With the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup victory firmly in the rearview mirror, NHL teams are now able to turn their attention to the 2014 draft, which takes place on June 27 and 28 in Philadelphia.
This year's class is particularly difficult to forecast because there's no consensus top player for the Florida Panthers to grab with the No. 1 pick. They certainly have a share of options worthy of the spot, but there's no generational talent who will change the fortunes of a team.
Even though that lack of elite star power can hurt a draft, sometimes it makes things more interesting. The debate around every pick will be louder, and fans will be more engaged with what happens.
Our latest mock draft provides a snapshot look at where things stand with two days to go before the Panthers go on the clock.
1. Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)
If you are drafting a defenseman first overall, it's a sign that you see a true enforcer without the puck who is capable of being a star when the biscuit comes his way. Aaron Ekblad is a hybrid player, excelling in both phases of the game with an ease that's almost unfair.
The one problem Ekblad could face is the Panthers are in a full-scale rebuild right now that opponents can zero in on him to make others beat them. It's going to take time to see results, both for the franchise and the top pick, but that also makes him a perfect fit because the two can develop together.
2. Buffalo Sabres: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)
The battle for the No. 1 spot may end in defeat for Sam Reinhart, but the 18-year-old won't wait long to hear his name called on draft day. He's a tremendous offensive player with the size (6'1", 186 lbs) to be a force with the puck, a gorgeous shot that he gets off from anywhere, vision to see the ice and set teammates up, as well as controlling the speed of the game.
Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com that there's no real weakness to his game.
He's extremely responsible in any area of the ice and, as a result, has excellent on-ice positioning. He's exceptional at anticipating and is a very good opportunist. He has the ability to make something out of nothing and can dish effortlessly to both sides. He really thinks the game well.
The Sabres get the new star they desperately need to climb out of the cellar, while Reinhart goes to a situation that will allow him to shine right away.
3. Edmonton Oilers: Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Why listen to my words when you can read what Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke said to Scott Cruickshank of the Calgary Herald about Leon Draisaitl earlier this month:
A 210-pound centre. Big centre. Big ass. Protects the pucks well. Really skilled. This (German) kid’s a dynamite hockey player. His English is perfect. This kid is an exceptional player.
Even though the Flames don't pick until No. 4, they won't get a chance to draft Draisaitl. He's a star on both sides of the puck who just needs to use his large 208-pound frame more often to become the player the talent suggests he can be.
4. Calgary Flames: Sam Bennett, C, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Sometimes the total package is much better than the individual parts, which is the case for Sam Bennett. He's not the fastest guy on the ice and isn't a physically imposing presence at 6'0" and 181 pounds, but this young stud knows how to find the net and be disruptive on defense. He had 91 points in just 57 games with Kingston last season.
5. New York Islanders: Michael Dal Colle, LW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Michael Dal Colle is the perfect blend of present ability and potential for the Islanders to bet on with the No. 5 pick. He's got the size at 6'2" to be a dominant winger while still growing into his 172-pound frame. There's elite puck-handling skill on display whenever he's on the ice, with tremendous balance and speed to pressure the defense. He's also got solid defensive ability, willing to get in an opponent's face to save a goal.
6. Vancouver Canucks: Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
There's not a more accomplished offensive player in this draft than Jake Virtanen. The 17-year-old had 71 points for the Calgary Hitmen this season with a powerful shot, speed that gets defenders off balance and the ability to see the ice incredibly well for someone his age. The Canucks need more punch on offense after finishing 28th in the league with 2.3 goals per game.
7. Carolina Hurricanes: Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
There's a simplicity to Nikolaj Ehlers' game that makes it almost unfair for him to be as talented as he is. He is comfortable shooting from distance with a powerful slap shot, but capable of moving in close and letting strong wrists do all the work. The 18-year-old also moves well without the puck to put himself in a good position to make a play. He's also an underrated defender, even though that will never be his best attribute.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs: Nick Ritchie, LW, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
One of the elite scorers in this year's class, Nick Ritchie has the body (6'2", 230 lbs) and stick skills to be an impact player right away. He's no slouch on defense, attacking the puck with ease, and he glides on the ice with or without the puck. The Maple Leafs need impact all over the ice, having missed the playoffs in eight of the last nine years.
