The NHL's Western Conference had some of the most dominant teams in the 2013-14 season — including Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles — thanks largely to forwards such as the Kings' Anze Kopitar, Anaheim's Corey Perry and the Chicago's' Jonathan Toews.
If the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft is any indication, that trend will likely continue as several fine young forward prospects were taken by many of the Western clubs.
In a draft in which 25 of the 30 first round picks were forwards — including 11 of the first 13 picks — several of the teams that will look to challenge the Kings for the Campbell Bowl next season added talented players up front.
"There are some great forwards. It's a great conference and it was a top-heavy forward year," said Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville. "I'm sure we'll be watching these guys and trying to beat them shortly. "
The Florida Panthers opened the evening by selecting Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick and, after the Buffalo Sabres selected Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart with the second selection, the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks all added size and skill up front.
The Oilers selected German-born center Leon Draisaitl of the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders with the third pick, with the Flames following their rival's pick with the selection of Kingston Frontenacs forward Sam Bennett. After the New York Islanders selected Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals, the Canucks drafted Calgary Hitmen left wing Jake Virtanen, who lives in suburban Vancouver.
Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said that, while his team was ecstatic to get Draisaitl, all of the top forwards should have an impact.
"I really felt, nobody knows who's going to be the best player in the top four and maybe the top five or six," MacTavish said. "We have our preference but at the end of the day history tells you that you really don't know. We had a preference, the preference became stronger as we got to know Leon better. All the kids were terrific. Sam Reinhart you couldn't go wrong with him. Sam Bennett was an unbelievable interview. They're just terrific people, as was Ekblad."
Bennett entered the draft as the top-ranked North American skater according to Central Scouting, and the fact that he was taken with the fourth overall pick is a testament to the skill level at the top of the draft.
The Toronto native is looking forward to joining former Ottawa 67's forward Sean Monahan and competing against some of the NHL's top clubs.
"The harder the challenge, the better it is for me," said Bennett. "That's just going to push me hard and that's going to make me a better player. I'm up for the challenge."
Halifax Mooseheads left wing Nikolaj Ehlers, a native of Denmark who was the only player from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League taken in the first round, was selected by the Winnipeg Jets with the ninth overall pick. One scout felt his combination of speed and skill made Ehlers a very exciting selection.
Like Draisaitl, whose father Peter played for the West German and German national teams, Ehlers is also the son of a former player and coach. Heinz Ehlers played in Sweden and for Denmark's national team and now coaches in the Czech Republic. He was the first player from Denmark ever selected in the NHL Draft when he was chosen in 1984 by the New York Rangers in the ninth round.
"Obviously, it's pretty cool that your dad was drafted 30 years ago," said Ehlers. "I think it's amazing for me and for Draisaitl. It's amazing for everybody who's been drafted this weekend. It's amazing to sit here."
The Anaheim Ducks added Peterborough Petes left wing Nick Ritchie with the tenth pick, with the Nashville Predators selecting left wing Kevin Fiala, the Swiss-born forward skating in Sweden, at the eleventh spot. The newly-renamed Arizona Coyotes nabbed Niagara IceDogs left wing Brendan Perlini while the Washington Capitals selected Linkoping's Jakub Vrana, a native of the Czech Republic who is competing in Sweden.
"I haven't really thought about it too much until you mentioned it, but obviously the West is a pretty tough conference and they've got some great players out there," said Perlini. "Physicality-wise I've got to be ready and on my game every time you play out there. It's going to be a big summer and I'm going to try and do everything I can to get big, faster and stronger and hopefully come in ready for training camp."
MacTavish felt that adding quality players up front was a necessity — particularly for the Canadian clubs out west.
"Skill's always in vogue when you're a Canadian team outside of Montreal and, when you don't make the playoffs, you're generally getting a good pick," MacTavish said. "You want to turn and convert that pick into something that's very skilled."
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