The 2014 NHL draft class can be forgiven for feeling as though it has a case of middle-child syndrome.
Which is to say, the top of this year's draft class is not as dynamic or exciting as the 2013 class of Nate MacKinnon, Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones and it's not as strikingly promising as the highly-anticipated 2015 slate of Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin.
But it would be a disservice to damn Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Draisaitl and Michael Dal Colle with faint praise.
"They are all very good prospects, they're all going to play in the NHL, they all should turn out to be very good players for a long time," one NHL scout said.
But the draft is all about projection.
And where MacKinnon, Barkov and Drouin were projected as first-line forwards and Jones was projected a likely No. 1 defenceman – destined for greatness -- this year's crop of forwards is projected more as second liners with defenceman Ekblad perhaps getting "top pairing" billing though not necessarily a future dynamic No. 1. Good, maybe very good, but not necessarily great.
The draft is also about question marks and, according to the scouts, even the elite picks this year have a few. And once one gets outside the top five of this year's draft, question marks really abound.
"There are some really talented kids in this draft, and not just at the top either," an NHL scout said, "but I don't recall a year recently when there were as many question marks. Skilled kids who lack size; players who might have issues with attitude or commitment. It seems to be a really volatile draft. Good luck trying to figure out this one."
That said, in the eyes of the scouts, at the top, it's rock solid, and, really, it has been all season long.
Barrie Colt defenceman Aaron Ekblad is No. 1 on TSN's Top 60 Final Rankings for the 2014 draft, a position he's owned or had a share of since last September. Seven of the 10 scouts surveyed by TSN to compile the rankings had Ekblad at No. 1. No scout surveyed had him outside of the top three.
Only two other prospects got first-place votes. No. 2-ranked Sam Reinhart, a centre with the Kootenay Ice, had one and No. 3-ranked Sam Bennett, a centre with the Kingston Frontenacs, had two.
"The difference between the top guys this year is not significant," a scout said. "That's why you're hearing more talk of teams drafting with position in mind."
To say nothing of those question marks.
For example, as good as the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Ekblad is, some scouts wonder if he an upside greater than being a steady, reliable two-way defender. Is there a dynamic quality there that is usually associated with a potential first overall pick?
Barrie head coach Dale Hawerchuk, a former NHL star, doesn't know about dynamic, but he does know impactful, because that's what Ekblad has been from the moment he showed up to Barrie as a 15-year-old who was granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada to enter the OHL a year early.
"He's been a top pair, shutdown defenceman who played against the best players in our league from the day he got here," Hawerchuk said, "and there's no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that he's going to be a really good top pair, shutdown defenceman who plays against the best players in the NHL. He's been impactful since Day 1. He does it all and he does it all consistently and he's going to be a 15 to 20 year top-pair NHL defenceman."
This year's top prospects earn rave reviews for some specific trait or quality, but the praise is accompanied by a question.
Reinhart's hockey sense, for example, is widely hailed, elite level, as good as it gets. But will his average speed and size put a second-line ceiling on him or reduce his effectiveness against men?
Bennett's complete game – equal parts skill, smarts, spirit, edge and work ethic – is lauded but can an average size centre translate that style to the NHL against men?
No. 4-ranked Leon Draisaitl, the Prince Albert Raiders' German-born and –trained centre, has a big NHL frame and can make plays but will the lack of a dynamic step keep him from being a first-liner?
No. 5-ranked Michael Dal Colle, the Oshawa Generals' rangy winger who is equally adept at shooting or making plays, but will his play without the puck be an issue?
And yet, for all the questions being asked, scouts concede these five are all good NHL prospects with a strong likelihood of having long NHL careers.
But there is a high degree – higher than usual – of subjectivity this year. Nowhere is that more evident than in the players, ranked Nos. 6 through 10 on TSN's list.
No. 6-ranked Nick Ritchie, the Peterborough Pete winger, has all the physical tools to be the consummate scoring power forward but there's been a lot of immaturity, inconsistency as well as some injuries in his game.
No. 7-ranked Jake Virtanen, the Calgary Hitmen winger, is another who has all the tools to be a scoring power forward but some scouts are a little wary because he tends to get tunnel vision when he has the puck.
No. 8-ranked Haydn Fleury, the Red Deer Rebel defenceman, has the size and speed scouts love but he has not established himself as either an offensive defenceman or a punishing defenceman.
No. 9-ranked William Nylander, the Canadian-born, Swedish-trained winger, may be the most skilled player in the entire draft class, but scouts worry about a stubborn streak that has often seen him play a more individual than team game.
No. 10-ranked Nikolaj Ehlers, the Halifax Mooseheads' Danish winger, was as prolific as any prospect this year, scoring 49 goals and 104 points in 67 games, and there's no doubting his skill level, but he's listed at 160 pounds, or as one scout put it, "he has to put on 20 pounds to be considered small."
