit first-round candidate.
Based upon Tuch's size and production, it is difficult to imagine him falling beyond the first round at this point. If he is still there at No. 14, it would be tough for the Dallas Stars to pass him up. Dallas values big forwards like Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin, so Tuch would definitely fit the style that head coach Lindy Ruff likes his teams to play.
Tuch is still a very young player who probably isn't anywhere near ready to make the jump to the NHL, but the fact that he already has an NHL body will help the development process immensely.
15. Detroit Red Wings: Julius Honka, D, Swift Current (WHL)
It is a well-documented fact that the Red Wings have a penchant for selecting European-born players and making them stars. Although Honka plays in the WHL, the skilled Finn fits the profile of the type of player that general manager Ken Holland likes to take.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets: Kevin Fiala, C, HV 71 Jr. (Sweden-Jr.)
The Blue Jackets haven't shied away from bringing in European prospects since Jarmo Kekalainen took over as general manager. Fiala has very much been on the ascent over the past few months, and Columbus seems like a logical landing spot for him.
Who is the best prospect in the 2014 NHL draft?
17. Philadelphia Flyers: Dylan Larkin, C, USA U-18 (USHL)
Larkin is another of several United States development prospects who figures to be selected in the first round. The Flyers already have a lot of talent up front, but there is no such thing as too much talent, so look for them to nab the pending University of Michigan product.
18. Minnesota Wild: Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sarnia (OHL)
Few teams in the NHL have more exiting, up-and-coming talent than the Wild. DeAngelo may be the best pure offensive defenseman in this draft, which is something that could be a major asset to Minnesota down the line.
19. Tampa Bay Lightning: Jakub Vrana, C, Linkoping (Sweden-2)
The Lightning have had some good fortune with Czech forwards recently, with Ondrej Palat serving as the prime example. Vrana is far more highly touted than Palat ever was, and it certainly makes sense that he would appeal to Tampa.
20. San Jose Sharks: Adrian Kempe, RW, Modo Jr. (Sweden-Jr.)
Kempe is a tall, offensively gifted Swede who still has plenty of developing left to do. It is unclear how much longer the Sharks' window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup will remain open, but Kempe could do some special things with the likes of Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture down the line.
21. St. Louis Blues: Ivan Barbashev, LW, Moncton (QMJHL)
There is always some trepidation when it comes to taking Russian players in the NHL draft since the KHL is constantly looming. Things worked out well for the Blues when they took Vladimir Tarasenko a few years ago, though, so they won't hesitate to go after Barbashev.
22. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sonny Milano, LW, USA U-18 (USHL)
It's really difficult to say what is preventing the Penguins from winning another Stanley Cup, but all management can do is continue to surround Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with talent. Milano is more of a long-term possibility, but he could be a great piece in the future.
23. Colorado Avalanche: Roland McKeown, D, Kingston (OHL)
The Avalanche are stacked with talent at forward, but they could definitely benefit from adding more to their back line. McKeown is a very solid all-around rearguard with a high floor, so there isn't much risk involved here.
24. Anaheim Ducks: Markus Pettersson, D, Skelleftea Jr. (Sweden-Jr.)
Anaheim has quite a penchant for selecting European defensemen in the draft, and it has worked out well in the past. After already nabbing a promising forward in Perlini earlier in the round, a developmental blueliner like Pettersson makes sense at this juncture.
25. Boston Bruins: Ryan MacInnis, C, Kitchener (OHL)
MacInnis is a much different player than his father—Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis—was, but that pedigree should help his cause. MacInnis seemed to enjoy a meteoric rise in the rankings as the season progressed, and the Bruins will take notice.
26. Montreal Canadiens: Nick Schmaltz, C, Green Bay (USHL)
Despite being the preeminent Canadian team in NHL history, the current iteration of the Habs relies heavily on American forwards. Those forwards helped get them get to the Eastern Conference Final this season, though, so they'll go to the well yet again by taking Schmaltz.
27. Chicago Blackhawks: John Quenneville, C, Brandon (WHL)
In addition to Quenneville being considered a late-first-round prospect, he has obvious ties to the Blackhawks. His cousin—Joel—is Chicago's two-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach. Based on the family connection and Quenneville's skill, this pick is an interesting fit.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning (from New York Rangers): Nikolay Goldobin, RW, Sarnia (OHL)
Few teams in the league have more young offensive talent than the Lightning. After taking Vrana with their first pick of the round, the Bolts can afford to roll the dice a bit and gamble on a supremely talented scorer like Goldobin.
29. Los Angeles Kings: David Pastrnak, LW, Sodertalje (Sweden-2)
The Stanley Cup champion Kings are in a position in which they can do pretty much whatever they please. Pastrnak would definitely benefit from more time overseas, and Los Angeles can afford to wait since all the pieces are already in place for them to go on another Cup run.
30. New Jersey Devils: Thatcher Demko, G, Boston College (NCAA)
Goalies seemingly aren't currently valued as much in the NHL as they once were, but there is no doubt that they are still important. It is no coincidence that the Kings and Rangers met in the Stanley Cup Final this season, as they boasted two of the best netminders in the league in Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist, respectively.
With that said, there is a belief that good goalies can be found outside the first round, much like running backs in the NFL draft. If any backstop is going to be selected in the opening round this year, however, it is American Thatcher Demko.
Demko's case is a rare one, as he already has 24 games of collegiate experience at Boston College. Players are usually drafted prior to entering the collegiate ranks, but Demko has a leg up. He also happened to enjoy a strong season with a 2.24 goals against average, .919 save percentage and two shutouts.
According to ISS Hockey, Demko is the No. 1 goalie in this draft and is well on track to be a factor in the NHL:
The Devils don't necessarily need a goalie since Cory Schneider is still fairly young and ready to carry the full-time load. The legendary Martin Brodeur seems poised to depart, though, which means New Jersey would be wise to pick up another developmental goaltender.
Demko provides incredible value at this point in the first round, so the Devils shouldn't pass him up.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.