The 2014 NHL draft is many things to many people, but Year of the Defenceman it is not.
The oddity, of course, is that it's a blueliner who is the mid-season favorite to be taken No. 1 overall at the draft in Philadelphia, June 27-28.
Barrie Colt defenceman Aaron Ekblad is No. 1 on TSN's Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects rankings. In a survey of 10 NHL team scouts, Ekblad garnered eight No. 1 votes and was No. 2 on the remaining two ballots. The only other players to get a No. 1 vote, one apiece, were Kootenay Ice centre Sam Reinhart and Kingston Frontenac centre Sam Bennett (who was ranked No. 1 by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau in its mid-term rankings).
Ekblad and Reinhart both performed admirably for Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championship but the defenceman clearly made a bigger impact, reversing TSN's pre-season polling that had Reinhart at No. 1, by virtue of five first-place votes, compared to Ekblad's three.
The truth is, from the Ivan Hlinka Memorial under-18 tournament last August through to the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects game in mid-January, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound defenceman has been on a strong, steady arc.
"In the summer, a lot of the projections for (Ekblad) were he might not be anything more than a (No.) 4 (NHL defenceman), that he was neither a real offensive threat or a true shutdown defenceman," one scout told TSN. "But the way he played at the Hlinka, this season in Barrie, the World Juniors and the Prospect game, he's showing a lot more range in his game."
While Ekblad will never be a power play quarterback, he can hammer the puck well enough to project as a power play shooter from the point and score goals. Both at the Hlinka and WJC, Ekblad was consistently used in a shutdown role and performed well. Many scouts believe now he has top-pairing NHL potential, a big body who can skate, move the puck, defend, contribute offensively and play both sides of special teams while munching a lot of minutes. After the WJC, Ekblad scored four goals (including a shorthanded marker) and one assist in one game.
"He's not a superstar by any means," another scout said, "but he's going to be a very good NHL defenceman."
Some scouts have taken note of Victor Hedman's emergence, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, as a top-minute defenceman for Tampa this season and see many similarities in Ekblad.
Ekblad is far and away the top defenceman in this draft. Only one other blueliner - Red Deer's Haydn Fleury, at No. 6 – cracked TSN's Top 10 prospects. In fact, only five defencemen - Ekblad, Fleury, Kingston's Roland McKeown at No. 17, Swift Current's Julius Honka at No. 18 and Sarnia's Anthony DeAngelo at No. 26 – are in TSN's Top 30. The latter three are likely first-round picks, but not by any means guaranteed.
Relative to recent years, the death of top-echelon defencemen is striking.
Last year, eight of the top 18 picks were defenders. In 2012, eight of the top 10 picks were blueliners.
Scouts do not believe this year's draft class has the same high-end sizzle and overall depth as last year's group that was headed by Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin and Aleksandr Barkov. And it would be fair to say there's more anticipation for the 2015 draft class, headed by highly-touted Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, amongst others, than this year.
But the scouts also cautioned that the top-end prospects this year are still excellent talents, just not necessarily potential stars.
TSN's No. 2-ranked Reinhart didn't really do anything to "lose" No. 1 status from the pre-season as much as Ekblad simply elevated his game. Reinhart has played very well in the WHL and logged significant minutes for Canada at the WJC. A centre in junior, some scouts believe he'll be best suited to wing in the NHL. Reinhart's chief assets are an extremely high hockey I.Q. and skill level as both a goal-scorer and playmaker. He's not physically overpowering and his skating is not dynamic but a seemingly innate ability to be in the right place at the right time to make plays is his trademark.
Kingston's Bennett, the only player other than Ekblad and Reinhart to get a No. 1 vote, is No. 3 on the TSN list. The competitive centre who has some of the same qualities as his Kingston general manager Doug Gilmour can be both a productive offensive force but also does quality work without puck, earning rave reviews for his complete approach to the game.
