We are a little under nine months away from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia, and while full focus is not yet on draft prospects, the first round of "Top 30s" are out, with close to every news outlet making predictions. However, our first look will not actually rank the top prospects, but rather give you a look at who to watch and why; a rundown of who is fairly certain to be a first round selection, as well as the sleepers that you should be watching over the next few months.
Scouts have been viewing the 1996s (and late 1995s) for at least three years. Like Taylor and Tyler in 2010, and to a lesser extent like Tavares and Duchene the year before, the early talk has been focused on Sam Reinhart vs. Aaron Ekblad for the number one pick. They are a step above all of the other prospects thus far, but if European winger William Nylander has an excellent showing at the World Junior Championships (WJCs), he may go first overall. After these three prospects, there is a second tier that is solid and should fill out most, if not all of the first round.
With a large second tier of prospects, all bunched together toward the middle and bottom of the first round, an early ranking seems rather arbitrary in this draft year. So, in this first look, I am grouping potential first rounders by position, giving you a few players in each category that you should be watching, because any one of them may get hot and even slip into the top 10.
It is almost a certainty that there will be no goaltenders taken in the first half of the first round in this draft. However, Thatcher Demko, an American goaltender who is currently a freshman at Boston College, is a possible late first round selection. The 6'4", 182-pound, late-1995 netminder had an outstanding season for the U.S. National Development Team last year, and he performed extremely well in Pittsburgh at the All-American Prospects Game. He is excellent at challenging shooters and has very good lateral movement; if Demko continues his good play into Hockey East season, expect people to begin to project him to go somewhere between 20th to 30th overall.
It is rare that NHL teams select a defenseman with the first overall pick (the last time was in 2006, when the St. Louis Blues took Erik Johnson), but this may be the year. Ekblad, who plays for the Barrie Colts (OHL), is a two-way defenseman who projects to be a top pairing anchor on an NHL blueline. At 6'4", 217 pounds, Ekblad is physically imposing and not afraid to use his body. Likely to be ready to step into the NHL next season, he is undoubtedly the top defenseman available this year.
Other CHL blueliners who are likely first round selections include Haydn Fleury (Red Deer, WHL), a big, 6'3", 198-pound, two-way defenseman who can skate and distribute the puck well, Roland McKeown (Kingston, OHL), at 6'1", 195 pounds, who is more of an offense-first blueliner who projects to be a first to second pairing player, and Brycen Martin (Swift Current, WHL), a two-way blueliner who has size (6'2", 185 pounds) and can play in all situations. One sleeper pick among CHL defensemen is Julius Honka, who also plays for Swift Current in the WHL. He is smaller than any of the other potential first round blueliners (5'11", 175 pounds), but he is a quick, good-skating, offensive defenseman, and he is excellent on the power play. The other sleeper pick for a late first round selection is Aaron Haydon, an American who plays for Niagara (OHL). At 6'3", 190 pounds, Haydon is a tough defensive blueliner who is learning to fight, as well as working on his gap control.
Among the defensemen playing in the United States, there is Ryan Mantha, Jack Glover, and a sleeper pick, Jack Dougherty. NHL Central Scouting considers all of them "B" skaters, but it is very possible that these prospects could hear their names called in the first round next June. Mantha, at 6'4", 208 lbs, is a big body with a big bomb of a shot. A two-way blueliner, he projects to be a first to second pairing defenseman in the NHL. Glover (U.S. National Development Team) is more of a defensive blueliner, and while he needs work on gap control and skating, he has good size (6'3", 172 pounds). Dougherty (U.S. National Development Team) also has size, and he is just coming into his own. Excellent on the power play, he gained notoriety for his play at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this past summer. He just committed to the University of Wisconsin next fall, and at 6'2", 185 pounds, he could wind up being the hot player at next spring's Combine.
Nylander and Reinhart are the top forwards for next summer's draft as of the start of this season. Reinhart (Kootenay, WHL), a center, is a complete offensive player who skates well, has vision, does well on faceoffs, and makes excellent decisions with and without the puck. Nylander, who plays center and on the wing, is smaller (5'10", 170 pounds) and more of an offense-only player. Nylander can break a game open; he is dynamic and creative. Neither player is exceptionally good in his own zone, but Reinhart probably will not be a liability in that area. Nylander may be, which is what is keeping him from being ranked first overall at this point. If he shows he can play well in both ends of the ice at the WJCs, his ranking may elevate quickly.
