Nathan MacKinnon

Bennett, Ekblad, Lead Pack of 2014 NHL Prospects

aaron_ekblad_barrie_colts[1]Aaron Ekblad is expected to be the #1 pick in the NHL Amateur Draft (photo courtsy of fansided)

by Alli Baker

The 2014 NHL draft is upon us ( 7 pm EDT).  And while this year’s group of prospects may not look as dynamic or exciting as last year’s crop, this annual event always seems to have an impact in some way.

These prospects now have the chance to change the 2014-2015 season for their new teams. Take the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, for example. MacKinnon, who was the first overall pick last year, provided a huge presence for Colorado this year, and won the Calder Trophy in the process. While this is the goal of all draft prospects, only a few succeed in truly having a dramatically positive effect.

This year’s draft prospects are not projected to have this same sort of influence. “I don’t recall a year recently when there were as many question marks.” an NHL scout recently commented on this year’s prospects. “Skilled kids who lack size; players who might have issues with attitude or commitment. It seems to be a really volatile draft.” 1 Nonetheless, these top prospect like Samuel Bennett, Aaron Ekblad, and Sam Reinhart who are expected to go near the top of the draft, are still projected to provide some kind of an impact.

Here’s a closer look at the projected Top Ten prospects of the 2014 NHL draft:

10. Jake Virtanen: Known for his scoring ability, Virtanen would provide any team with extra offense and aggressiveness. The Calgary Hitman scored 45 goals last year in the WHL.  He also accumulated 100 penalty minutes, demonstrating that he has both goal-scoring talent and a mean streak. Although he possesses obvious talent, it has been said that he lacks “great vision or hockey sense,” which puts Virtanen at the bottom of our top 10. 2

9. Haydn Fleury: Considered the second-best defenseman available in this year’s draft, Fleury is quite the package. The 6’3″, 201 lb. Canadian possesses size, speed, and good hockey sense. However, unlike defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Fleury doesn’t display the same offensive knack. Although he scored 46 points last year in the WHL, Fleury lacks offensive explosiveness.

8: Nikolaj Ehlers: A speedy player with good puck-handling skills, Ehlers would provide any team with some explosive offense. The Dane scored over 100 points while playing in Halifax, however, he played alongside Jonathan Drouin, who was also a very talented goal scorer. This leads one to wonder whether Ehlers has goal-scoaring talent, or he just had an extremely talented line mate. Ehlers’ size is also somewhat of a concern. At 5’11”, 162 lbs, he may end up getting pushed around in the NHL.

7: William Nylander: Son of veteran NHL player Michael Nylander, William has inherited his father’s hockey skills and is known for his impressive agility, quickness, and great hands. Nylander scored an insane 16 points in seven games during last year’s under-18 games, proving he has offensive talent. However, at 5’11”, 175 lbs.,the left wing is small in size and he has some strength to gain. He has also been said to be “sometimes selfish, always a diva.” Although he definitely has talent, his attitude problems have lowered his draft value. <sup>2<sup>

6: Nick Ritchie: This big forward possesses both formidable size and scoring talent. Ritchie scored 39 goals for the Peterborough Petes, showing his goal-scoring talent. On top of that, Ritchie isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. At 6’3″, 236 pounds, this combination of size and offensive talent lands Ritchie at number six on the list.

5: Leon Draisaitl: Draisaitl appears to be the total package; he has size, speed, and he has been a consistent goal scorer. Nicknamed “The German Gretzky,” Draisaitl is set to become the highest-drafted German player. This center for the Prince Albert Raiders scored 38 goals in 64 games during the 2013-14 season, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down offensively. Yet, he has been said to lack hockey instincts and therefore he likely won’t be draft higher than number five.

4: Michael Dal Colle: Dal Colle is a talented goal-scorer with a solid two-way game. The left wing has been compared to Ryan Getzlaf and has the ability to provide a real offensive impact wherever he plays. However, his lanky frame and lack of weight are a possible concern at the NHL level. If Dal Colle bulks up, he really doesn’t have many other flaws. 3

3: Sam Reinhardt: Reinhardt has intelligence on the ice and the ability to handle the puck, yet his size is nothing extraordinary and his speed has caused him to be described as “barely an average skater.” However, it’s possible for his smart play and exceptional puck-handling to make up for his lack of speed and size. With a little more time to develop, Reinhardt has the potential to develop into a solid NHL forward.

2: Sam Bennett: Bennett’s character and play on the ice have been given rave reviews by almost everyone out there, and there’s no doubt he has offensive skill. However, Bennett failed to do even a single pull-up at the draft combine, leading some to wonder about his strength. Even so, Bennett is still a solid goal scorer and his NHL future is most likely not going to be impacted much by the fact that he couldn’t do a pull-up. “He’s a fantastic player and a highly skilled guy,” according to Matt Nichol, a former strength coach for the Maple Leafs. With that being said, Bennett is projected to be taken within the top three. 4

1. Aaron Ekblad: Ekblad, a defenseman for Barrie Colt, has been projected to go within the top three by every scout that has surveyed him. The 18-year-old from Winsdor, Canada, stands at 6’4″ and weighs 213 pounds, making him a physical force as well as a talented puck handler. He leads the OHL in goals scored by a defenseman (23), and he has been compared to Shea Weber and Chris Pronger. A scout recently told the Toronto Sun that “He’s an NHL passer already. He’s the most flawless of the top players and he’s the most NHL-ready.” Ekblad has a little bit of everything and is by far the best defenseman of the 2014 draft, making him the top pick on this list. 1