Oshawa General winger Michael Dal Colle checks in at No. 4 on TSN's list. The rangy forward has a pro shot and was a top five prospect on eight of 10 scouts' ballots, including one vote as the second-best prospect available in this draft.
No. 5 on TSN's list is Prince Albert Raider centre Leon Draisaitl, who is destined to be the highest-drafted German player and, for now, the top European prospect on the TSN list. But Draisaitl seems to be trending in the wrong direction. He played poorly at the WJC and didn't perform particularly well in the CHL Top Prospects game. But he's still a big-body, two-way centre. The second half of the season could mean more to Draisaitl's ranking than any prospect in the draft.
The balance of TSN's Top 10 is top heavy with wingers. Only two-way defenceman Fleury, at No. 6, interrupted a run on wingers: Peterborough Petes' power forward Nick Ritchie is No. 7, followed at No. 8 by Niagara Ice Dog Brendan Perlini, whose assets are size, speed and an NHL shot. The No. 9 slot belongs to Finnish winger Kasperi Kapanen, the son of former NHL winger Sami Kapanen, and the Top 10 is rounded out by Calgary Hitmen power winger Jake Virtanen, a strong skater who drives the net and can play the physical game.
There appears to be a lot of volatility in this year's mid-season rankings. NHL scouts don't seem as fully sold on this year's first-round prospects, especially those ranked from No. 11 through to 30.
One of the issues is size.
Many of the more skilled prospects - Swedish forward William Nylander at No. 11, the son of former NHLer Mikael Nylander, Denmark's Nikolaj Ehlers, a forward with the Halifax Mooseheads at No. 15, No. 22 Russian Nikolay Goldobin, a forward in Sarnia, No. 23 Czech winger Jakub Vrana , No. 24 Swiss forward Kevin Fiala, Sarnia offensive defenceman DeAngelo at No. 26, No. 29 Windsor winger Josh Ho-Sang and No. 30 forward Rob Fabbri of the Guelph Storm - are all listed as sub-6-footers by NHL Central Scouting.
And while scouts don't dispute the individual skill level of prospects like Nylander, Goldobin, Vrana, DeAngelo, Ho-Sang and No. 25 ranked Nick Schmaltz of the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers (headed for University of North Dakota), multiple scouts expressed some reservation about those players' trying to do too much with the puck or not showing enough consistency and commitment to the team game.
"Nylander is the most skilled player in this draft, bar none," one scout told TSN. "But he likes to play the game on his own."
Another scout said: "Some nights you watch Schmaltz and he's a dominant player, best on the ice, but then he doesn't even show up a lot of games."
A third scout said: "Ho-Sang played a great game at Prospects and showed an ability to play with others but a lot of nights in Windsor, he wants to do it on his own. There seem to be a lot of guys like that this year."
No goalie was ranked in TSN's Top 30, but American Thatcher Demko, who plays at Boston College, fell just outside, at No. 31, and should be considered a potential first-rounder. He was the overwhelming consensus top goalie in a year where there's never been so little consensus beyond the top guy.
Demko appeared on eight of 10 ballots, but the next highest ranked goalie, Alex Nedeljkovic of the Plymouth Whalers at No. 42, was on only five of 10 ballots. Swedish goalie Jonas Johansson was the only other goalie to crack TSN's Top 50, filling the 50th and final spot. There were, however, three goaltenders getting honorable mention for the Top 50: Finland's Kaapo Kahkonen; Charlottetown's Mason McDonald; and Russian Ivan Nalimov.
One note regarding TSN's rankings. The numbers assigned are a projection of when TSN believes a prospect is most likely to be drafted, if the draft were being held now. It's not a subjective analysis - not to be confused with the many scouting services who actually evaluate the prospects - as much as it is a numerical consensus obtained from surveying NHL scouts and where they rank specific players.
TSN's next ranking - a revised Top 10 - will be done in April at the same time as the NHL draft lottery. TSN's final rankings come out the week prior to the NHL draft in late June.