9. Winnipeg Jets: Kevin Fiala, RW, Sweden
A team that drafts Fiala will be betting on potential because he's still filling out a 5'10", 181-pound frame. He's already well-developed as an offensive player with hands, vision on the ice, puck control and speed. Controlling his body on defense is still an issue, but the offensive upside is huge.
10. Anaheim Ducks: Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
If the Ducks are going to break their streak of early postseason exits, their toughness on defense has to improve. Haydn Fleury isn't just a defensive specialist, as there is strength in his shot and power to his movements, but his bread and butter is bullying people on the ice. He's the kind of player who will seek out a bigger guy, attack him to send a message and dare anyone else to come near him.
11. Nashville Predators: Dylan Larkin, C, USNTDP Juniors (USHL)
Sometimes the best thing that can be said about a young player is there's no fear with what he does. Dylan Larkin has skills, which is why he's a high first-round pick, and he'll go into the danger zone against bigger defenders. He's also a powerful defender who will challenge anyone that gets in his way.
12. Phoenix Coyotes: William Nylander, C, MODO (SHL)
There's something to be said for an 18-year-old who displays a knack for finding the net and distributing the puck to get everyone on the ice involved in the game. William Nylander won't add anything to a team on defense, but he's got a quick, accurate shot with ice vision to anticipate where the puck needs to be for teammates to score.
13. Washington Capitals: Nikolay Goldobin, RW, Sarnia (OHL)
In some ways, Nikolay Goldobin is a perfect complement for Alex Ovechkin. He's certainly not the same scorer, but his ability to put the puck in the net is rare. There's also a level of consistency that isn't there from game to game because bigger opponents—Goldobin is listed at 5'11" and 178 pounds—can get in his head.
14. Dallas Stars: Nikita Scherbak, LW, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Nikita Scherbak is like a slimy worm on the ice, sliding in between defenders when it looks like the gap has closed, which helps his unique passing ability play up. He's going to be an elite offensive facilitator very soon.
15. Detroit Red Wings: Ivan Barbashev, C, Moncton (QMJHL)
The Red Wings are set to enter next season as the second-oldest team in the NHL, which isn't good for a franchise stuck in neutral with early playoff exits and expensive contracts. Ivan Barbashev gives the club instant punch on offense, though he must learn to incorporate others into the offense.
16. Columbus Blue Jackets: Kasperi Kapanen, LW, KalPa (SM-Liiga)
Columbus needs to find explosive athletes to avoid being "just a playoff team." Kasperi Kapanen isn't a big, powerful skater who will overpower anyone down by the net, but he glides on the ice with an ease that makes it easy to see many open shots in his future.
17. Philadelphia Flyers: Alex Tuch, RW, USNTDP Juniors (USHL)
It's rare to find an 18-year-old who looks like a fully formed man and hockey player physically, but Alex Tuch fits that mold. He's already 6'3" and 216 pounds, yet he moves around the ice with ease and generates tremendous speed. His hands are powerful without being overaggressive and rarely will he make a bad decision with the puck.
18. Minnesota Wild: David Pastrnak, LW, Sodertalje (Sweden)
There's nothing sexy about David Pastrnak's game, as Red Line Report NHL writer Kirk Luedeke noted he's frenetic on the ice.
That kind of manic energy is what a team like Minnesota, which lacks an offensive spark, needs to improve on back-to-back playoff appearances.
19. Tampa Bay Lightning: Robby Fabbri, C, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Robby Fabbri seems like a Dustin Pedroia-type player, to use a comparison from another sport. He doesn't look like much in a uniform as an undersized player, but the package adds up to big things. Fabbri makes up for his lack of size with elite speed and powerful wrists to get a shot off from anywhere on the ice.
20. San Jose Sharks: Josh Ho-Sang, RW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
The Sharks are going to beat themselves up all offseason for blowing a 3-0 series lead against Los Angeles. There is no shame being shutdown by Jonathan Quick, but offense wasn't their strong suit anyway. San Jose finished sixth in goals scored and 20th in power-play percentage.
