Thursday, June 26, 2014

2014 draft preview: Ten players, ten questions

The NHL draft will be held this weekend in Philadelphia. The first round goes Friday night, with the rest held throughout the day on Saturday.

Drafts are a fascinating business; everyone comes up with their rankings and mocks, and then inevitably some sure-thing prospect starts sliding, someone else goes too early, and some team comes along and blows it all up by going completely off the board.

That’s partly due to the inherent difficulty in scouting and projecting teenagers. But it also speaks to the different philosophies that organizations have when it comes to drafting prospects. So instead of running down each and every name that could go off the board, I thought it might be more interesting to focus on some of those key philosophical questions, and how they could impact tomorrow’s opening round.

So let’s take a look at 10 names that will factor prominently into the weekend’s action. These aren’t the 10 best players in the draft (I’ve left out some possible top 10 picks like Michael Dal Colle and Jake Virtanen), but they may end up being the 10 most interesting to keep an eye on. And where they end up going could tell us a lot about how teams think about the draft.

The player: Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)

Ekblad is pretty much the unanimous pick as the top defenseman in the draft, and he may well go first overall. He’s got everything scouts love in a blueliner: size, vision, hockey sense, and a big shot that netted 23 goals last year.

Whenever his name comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to his maturity. Every draft class seems to have one player who seems 10 years older than everyone else (call it Landeskog Syndrome), and this year that’s Ekblad. The NHL brought a few of the top prospects to a few events during the Stanley Cup final, and at first I thought Ekblad was a league employee hired to shepherd the younger kids around. It’s increasingly rare to see a defenseman be able to step into the league and have any sort of impact right out of junior, but Ekblad could be the guy who can do it.

The bigger question: How do you feel about using a high pick on a defenseman?

If he goes first overall, Ekblad will be the first defenseman taken with the top pick since Erik Johnson in 2006, and just the second since a streak of three straight from 1994 to 1996. That’s largely because defensemen typically take longer to develop than forwards, making them tougher to project at this age. Everyone wants to build around a guy like Drew Doughty, taken second overall by the Kings in 2008, but the last decade has also seen teams use top-five picks on blueline disappointments like Cam Barker, Thomas Hickey, and Luke Schenn. Forwards can be busts, too, of course, but they’re generally the safer pick because they arrive closer to their NHL peak.

It’s possible Ekblad could face a situation similar to Seth Jones’s last year. Jones spent most of the season as the expected top pick, only to drop all the way to no. 4 on draft day as the Avs, Panthers, and Lightning all opted for forwards. It’s unlikely Ekblad will fall that far, since you’d have to assume the forward-heavy Oilers would snap him up if he fell to them at no. 3, but he’s far from a sure thing at no. 1.

The player: Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (WHL)

Reinhart has been on the radar as a possible first-overall choice for years, and while Central Scouting has him ranked third, he could still go with the top pick. He’s not a can’t-miss prospect in the mold of Sidney Crosby or John Tavares (or even Connor McDavid, next year’s presumptive top pick). But he is an impressively complete player for an 18-year-old, and projects as a first-line center who’ll be able to play in all situations.

Reinhart’s brother Griffin went fourth overall in 2012. That seems to be the worst-case scenario for Sam, and there’s a decent chance he goes first. That could depend on the Florida Panthers, who own that pick right now but may not by the time the draft starts.

The bigger question: What should it cost to trade up to no. 1?

It has become an annual draft tradition: The team that owns the no. 1 pick advertises that it’s available, we all go into a frenzy of trade rumors and scenarios, and then the team keeps the pick after all. The first-overall pick hasn’t actually been traded since 2003. We may be headed down the same path this year, although the Panthers seem more interested in dealing down than most teams. It’s yet another new era in Florida, with new ownership and a new coach in Gerard Gallant, and GM Dale Tallon seems intent on improving the team right now. That could mean dropping down a few spots in exchange for some immediate NHL help.

As you’d expect, that has led to every team in the top eight being linked to some sort of deal with the Panthers. Determining draft pick value is notoriously difficult — this may be the best attempt I’ve seen so far — and that’s especially true when veteran players are added into the mix. Despite all the talk, the odds are good the Panthers end up keeping the pick. But if some team wants to move up and snag a potential franchise player like Reinhart, the Panthers swear they’re open for business.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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