Below Nylander and Reinhart, there is a large second tier of forwards, including six who are currently playing in Europe: Jakub Vrana, Anton Karlsson, Oskar Lindblom, Adrian Kempe, Kasperi Kapanen, and sleeper first round pick David Pastrnak. A playmaker with very good vision and speed, Kempe (6'2", 182) is the only center in this group. Of the wingers, Vrana (6'0", 181 pounds) is the most offensively oriented. With great hands and decent speed, he maneuvers well with the puck and can be slippery. Karlsson, however, is more of a complete player and larger than Vrana. At 6'1", 203 pounds, Karlsson uses his body well, has good hands, excellent acceleration, and he makes smart two-way decisions.
Lindblom plays on the left side, and is more of a playmaking winger than Karlsson or Vrana. Lindblom is tall (6'2", 187 pounds), but he needs to fill out and get stronger on the puck, which has lowered his stock in the draft, at least thus far. Kapanen, who plays on the right side, is also a playmaking winger. Although only average sized (5'10", 170 pounds), he makes good decisions, skates well, plays well in all zones, and gives 100% on every shift.
Pastrnak is the sleeper European forward for the first round of this draft, due in large part to an excellent showing in the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this summer. At 6'0", 168 pounds, the winger is more of a playmaker than a scorer, and is very responsible in his own zone.
As for forwards who are American and playing currently in the United States, Dylan Larkin and Nick Schmaltz are expected to be selected in the first round. Larkin (6'0", 172 pounds), a dynamic goal-scoring center/winger, has incredible speed and excellent hands. Schmaltz (5'11", 170 pounds) is a center who may have even better puck skills than Larkin, though he could have hurt his ranking based on a less than stellar performance at the All-American Prospects Game.
A sleeper prospect for first round selection from among the American prospects is U.S. Development Team member Sonny Milano. Small (5'10", 159 pounds) and very offensively oriented, Milano can play at center and wing, but he tends to be at his best in the offensive zone.
There are approximately 14 forwards currently playing in the CHL who could be considered potential first round selections. Nine are generally considered to be the most likely to have their name called, but if any of the 14 are selected, it would not be surprising.
Among those CHL second-tier centers eligible for the draft this year, right now, Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert, WHL) is probably considered the best of the bunch. A big center (6'1", 209 pounds) who uses his power and hockey IQ to motor past opposing players, Draisaitl is projected to be a power forward in the NHL. Ivan Barbashev (Moncton, QMJHL) is a hard-working center who is a very consistent two-way player. Projected to be a second to third line forward in the NHL, Barbashev is the kind of player who could be an NHL captain one day. Jared McCann (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL) is a goal-scoring center (6'1", 175 pounds) who probably will be switched to the wing in the NHL. McCann has blazing speed and an excellent compete level. With some work on defense, he could be one of the jewels of the upcoming draft.
As for the six wingers who are in this group, Michael Dal Colle (Oshawa, OHL) has good size (6'2", 171 pounds), and can bang, skate, and pass extremely well. Very likely a top-10 selection in Philadelphia, Dal Colle also has good hockey smarts. Nick Ritchie (Peterborough, OHL) is 6'3", 235 pounds, and still growing. A prototypical power forward, Ritchie can go to the net and get the garbage goals.
There are many differences of opinion on Jake Virtanen (Calgary, WHL), but I am one of the believers. Although he is listed at 6'1", 210 pounds, he does look a bit smaller to me, but the winger is an excellent skater, and he can use that ability along with his strength to motor past defenders. He also has a good release and a pro-type shot. Sam Bennett (Kingston, OHL) is a hard-working character player who also can put points up on the board. At 6'1", 181 pounds, he projects to be a second to third line winger in the NHL. Blake Clarke (North Bay, OHL) is a power forward type (6'1", 190 pounds) who can drive to the net and shoot well. Nikolai Goldobin (Sarnia, OHL) is a dynamic winger who can make plays as well as score. Projected to be a top-six winger in the NHL, Goldobin can skate, and he sees the ice very well.
The five CHL forwards who should be watched because they could easily move into this group of probable first round picks are: Conner Bleackley, Matthew Mistele, Spencer Watson, Josh Ho-Sang, and Nickolaj Ehlers.