1 – TSN CA

2 – Bleacher Report

3 – Pro Hockey Talk (Colle)

4 – Pro Hockey Talk (Bennett)

Alli Baker is a hockey fanatic and contributor for Designated for Assignment.  She can be reached at allibaker23@aol.com or followed on Twitter at @allibaker23

2014 NHL Playoffs: Wild vs. Avalanche

ilya-bryzgalov-wild-2014-playoff-preview[1]

Bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers, Ilya Bryzgalov seeks redemption with the Minnesota Wild.

by Christopher Wenrich

Minnesota Wild
199 goals for (25th)
198 goals against (7th)
17.9 PP% (16th)
78.8 PK% (27th)

Despite being among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams, the Wild clinched a playoff berth.  Sniping winger Jason Pominville led the Wild with 60 points – 30 goals – in 82 games this season.  Mikko Koivu – an excellent play-maker and very underrated center – amassed 43 assists and 54 points in 65 games while winger Zach Parise notched 56 points in 67 games (29 goals and 245 shots).  Addressing a need for offense, the Wild acquired winger Matt Moulson from the Buffalo Sabres – who was earlier acquired from the New York Islanders – at the trade deadline.  Moulson had 13 points in his 20 games with the Wild, but was a three-time 30-goal scorer with the Islanders.

Mikael Granlund – the ninth overall pick of the 2010 NHL entry draft – took a big step forward this season in his offensive contributions with 41 points in 63 games.  As a rookie in the lockout-shortened season last year, Granlund registered eight points in 27 games.  The swift young playmaker will play a vital role in the Wild’s hopes of upsetting the Avalanche.  Defenseman Ryan Suter was excellent yet again, posting 43 points in 82 games while playing fantastic defense.  Suter is among the best two-way defensemen in the NHL, if not the best.

Goaltending has been the issue for the Wild this season.  Josh Harding looked like a Vezina candidate in his 29 games (26 starts) with a record of 18-7-3, 1.65 GAA, .933 SV% and three shutouts.  Unfortunately for the Wild, health issues kept Harding out and his NHL career may be in jeopardy.  Veteran goaltender Niklas Backstrom was a shell of his former self, posting a 3.02 GAA and .899 SV% this season.  Backstrom is also out with an injury, as he had abdominal surgery earlier this season.  Darcy Kuemper was solid for the Wild, but is also potentially out with an injury.  Kuemper is questionable for game one of the series.

Although the Wild show offensive promise on their top two lines, they likely do not have the scoring depth to match the Avalanche.  The Wild’s hopes of moving on to the next round rest on the shoulders of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.  During his time with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bryzgalov was solid in goal but received a lot of criticism from the fans.  Although Bryzgalov was indeed abysmal in shootout losses during his time with the Flyers, much of the criticism was unwarranted.  The Flyers then bought him out and Bryzgalov has been seeking redemption ever since.  Now with the Wild, Bryzgalov may have found redemption.  Through his 12 games – 11 starts – with the Wild, Bryzgalov has been superb with a record of 7-1-3, a miniscule 2.12 GAA, .911 SV% and three shutouts (one of which was against the high-scoring Pittsburgh Penguins).

Colorado Avalanche
245 goals for (4th)
216 goals against (15th)
19.8 PP% (5th)
80.7 PK% (24th)

After an atrocious 2012-2013 National Hockey League season in which only the Florida Panthers had fewer points than the Colorado Avalanche, the Avalanche made an enormous turnaround and posted the third-best record (52-22-8) in the NHL this season.  The Avs’ 112 points trailed only the Anaheim Ducks (116) and the Boston Bruins (117).  First-year coach and Hall-of-Fame goaltender Patrick Roy will likely be a shoo-in for the Jack Adams Award.  Nathan MacKinnon – the Avs’ number one draft pick – will likely be a finalist for the Calder.  The 18-year-old posted 24 goals, 39 assists and 63 points in 82 games.

With a Hall-of-Fame goalie as their coach, the Avalanche have been an offensive-minded team.  Matt Duchene led the team with 70 points in 71 games this season; however, Duchene is unavailable for the start of the playoffs.  Gabriel Landeskog scored 26 goals and 65 points in 81 games for the Avalanche this season and Paul Stastny notched 60 points in 71 games.  Also contributing to the offensive youth movement was Ryan O’Reilly, who amassed 64 points in 80 games; O’Reilly also led the NHL in takeaways (83).  Defenseman Erik Johnson had his most productive season as a member of the team, matching his career-best 39 points (last achieved in 2009-2010 with the St. Louis Blues).  Johnson’s improved defensive play earned the trust of Roy and enabled him to have the necessary ice time to produce offensively.

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov had a superb season for the Avalanche, despite the distractions of domestic violence allegations against him early in the season.  Varlamov was 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA, .927 SV% and two shutouts.  Having faced a league-high of 2,013 shots this season, Varlamov saw more rubber than highway roadkill, which makes his .927 SV% all the more impressive.

Despite the current absence of Duchene in their lineup, the Avalanche still have young forwards capable of lighting up the scoreboard.  If Varlamov continues his stellar play, the Minnesota Wild will be in for a difficult series.  Although the Wild likely do not match up offensively with the Avalanche, Bryzgalov’s play will be key in determining whether this is a hard-fought series or a short-lived one.  The Avalanche will come out firing the pucks at the net and will gladly trade shot for shot while banking on Varlamov out-dueling Bryzgalov.  The two Russian goalies will be the faces of this series.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).