Beyond Tomorrow: The Class of 2014

By Brian Fogarty
2012 Subway Super Series - Sam Reinhart, WHL

Photo: Kootenay Ice forward Sam Reinhart is the third of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart’s three sons who will be looking to follow in the father’s footsteps to the NHL (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

 

With the 2013 NHL Draft now passed, the focus can now turn to the class of 2014. Since Beyond Tomorrow looks at those players eligible for the next draft class, this is the last opportunity to discuss the 2014 draft-eligible players before shifting attention to the 2015's. With that in mind, here is a recap of the best of the late-1995 and 1996-born players.

The Best of the Best

At this point in time, there is three players who have started to separate themselves from the rest of their class. All have shown that they have high-level abilities during their play with their league clubs, their international teams and in one case, their rise up to a professional men’s league.

Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay Ice (WHL)

Sam Reinhart may be best-known as the youngest of three brothers who are likely to be NHL players, but chances are good that Sam will soon be more well-known as the best of the bunch and the first overall selection of the 2014 draft. The 5’11”, 165-pound center has already compiled a remarkable resume. In 72 games with the Ice, Reinhart scored 35 goals with 50 assists, good enough for a top-15 finish among WHL scorers, and 13th in assists. Only nine of his 35 goals were scored on the power-play, meaning most of his scoring was generated at even strength. Reinhart also captained Canada’s Under-18 squad to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship and at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. In total international play during the 2012-13 season, Reinhart tallied 15 points in 12 games. He is a fast and agile skater, and is able to handle the puck at full speed with ease. Reinhart distributes the puck with accuracy and possesses a quick release on his shot, making him a threat whenever he has the puck.

William Nylander, C/RW, Sodertalje (Allsvenskan)

Nylander is another top prospect with family ties to the NHL. His father, Michael Nylander, played 920 games in the NHL and suited up for Sweden’s national team at 10 World Championships. The younger Nylander started the season in the Under-18 league in Sweden, quickly moved up to the top Swedish junior league (where he scored nearly two points per game over 27 games) and then moved up to join his father in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier men’s league. Nylander scored two goals and four assists in eight games at the men’s level, a distinguished result for such a young player. Nylander is a playmaker through and through. Although he has an accurate shot, his vision on the ice and his ability to make the perfect pass look effortless beyond compare in his age group. He has great acceleration and balance, and can move quickly through the defense to generate chances. At this time, he still tends to overwork the puck and is prone to turnovers that result from trying to do too much on his own, but he still looks like one of the best of his draft class.

Roland McKeown, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)

Rounding out the current top tier of 2014 prospects is a defenseman from the Ontario Hockey League. McKeown came into the OHL as the second-overall selection in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection and the top defensive prospect of his draft class. McKeown has good size at 6’1” and 185 pounds, but his skating and maneuverability clearly separates him from his peers. He has excellent straight-line speed, matched only by his agility, lateral quickness and balance. McKeown was the top-scoring rookie defenseman in the OHL last season with 29 points in 61 games while playing on a Kingston team that finished the season in the middle of the pack for goals scored. Furthermore, McKeown’s defensive game shows good promise, and he plays with intelligence and calm in his own end. One area that needs improving is his physical play, though his willingness to initiate contact is already evident. As he gains experience, however, his lack of physical play should become less of a drawback.

The Rest of the Top Ten

Keeping in mind that the next batch of players will almost certainly move up or down the ranks over the next twelve months, here are seven players who all have a good chance of finishing in the top ten rankings going into the 2014 NHL Draft.

Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)

As only the second player ever granted an age exemption by the CHL, Aaron Ekblad hit the OHL at age fifteen, smothered by media attention and practically unattainable expectations. In his rookie season with Barrie, Ekblad played in 63 games and scored 10 goals with 19 assists, an impressive result for a player younger than anyone else in the league. This year, he increased his production to 34 points in just 54 games, and was named captain of Team Canada’s Under-17 team. As the season played out, Ekblad’s production continued to improve. He scored at nearly a point-per-game pace over the last couple of weeks of the regular season, through the OHL playoffs and into the OHL Championship series. In 22 playoff games, he registered 17 points, second-most for an OHL defenseman.

Ekblad needs to improve his skating and his defensive play, two attributes that should be correctable given his tremendous work effort and hockey sense. He has a good shot, and an offensive player’s mentality and ability to distribute the puck to teammates. Ekblad has vast potential, and if he can pull his game together into a coherent whole, he may move up the list into consideration for the first overall pick.

