How is the 1st Round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft looking so far? (Part 1)
The 2014 NHL Entry Draft was not considered a “draft for the ages”, along the lines of 2003 or potentially 2015. In fact, it wasn’t even considered to be offering much in the way of elite talent at all, though that is not to say the players on offer couldn’t be potential impact players down the line.
With six months having passed since the first 30 selections of this draft were made, lets have a look at how the Draft +1 seasons are trending.
1st Overall – Aaron Ekblad – FLA
Ekblad was viewed as the almost-consensus number one choice in the 2014 draft, by virtue of his size – 6’4″, 216 lbs – his considerable skill – 53 points in 58 games in the OHL in 2013/14 from the blueline – and his pedigree – he was granted exceptional status for the OHL Priority Draft at the age of 15.
However, there were questions over just what his ceiling might be at the NHL level. Most agree that he was and is a slam dunk top-4 defender, and probably a top-pairing guy, but elite? People weren’t sure. His offensive numbers didn’t match previous highly rated blueliners, he has a wide range of skills but no one outstanding trait, and some believed that his size advantage in juniors wouldn’t have the same impact against grown men in the NHL.
Immediately elevated to the NHL by the Panthers, how has he done so far? Well, his 22 points in 37 games speaks to the fact that yes, his offense is translating to the NHL. His points per game rate of 0.59 so far is 8th all time among rookie defenders, putting him ahead of such talents as Erik Karlsson, Jacob Trouba, Tomas Kaberle and Drew Doughty in their rookie seasons.
He also sports a +8 rating and a positive Corsi rating while playing above average competition (though with the benefit of 56% offensive zonestarts). He is paired most often with veteran puckmover Brian Campbell, who has an uncanny ability to make stars of his partners (see: Gilbert, Tom and Garrison, Jason), so if it’s important not to get too excited about Ekblad just yet, but he’s clearly adjusting well to the NHL game.
At this point, he looks without a doubt to be a future top-pairing stud.
2nd Overall – Sam Reinhart – BUF
The first of two talented Sams selected in the top-4 of this draft, Reinhart is the brother of two other highly regarded skaters – Max (CGY) and Griffin (NYI) – and son of former NHLer Paul. He is extremely likely to be the most effective NHLer of all of them.
He isn’t described as being hugely athletic or physical, but possesses a great hockey IQ and perhaps the best offensive instincts in the draft. He has many similarities to the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with potential to be a high quality two-way player, though is not as great a skater as Nugent-Hopkins.
He played 9 games with the Sabres to start this season, with 1 assist to show for his efforts, and the Sabres rightly sent him back to Kootenay of the WHL to develop his game until at least next season. He currently sports an outstanding 27 points in 15 games, improving his points per game rate from 1.75 in 2013/14 to 1.8 this year.
Reinhart is currently starring for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championships, and is co-leading the tournament in scoring with 11 points in 7 games. He is projected to be a high-end centre in the NHL, perhaps not elite, but certainly very, very good.
3rd Overall – Leon Draisaitl – EDM
The highest selected German in the history of the draft, Draisaitl could be exactly what the doctor ordered for the eternally struggling Edmonton Oilers. A big (6’2″, 215 lbs), highly skilled center, Draisaitl could form quite the combination down the road with current number one center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Draisaitl was a little divisive leading up to the draft. Most scouts agreed he was a great talent, but not all were convinced he was worthy of a top-5 selection. He was described as a dominant puck-possession player who can protect the puck with outstanding efficiency, while being an elite playmaker and playing an intelligent game. Criticisms of his game included his lack of aggressiveness for his size, and his lack of speed.
To-date, he has played 37 games in the NHL, scoring 2 goals and 9 points. He has looked overmatched at times, and extremely impressive at others, flashing signs of the dominant puck-possession skills that scouts raved about. His skating is also better than advertised – his first few steps need to improve, but once he gets going he’s more than capable of keeping up with the play – and his passion on the ice is evident. He has been sheltered with below-average competition and extreme offensive zonestarts, and has performed well in shot-metrics.
The Oilers have, however, been oft-criticised for throwing in an 18 year old straight into one of the toughest positions to play at the highest level; thankfully, it looks as though the team has recognised their error and will be sending Draisaitl back to junior (his rights have reportedly been traded from Prince Albert to Kelowna) for further seasoning.
Despite his scoring struggles this season, Draisaitl still projects as a high-end second-line center, with outside potential to be a first liner.
4th Overall – Sam Bennett – CGY
The Calgary Flames can’t have been more delighted to see “The Other Sam” fall to them at number-4 on draft day. Many argued he was the best forward in the draft, possessing exceptional skill and an aggressive, passionate style despite his lack of size. An outstanding skater with a high hockey IQ, Bennett – like Reinhart – also displays strong defensive awareness.
After scoring 91 points in 57 games in 2013/14, most expected the Flames to do the right thing and send him back to the OHL for further seasoning. Unfortunately, at training camp it was discovered Bennett had been hiding a significant shoulder injury, and had to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum. He is currently in Calgary undergoing rehab, therapy and conditioning, but will be hard pressed to get in much game action at all this season. He may be healthy just before the season’s end, but he would be best off resting and preparing for next season.
This shoulder injury could be a significant set-back for Bennett, as the Draft +1 season is huge in development terms. It likely won’t effect him long term, but his arrival as an impact NHLer will likely be delayed another year. Ultimately, Bennett still projects as a quality 1st/2nd line center.