Josh Ho-Sang must learn to trust those around him more often—or at all—at the next level, but he's so quick and gets rid of the puck in a flash that goals will be easy to come by.
21. St. Louis Blues: Sonny Milano, LW, USNTDP (USHL)
The Blues are stuck in a rut that prevents them from getting over the first-round hump in the postseason. They have all the ingredients to win a Stanley Cup but aren't able to make use of it.
Sonny Milano is a one-dimensional wing who is only effective when the puck is on his stick, so don't expect an elite talent. He makes great use of the skills, as evidenced by 39 points in 25 games last year with the USNTDP.
22. Pittsburgh Penguins: Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Just when it looked like Pittsburgh was on its way to another Eastern Conference title, the offense fell to pieces against New York in the playoffs. The Penguins need to get younger and more dynamic with the puck, which is where Jared McCann fits in. He put up 62 points in 2013-14, his first season in the OHL.
There's a streaky quality to the way McCann plays the game, which is why he's not near the top of this class, but a potentially elite scorer is hard to find.
23. Colorado Avalanche: Adrian Kempe, LW, MODO (SHL)
The Avalanche had a great bounce-back season last year with 112 points. To keep that momentum going, a young, dynamic talent like Adrian Kempe makes perfect sense. He's just 17 but won't need much development time thanks to a big shot and ability to get around defenders to attack the net.
24. Anaheim Ducks: John Quenneville, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
The cousin of Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville, John is a talented offensive player starting to come into his own. He collected 58 points in 61 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings last season and followed that up with 13 points in nine playoff games. The Ducks aren't exactly starved for offense after leading the NHL in goals last year, but talent like this doesn't come around late in the first round very often.
25. Boston Bruins: Roland McKeown, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Passing ability isn't as sexy as putting the puck in the net, but Roland McKeown is going to carve out a long career because of his ability to include teammates. He's accurate and smart with a knack for setting up teammates, as well as showing a knack for disrupting lanes on defense.
26. Montreal Canadiens: Brendan Lemieux, LW, Barrie (OHL)
Brendan Lemieux certainly has the bloodlines to be a successful NHL player as the son of Claude Lemieux. He's a lot like his father, embodying that toughness and attitude you want to see from a late-round prospect. The 18-year-old has also shown skills on offense with power in his wrist shot and 27 goals in 65 games for the Barrie Colts.
27. Chicago Blackhawks: Julius Honka, D, Swift Current (WHL)
A lack of toughness on the defensive front is what cost the Blackhawks a chance to win another Stanley Cup. Julius Honka isn't loaded with tools on the ice, but he is so precise with his ability to move and anticipates as well as anyone in this class.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning: Conner Bleackley, C, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
The Lightning should be shouting from the rooftops if Conner Bleackley ends up being on the board at No. 29. This pick was received from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade and could help push Tampa Bay back over the top.
Bleackley can do everything on the ice already, as HockeyProspect.com noted on Twitter, which is remarkable considering he doesn't turn 18 until July 2.
It's going to take some time for those raw skills to translate in the NHL, but the most difficult aspect of adjusting for any young player is in the mind. Bleackley appears to have the right head on his shoulders to accept the game as it is and become the star his talent suggests.
29. Los Angeles Kings: Vladislav Kamenev, C, Magnitogorsk (KHL)
When you are the defending Stanley Cup champions, with two titles in the last three years, and have virtually an entire roster entering its prime, you can get creative with the draft. Vladislav Kamenev is a defense-first forward with some offensive attributes that need time to develop.
30. New Jersey Devils: Jack Dougherty, D, St. Thomas Academy HS (Minnesota)
The Devils have their goalie of the future in Cory Schneider, but they can go a long way towards being one of the elite defensive teams in the NHL with Jack Dougherty. The Minnesota high school star is as physical as any player in this class and not afraid to throw his body around. He's an enforcer ready to step in as a starter very soon.
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