As soon as the Los Angeles Kings finished hoisting the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons, teams quickly began shifting their focus to the 2014 NHL draft in Philadelphia on June 27-28.
This year’s draft class lacks elite depth and skill on the blue line, but teams in need of goal-scoring forwards will have plenty of quality players to choose from. At the top of the draft, three centers — Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Leon Draisaitl — are likely to be the most coveted prospects. These centers probably won’t be ready to make their professional debuts in the 2014-15 season, but each player has top-line potential and superb offensive skill sets.
Check out the latest NESN.com NHL mock draft below.
1) Florida Panthers — Aaron Ekblad, Defenseman, Barrie (OHL)
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has made it known several times that he’s open to trading the top pick, which hasn’t happened since Florida dealt the No. 1 selection in the 2003 draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins. If Tallon does keep the pick, expect him to take a defenseman.
Ekblad is one of the few players in this class likely to play at the NHL level next season, given his strength and polished defensive talent. His pro player comparison is Chicago Blackhawks star Brent Seabrook. Ekblad projects to be a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman with a well-rounded game that features good puck-moving skills and the ability to generate scoring chances on the power play.
2) Buffalo Sabres — Sam Reinhart, Center, Kootenay (WHL)
The Sabres need to address many roster holes, and finding another top-six center is one of them. Reinhart might be the smartest forward in this draft, and his strong two-way game is quite impressive. He tallied 105 points (36 goals, 69 assists) in 60 games for Kootenay this season.
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3) Edmonton Oilers — Sam Bennett, Center, Kingston (OHL)
The Oilers could trade this pick for an established star, but expect them to take a center if they aren’t able to work out a deal. Veteran center Sam Gagner is constantly involved in trade rumors, and Edmonton already has an offensive-minded top-six center in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, which makes selecting a two-way player like Bennett the most logical choice.
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In addition to his offensive talent, Bennett back checks consistently, wins faceoffs, excels on special teams and plays against the opposing teams’ best forwards. He has been compared to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews because of his all-around skill set and work ethic.
Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish recently addressed the possibility of trading this pick:
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4) Calgary Flames — Nick Ritchie, Left Wing, Peterborough (OHL)
The Flames hit a home run at No. 6 last year when they selected center Sean Monahan, so it’s now time to acquire a winger for his line. Ritchie is a strong winger with good puck-handling skills and sensational goal-scoring ability. He tallied 39 goals and 35 assists in 62 games this season. The departure of Jarome Iginla and possible exit of free-agent forward Mike Cammalleri could create a huge hole on the wing in Calgary.
5) New York Islanders — Leon Draisaitl, Center, Prince Albert (WHL)
The Islanders might try to acquire a second-line center to play behind John Tavares via trade, but if that doesn’t work out, Draisaitl is the best option. He might not be available at this stage of the draft, though.
Draisaitl has the body and skill set of a big, No. 1 center. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he protects the puck well and plays a physical game in all three zones. He tallied 38 goals and 67 assists in 64 games for Prince Albert and isn’t afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals or win possession of the puck.
6) Vancouver Canucks — Michael Dal Colle, Left Wing, Oshawa (OHL)
The Canucks lacked scoring from the wings last season and cannot afford to pass on a player of Dal Colle’s talent. The 6-foot-2 winger is a tremendous goal scorer with good physical attributes and a great hockey IQ. He’s also a high character guy and works harder than almost every prospect in this class. Dal Colle probably will need only one more year of development in the OHL before making his NHL debut, which is ideal for a Canucks team that still wants to win now.
7) Carolina Hurricanes — Nikolaj Ehlers, Left Wing, Halifax (QMJHL)
The Hurricanes need a physical, top-pairing kind of defenseman, but after Eklbad, there aren’t any of those players worth selecting in the top 10. Ehlers makes sense for Carolina because it needs more goal scoring, speed and power-play skill on the wing. A duo of Ehlers and Jeff Skinner on the top line would be very exciting to watch in the future.
8) Toronto Maple Leafs — Jake Virtanen, Left Wing, Calgary (WHL)
The Leafs reportedly are interested in the top pick, but if they stay at No. 8, Virtanen would be a great choice. He has elite offensive skill as a good puck handler and a tremendous goal scorer with 45 goals (33 at even strength) in 71 WHL games. Virtanen already is physically strong enough to play at the NHL level and is trustworthy enough to play in all types of situations because of his good decision-making and high hockey IQ. Toronto needs more of those players.
9) Winnipeg Jets — Kevin Fiala, Winger, Hv71 (Sweden)
The Jets don’t need a goal-scoring winger, but it will be hard to pass on a player of Fiala’s caliber. He tallied 11 points in 17 games last season and brings tremendous skating, playmaking and stick-handling skills to the ice. He also has good speed and a high hockey IQ. Fiala would be able to help a Winnipeg power play that ranked 25th last season.
