Rushing top prospects to the NHL level before they are ready often negatively impacts their development.
With that said, there are certain players who have the skill, maturity and/or physical strength needed to compete at the highest level right away.
Let’s take a look at four players selected in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft who could debut at the start of the 2014-15 season.
David Pastrnak, Right Wing, Boston Bruins
Pastrnak was the Bruins’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, and he has a chance to make the NHL roster right away because the B’s need a right winger with high-end offensive skill and a right-handed shot.
“You never know,” Chiarelli said in July at the B’s development camp when asked if Pastrnak could make the team. “… You don’t want to place too much of a burden on this kid’s shoulders, but he was good (at development camp). You know like the hesitation you have is he’s 170 to 173 pounds, but he’s wiry strong, so you never know. Speed, skill, sense is all there, so it would be nice, but we’ll see. But you know, he’s young, and to throw someone like that at that age, at that weight — but there have been guys who have done it.”
Pastrnak adds an element of speed, goal-scoring ability and playmaking skill that Boston currently lacks in its bottom-six forward group, with the exception of Carl Soderberg. He plays the game at a high rate of speed and uses his quickness to beat stronger opponents.
Pastrnak’s chances of making the roster are likely tied to financial reasons. The B’s have limited salary cap space and still must sign Reilly Smith and Torey Krug before the regular season starts as both are restricted free agents. The Bruins don’t have the cap flexibility to add a veteran free agent for a third or fourth-line role. As a result, the roster holes at forward should be filled from within the organization.
Pastrnak hasn’t played against top competition in his young career, but if he holds his own during training camp and the preseason, it wouldn’t hurt to give him a chance at the pro level to start the regular season. The Bruins gave former first-round picks Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin a chance right away, and it benefited the team.
Aaron Ekblad, Defenseman, Florida Panthers
The Panthers ranked dead last in goals against and penalty-killing percentage last season. They also are without a legitimate, top-pairing shutdown defenseman to play against opposing teams’ best forwards. This is why Ekblad, who was selected No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft, is likely to start the season at the NHL level.
Ekblad has a well-rounded skill set that includes a powerful shot from the point, good puck-moving skills and a high hockey IQ. He’s also a physical defender who’s willing to block shots and excels at killing penalties. The former Barrie Colts star also has the size and strength at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds to win puck battles in all three zones.
The only thing that could prevent Ekblad from starting the season with the Panthers is a concussion he recently suffered while playing for Team Canada. With that said, it would be very surprising if the top pick didn’t make his NHL debut in 2014-15.
Sam Reinhart, Center, Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres need a top-six center to pair with Cody Hodgson, and Reinhart could fill that void from Day 1. The No. 2 overall pick is a sensational two-way talent with the hockey intelligence and defensive skills of a veteran NHLer. In fact, he’s arguably the most defensive-ready player in this year’s rookie class.
His playmaking skills, speed and goal-scoring ability (101 goals in 203 carer junior hockey games) would aid a Sabres offense that ranked last in goals scored and had the second-worst power play in the league last season.
The Sabres are in a rebuild and don’t need to rush their top prospects, but Reinhart’s all-around skill set and leadership skills (he captained Kootenay last season) should help him smoothly transition to the pro game and make a positive impact right away.
Leon Draisaitl, Center, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers lack center depth and the departure of Sam Gagner via trade last month has opened up a spot in the top-six. Draisaitl has the size (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) and defensive skills to play down the middle at just 18 years old. He makes responsible decisions with the puck, back checks consistently and uses his strength to win possession.
The German forward also gives Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins some lineup versatility with his ability to create scoring chances at center and left wing. Draisaitl will help the Oilers possess the puck more often and outshoot opponents, two things they rarely accomplished last season, evidenced by their 43.6 corsi-for percentage (third-worst in NHL).
A case could be made that Edmonton has rushed a few of its recent first-round picks to the NHL before they were ready, including former No. 1 overall picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. That shouldn’t be the case with Draisaitl, who shows impressive poise and maturity for a young player.