5th Overall – Michael Dal Colle – NYI
A step down from the top-4 players, but still highly rated, Michael Dal Colle is considered a prototypical power-forward. He scored 39 goals and 95 points in 2013/14 in the OHL, who is a very powerful skater and aggressive player while possessing a big 6’2″ frame (though he has yet to fill that out).
Described as one of the most highly skilled players in the draft, Dal Colle excels at creativity, puck protection and stickhandling. The thought of him perhaps playing on John Tavares’ wing down the line is truly tantalizing. So far in 27 OHL games this season, he has 23 goals and 54 points, improving his points per game rate from 1.42 in 2013/14 to 2.00 this season, a monumental increase.
He must improve his strength before he will reach his true potential as a high-end NHL power forward, but all the tools are there for him to make an impact a few years down the road.
6th Overall – Jake Virtanen – VAN
Viewed by many as the most pure power forward in the draft (Dal Colle doesn’t yet have the body type), Virtanen isn’t the tallest skater at 6’1″, but at over 200lbs he is a load on the ice. With excellent skating ability and a heavy shot, he can be really tough to handle for opposing defenders. The Canucks gladly snapped him up at 6th overall.
So far this season, Virtanen has 9 goals and 23 points in 20 games with Calgary of the WHL, improving his points per game rate from 1.00 in 2013/14, to 1.15 this season, perhaps not as significant an increase as some would hope for but still an improvement, especially when you consider he missed the first few games of the season rehabbing from shoulder surgery. He also featured on the Gold Medal-winning Team Canada at the 2015 WJCs, scoring 1 goal and 4 points in 7 games.
Virtanen currently projects as a top-6 NHL winger with the potential to be a perennial 20-30 goal scorer. It’ll likely take a few years for him to hit his stride, and he may need seasoning in the minors first, but the talent is there.
7th Overall – Haydn Fleury – CAR
Haydn Fleury was widely considered the second best defender in the 2014 draft behind Ekblad, and that’s precisely how he was drafted. With good size and skating ability, he is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of player, much like Ekblad himself. In fact, some did question what his role in the NHL would be – his offense was good but not great, as was his defensive play. Nonetheless, the Hurricanes saw enough in him to draft him in the top-10.
This year, Fleury has had a bit of a tough go of it. With just 12 points in 31 games so far, his points per game rate of 0.39 far trails last year’s rate of 0.66, and his -9 rating is well behind last year’s +15. He also missed out on the chance to represent Canada at the WJCs. His all-around play is reportedly improving, however.
Fleury will likely spend another year developing in junior, and could very well spend a season in the AHL before making it to the NHL. Once there, it will still be a few years before he likely becomes an impact player, but he projects at least as a solid top-4 defender.
8th Overall – William Nylander – TOR
There was little debate among scouts that Nylander was one of, if not the most talented players available in the 2014 draft. Elite-level skill, quick hands, excellent skating, great vision and intelligence on the ice, and strong results in a secondary professional league (the Swedish Allsvenskan). Why didn’t he go higher then? Well, at 5’11” and 170lbs he isn’t the biggest of players. Further to that, there were concerns over his attitude and ability to utilise his team-mates on the ice. The Maple Leafs decided his immense talent trumped any risk associated with drafting him.
This season, the bet looks to be paying off. Having scored just 7 points in 22 games in the SHL last season, he is dominating this season with 8 goals and 19 points in 19 games so far this year, and tore apart the WJCs with 10 points in 7 games.
The SHL is a very difficult league to score in, let alone as an 18 year old. It is difficult to watch Nylander and not get excited about what he could be in the NHL. He has all the tools to be a more effective and consistent scorer than his father Michael, who was a decent NHLer in his own right with some excellent scoring seasons. If he keeps developing, Nylander could be a game-breaking first line winger for years in the NHL.
9th Overall – Nikolaj Ehlers – WPG
The dynamic Dane came out of nowhere to rocket up the rankings after a blistering season with Halifax of the QMJHL. Some opined that his success was at least partially due to playing with star player Jonathan Drouin, but others debunked that myth when breaking down their stats. His 49 goals were the most by a rookie in the QMJHL since a certain Sidney Crosby road the buses around the Eastern provinces. The Jets were positively delighted to select him at 9th overall.
Highly skilled and with explosive speed, Ehlers has proved this season that he can produce without Drouin, scoring 47 points in 23 games for a stunning 2.04 points per game, a huge increase on his 1.65 from 2013/14. He also scored 4 points in 5 games at this year’s WJCs.
He doesn’t necessarily project to be a franchise player, but without a doubt could be an excellent complementary player one day on the Jets’ first or second line.
10th Overall – Nick Ritchie – ANA
The positively hulking Nick Ritchie drew comparisons to fellow draft eligible Jake Virtanen, in that they both have great size, speed, skill and shot. Ritchie does have 2″ and nearly 30lbs on Virtanen however, making him a monster on skates. The brother of top Dallas Stars prospect Brett Ritchie, Nick projects to be an even meaner, more aggressive player with a higher scoring upside.
After scoring 39 goals and 74 points in 61 games in 2013/14, so far this year he has 14 goals and 32 points in 25 games. His scoring rates have thus very slightly increased year over year, perhaps not the progression that was hoped for, but still strong. He scored 1 goal in 7 games with Team Canada at this year’s WJCs.
The prospect of Ritchie one day patrolling the wing with Getzlaf and Perry must be tantalizing for Ducks’ fans. However, he will likely need to spend time ripening in the minors before he can be expected to make an impact in the NHL. Having seen other highly rated forwards Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly struggle to make an impact in the NHL, the Ducks will take their time with Ritchie and not push him before he’s ready.
Stay tuned for Part 2 within the next few days!