Ivan Barbashev, LW, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)

Barbashev is a late-1995-born winger from Moscow who came up through the famed CSKA Moskva system, but played in the QMJHL last year after being selected first overall in the CHL Import Draft. Barbashev finished third in the list of rookie scorers in the QMJHL, but was the only member of his draft class in the top ten. He scored 18 goals with 44 assists in 68 games for the Wildcats and was named to the QMJHL’s All-Rookie Team. He also enjoyed success in international play, leading all skaters in assists at the Under-18 championship in his Russian homeland.

Barbashev is a gifted offensive player with a strong drive to the net, and he uses his speed, acceleration and keen hockey sense to generate dangerous chances where none appear to exist.

Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Draisaitl has incredible hands and a keen awareness of how and when to make the perfect pass to spring a teammate. He makes difficult passes through traffic look effortless, and has playmaking vision that puts him with the elite members of his class. Draisaitl has a good shot that he could use more often, and although his skating is not remarkable, he has shown improvement in that area of the game. He drives hard to the net, and is willing to mix things up at the top of the crease when necessary. Draisaitl, who is an import from Germany, scored 58 points for an underpowered Raiders team last season and on many nights he and former first-round pick Mark McNeil were the team’s primary sources of offense.

Nikolai Goldobin, RW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

Goldobin came into this season as a relatively unknown, 36th-overall selection in the import draft. Slowly and steadily, he began staking a claim for a top-ten spot in the 2014 draft by making dazzling plays and pinpoint passes. After failing to score in his first six games, Goldobin found his stride and rattled off a seven-game scoring streak, and scored in 14 of the next 15 games. By season’s end, Goldobin led all OHL rookies in scoring with 68 points (30 goals and 38 assists) in 68 games. Though he weighs just 165 pounds, he has adequate height (5’11) and has shown that he has the frame to add more muscle. His vision, hockey sense and quick hands allow him to make world-class passes or snap off deceptive and accurate shots.

Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)

McCann entered his rookie OHL season as the fourth-overall selection in the priority draft (two spots behind Roland McKeown), and quickly earned a spot in the Soo’s top six. After a sluggish start (he scored just eight points over his first 16 games), McCann’s confidence and acclimatization to major junior hockey grew. Over the season’s last six weeks, McCann scored seven goals and 11 assists in 13 games, more than doubling his early season production. Unfortunately, his playoff run was cut short after he suffered a concussion in the first game of the postseason. McCann has spectacular skating ability and high level hockey sense to go with a professional-grade shot. He is a fearless attacker, and can find or create space anywhere on the ice.

Jakub Vrana, F, Linkoping (Elitserien)

For most of his hockey life, Vrana has played in leagues well above his age group. In 2010, he jumped up to the Czech Under-18 league and was one of his team’s top scorers with 29 points in just 26 games, despite playing most of the year as a fourteen year old. The next year, Vrana moved to Sweden to play in the Linkoping system, where he played mostly in the Under-18 league, but eventually made his junior league debut. He also led the Czech U-18 team in scoring at that year’s world championship.

At 16, he became the youngest foreign player ever to skate in the Swedish Elite League, and the youngest player ever in the history of the Linkoping hockey club. He was also the youngest player for any team in last year’s World Junior Championship, playing in the Under-20 tournament before his 17th birthday.

Although he needs to add strength in order to better maintain stability during physical play, Vrana has such explosive speed that he often is able to easily beat defenders down the wing and drive to the net. He has blazing quick feet, and hands to match, and is able to deftly control the puck in traffic and at full speed. He needs work on his defensive play, and has been prone to trying to be too fancy in his own end instead of making the simple play. Vrana has tremendous upside potential, and could become a highly sought after prospect over the next twelve months.

Michael Dal Colle, LW, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Perhaps the top two-way forward of the 2014 draft class, Dal Colle is a smart, hardworking player with creativity and a solid physical presence. Dal Colle played on Oshawa’s top line with NHL prospects Boone Jenner (CBJ) and Tyler Biggs (TOR) for most of last season, and he finished with 15 goals and 33 assists and a spot on the OHL All-Rookie Team. He can make difficult passes under pressure, and is equally as capable of getting the puck out of his own end as he is at setting up chances in the offensive zone. He hits with authority, and uses his hockey intelligence to position himself consistently well in all three zones. The biggest challenge for Dal Colle going into next season will be his ability to continue to be productive once his top-prospect linemates have moved on to professional careers. If he can carry the load and develop his game further, Dal Colle will almost certainly be a top-ten pick next year.

Next Time in Beyond Tomorrow

In the next Beyond Tomorrow, we'll begin take our first look at the 2015 draft class, and highlight several of the group’s top players in order to establish a foundation for the next twelve months. Of course, recent Under-18 World Junior Championship top player Connor McDavid will likely dominate most of the discussion going into the 2015 NHL Draft, but there are plenty of talented 1997-born players to look at and follow throughout the year.

Follow Brian Fogarty on Twitter via @Brian_Fogarty

 

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