10) Anaheim Ducks (From Ottawa Senators) — William Nylander, Left Wing, Modo (Sweden)
The Ducks might trade this pick as part of a package to acquire a No. 2 center such as Ryan Kesler or Jason Spezza. If Anaheim keeps this selection, Nylander would be the best option. He’s a physically strong player who protects the puck well, is able to skate out of trouble and makes good decisions with the puck in his own zone. From an offensive standpoint, he’s a brilliant passer (just like his dad, retired NHLer Michael Nylander) who makes his linemates more productive. Nylander is a skilled player, but his ability to play a heavy style of hockey in all three zones will help him quickly and smoothly transition to the NHL level.
11) Nashville Predators — Alex Tuch, Right Wing, USNTDP (USHL)
The hiring of head coach Peter Laviolette will make the Predators a faster, more offensive-minded team than they were under Barry Trotz. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Tuch has the strength and skill to play a power-forward type of game in the pros. He’s willing to go into the corners to win possession and battle for pucks in front of the net. Tuch projects to be a 20- to 25-goal scorer at the NHL level and should be a top-six forward in Nashville over the next two to three seasons.
The Predators also could trade this pick for an established NHL forward:
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12) Phoenix Coyotes — Nikita Scherback, Left Wing, Saskatoon (WHL)
Scherback is a quality goal scorer, and the Coyotes need more offensive skill on the wings with Radim Vrbata possibly leaving this summer as an unrestricted free agent and captain Shane Doan approaching his late 30s. Scherback lacks speed, but he makes up for it with brilliant offensive awareness and an impressive hockey IQ. He also has a great wrist shot and excels on the power play.
13) Washington Capitals — Haydn Fleury, Defenseman, Red Deer (WHL)
The Capitals will play a more physical, defense-first style of hockey under new head coach Barry Trotz, and Fleury is the perfect defenseman for this mold. He blocks shots, clears traffic from the front of the net and has experience playing against opponents’ top lines. Despite his great physical strength, Fleury also skates well and makes a good first pass out of the defensive zone to start the break-out. He has the potential to be a real good all-around D-man in the NHL.
14) Dallas Stars — Brandon Perlini, Left Wing, Niagara (OHL)
If/when the Stars move 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin to center, they will need a winger to replace him in the top-six. As a speedy winger with a powerful shot, Perlini would be a great fit in the Stars’ uptempo system. He scored 34 goals and added 37 assists in 58 games for Niagara in 2013-14.
15) Detroit Red Wings — Kasperi Kapanen, RW, KalPa (Finland)
Kapanen is a great skater, a good puck handler and an improving playmaker. He hasn’t performed that well in Finland at the club level recently, and that has hurt his draft stock a bit, but he still projects to be a top-six forward. The Red Wings have a deep, talented prospect pool and can afford to wait for a raw talent such as Kapanen to fully develop before he reaches the NHL. No team shows more patience with its young players in the AHL than Detroit, and Kapanen would really benefit from the Grand Rapid Griffins coaching staff led by Jeff Blashill.
16) Columbus Blue Jackets — Robby Fabbri, Center, Guelph (OHL)
After shining at the Memorial Cup, Fabbri might not last until the Blue Jackets pick at No. 16. He tallied 87 points (45 goals, 42 assists) in 58 games for Guelph last season, proving he has the potential to be an elite goal scorer. Columbus lost Marian Gaborik to a trade-deadline deal, and top-line forward Nathan Horton is constantly battling injuries, so the Blue Jackets definitely are in need of more scoring depth on the wings.
17) Philadelphia Flyers — Josh Ho-Sang, Right Wing, Windsor (OHL)
Ho-Sang is a skilled forward who also plays a power-forward type of game, making him a perfect player for the Flyers. After trading Scott Hartnell on Monday, the Flyers eventually will need another top-six winger, which is a role Ho-Sang should be able to fill over the next two to three years after scoring 32 goals in 67 games for Windsor in 2013-14. He fights for pucks in front of the net, kills penalties and makes smart decisions with the puck. Ho-Sang is one of the safest prospects in this class.
18) Minnesota Wild — Thatcher Demko, Goaltender, Boston College (NCAA)
The Wild started seven different goaltenders last season and ended up starting veteran Ilya Bryzgalov in Round 1 of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche. Demko led Boston College to a Beanpot title and a regular-season Hockey East championship as a freshman in 2013-14. His head coach, Jerry York, compared him to New Jersey Devils starter and BC alum Cory Schneider, which makes sense because of Demko’s poise in net and solid fundamentals.
19) Tampa Bay Lightning — Dylan Larkin, Center, USNTDP (USHL)
The Lightning need centers (especially after drafting Halifax Mooseheads winger Jonathan Drouin at No. 3 in 2013), and Larkin makes sense for Jon Cooper’s team as a gifted playmaker who creates tons of scoring chances for teammates. Larkin’s ability to skate past defenders with speed and crafty stick-handling should improve the pace of the Lightning’s offense. After losing Martin St. Louis at the trade deadline, Tampa Bay definitely could use additional quickness and goal-scoring skill on its roster.