"It's a funny draft," a scout said. "A kid like Ritchie, with his size and skill, or Nylander, with his skill level, could one day be the best of this class but there's some real risk associated with these guys. What if Ritchie doesn't get fully committed to being as good as he can be? What if Nylander just decides he's going to play like he's the only guy on the ice?"
That's always a theme in any draft, but this year it seems to be even more prevalent earlier than ever involving more prospects than usual.
Size is certainly on the mind of a lot of teams, especially after the very large Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup. Whether anyone likes it or not, that's the standard by which players are now judged.
"I look at these kids and I try to project them playing against the Los Angeles Kings one day," a scout said. "Can they play that game at that level?"
Even that exercise can be fraught with peril because two of those outstanding Kings – Tanner Pearson, who went 30th overall in the 2012 draft, and Tyler Toffoli, who went 47th overall in 2010 – were passed over by many teams in their respective draft year because they were perceived as too slow or too weak or too incomplete or too flawed. Go figure.
Guelph centre Robby Fabbri (No. 14 on TSN's list) scored 45 goals for the Storm in the regular season, was the OHL's playoff MVP and plays a hard-nosed game for a 5-foot-10 pivot, but will he stand up to the L.A. King litmus test? Ditto for smallish Swiss forward Kevin Fiala, No. 15 on the TSN list, though Fiala had the benefit of playing against men in both the Swedish League and for Switzerland at the World Championships.
But no two players represent the uncertain quality of this year's draft like the 30th and 31st-ranked Josh Ho Sang of the Windsor Spitfires and Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting.
Ho Sang is an electrifying, highly-skilled albeit undersized skilled forward who has some very firm ideas on how the game of hockey should be played and how he should play it. First-round talent? Absolutely. Will a team step up and take him in the first round? That's the fascinating aspect of this draft. So much natural talent; so many question marks.
"The question with Ho Sang is whether he wants to be a hockey player or he wants to be an artist or an entertainer," one scout said. "When he plays the give and go game, he's effective and dangerous but a lot of the time he only wants to go, there's no give (the puck to anyone else). Is he going to figure it out? Because if he does, the skills he has…"
DeAngelo's situation, though, takes it to another level of uncertainty.
The American blueliner is undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but he put up 15 goals and 71 points in 51 games for Sarnia. Imagine how many more points he would have registered if he hadn't been suspended on three separate occasions this season for either violating the OHL's diversity policy or verbally abusing an on-ice official or, as fate would have it, both.
In December of 2013, DeAngelo was suspended five games for violating the league's diversity policy in a verbal spat with an on-ice official. In January of 2014, he received an eight-game suspension for violating the league's diversity policy in a verbal exchange with a teammate. Five games after returning from that eight-game suspension, he was suspended two games for (verbal) abuse of an official.
Many scouts don't know what to make of DeAngelo. The vast majority of them say the north New Jersey kid, who'll effectively be at "home" for this week's NHL draft in Philadelphia, is (in spite of size concerns) a first-round talent, a smart, mobile and offensively gifted blueliner.
"Look at the talented small defencemen and where they've been taken in the draft, guys like Ryan Ellis, Ryan Murphy, Derrick Pouliot, even Erik Karlsson," a scout said. "DeAngelo should, on talent, be taken in that 10 to 20 range but I'm not sure he will be because of the other stuff."
Some of the scouts surveyed by TSN said they wouldn't take DeAngelo at all. Others said he would be a consideration in the second round – talent like that is hard to pass – but a couple did say they wouldn't rule out considering him in the first round.
"If you read stuff that people write, I think they go overboard with it because they don't know the details," DeAngelo told the Camden Courier Post. "They think I have character issues. I don't think I have character issues."
Interestingly, USA Hockey chose to not invite DeAngelo to its summer evaluation camp for the 2015 U.S. national junior team.
Of all the stories in what is expected to be an unpredictable draft, DeAngelo's is bound to be one of the most compelling. He's expected to have upwards of 100 friends and family in attendance Friday night and whether he's chosen or not in the first round will be an intriguing storyline.
Getting consensus for the TSN rankings was never more difficult than this year. Outside of perhaps the top 35 to 40, there was no real consensus. Even within the top 30 in the first round, there was a far greater variance from player to player than ever before.
TSN's rankings do not take into account the teams' order of selection; there's no allowance made for a team's personal or positional preference. These rankings are not so much an evaluation of which players will one day turn into the best NHLers as it is a forecast of what order in the draft this Friday and Saturday these players will reasonably be chosen. The list is determined on a mostly objective formula based on numerical rankings assigned by the scouts interviewed by TSN.