20) San Jose Sharks — Jakub Vrana, Left Wing, Linkoping (Sweden)
The Sharks are loaded at center with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski all capable of playing at a point-per-game level. With Brent Burns shifting from the wing back to the blue line, in addition to Patrick Marleau’s uncertain future with the team, drafting a winger makes the most sense for San Jose. Vrana has a hard, accurate wrist shot and the ability to skate through traffic with excellent puck-handling ability.
21) St. Louis Blues — Adrian Kempe, Left Wing, MODO (Sweden)
The Blues need a center, but they might fill that need via trade. St. Louis drafted a European winger in Vladimir Tarasenko in 2010 and hit a home run, and it could see similar results with Kempe. The Swedish forward has great vision, a high hockey IQ and dominates on the power play. He has NHL-strength and constantly outworks his opponents, which would please Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock.
22) Pittsburgh Penguins — Brendan Lemieux, Left Wing, Barrie (OHL)
Pittsburgh hasn’t developed young forwards well through the draft in the Sidney Crosby era, and outside of Beau Bennett, there isn’t a lot of talent on the wings in the team’s prospect pool. Lemieux would bring much-needed tenacity and toughness to the Penguins’ forward group, in addition to a powerful shot and top-rate speed.
23) Colorado Avalanche — Roland McKeown, Defenseman, Kingston (OHL)
The Avalanche passed on Seth Jones last year, which turned out to be a brilliant decision because Nathan MacKinnon could be a top-five NHL player soon. Don’t expect Colorado to take another forward in the first round, though, because this team lacks top-tier blue-line talent in its prospect pool.
McKeown uses his strength and reach to his advantage in the defensive zone, and he complements these skills with good puck-moving ability and a rocket of a slap shot. He tallied 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 62 games for Kingston last season, and he should be a second-pairing D-man with a solid two-way skill set in the pros.
24) Anaheim Ducks — Jared McCann, Center, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
If the Ducks can’t land a star center such as Kesler or Spezza in the trade market, they should select a player at this position with their second first-round pick. McCann is among the best two-way forwards in this draft. He back checks, kills penalties, plays a physical game and is well-positioned in his own zone. He’s the type of player coaches can depend on in all types of situations, which is exactly how young players earn ice time on contending teams such as the Ducks. McCann tallied 62 points in 64 games in the OHL last season.
25) Boston Bruins — Sonny Milano, Left Wing, USNTDP (USHL)
Milano is a smart player with good passing skills, great vision and the ability to make his linemates better. He protects the puck, skates well in traffic and has an accurate, heavy wrist shot. Milano is not a great defensive player, but he works hard in his own end, and no team teaches defense better than Boston. He does have the potential to be a quality two-way player capable of consistently scoring goals at even strength and on the power play. Milano will play at Boston College next season, which is great for his development because Eagles bench boss Jerry York is the best coach in college hockey.
26) Montreal Canadiens — David Pastrnak, Right Wing, Sodertalje (Sweden)
Pastrnak is a young, raw talent, but he does have first-line potential. He makes good decisions with the puck, has a high hockey IQ and brings great speed to the ice. Pastrnak needs to get stronger and become a better defensive player, but there’s no doubt he has incredible offensive skills and should be a 45- to 60-point player in the NHL. Montreal’s style of play benefits skilled forwards, and Pastrnak is that type of player.
27) Chicago Blackhawks — Travis Sanheim, D, Calgary (WHL)
Michael Roszival didn’t play well last season, Johnny Oduya has just one year left on his contract, and without any elite defenseman prospects, it would be wise for Chicago to take a blueliner with this pick. As a puck-moving D-man at 6-foot-3 and 181 pounds, Sanheim projects to be a two-way player with second-pairing potential. He has a heavy shot from the point and starts transition into the attacking zone with quick, accurate passes. His speed and agility would translate well to the Blackhawks’ uptempo style of hockey.
28) Tampa Bay Lightning (from New York Rangers) — Ivan Barbashev, Left Wing, Moncton (QMJHL)
Barbashev’s powerful point shot, good playmaking skills and poise with the puck make him an excellent power-play quarterback. The Lightning need a second-pairing D-man with a two-way game, and even though Barbashev won’t fill that role in 2014-15, he projects to be that kind of player very soon. He’s already a quality penalty killer and displays impressive effort in the defensive zone.
29) Los Angeles Kings — Conner Bleackley, Center, Red Deer (WHL)
The Kings have plenty of depth down the middle, but they will need an injection of youth there when Bleackley is ready to make his NHL debut. He’s a two-way player who received significant ice time on special teams last season and is reliable in defensive situations late in games. He’s not going to blow by defenders with blazing speed, but his skating has improved over the last few years.
30) New Jersey Devils — Julius Honka, Defenseman, Swift Current (WHL)
At 5-foot-11 and 174 pounds, Honka doesn’t have great size, but he does bring a ton of offensive skill to the ice. That includes an accurate shot from the point, great mobility and an ability to consistently create scoring chances on the power play. Adam Larsson, whom the Devils took fourth overall in the 2011 draft, appears to be a bust, which gives New Jersey a need for an offensive D-man with a wide range of skills. Honka tallied 56 points (16 goals, 40 assists) in 62 games in the WHL last season.
To read why the Devils are selecting 30th, click here.