Ekblad, Bennett lead the OHL pack for the 2014 NHL Draft

By Jason Menard

Sam Bennett - Kingston Frontenacs

Photo: Kingston Frontenacs forward and 2014 prospect Sam Bennett is ranked as the top North American skater in Central Scouting’s 2014 midterm rankings (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Ontario Hockey League loves to bill itself as the marquee developmental league for the National Hockey League. It’s a statement that’s at the core of its recruiting and marketing tactics for players throughout the province, into the U.S., and around the world. And 2014 is shaping up to be another banner year — led by an “exceptional” player that hockey watchers have been anxiously awaiting.

Here, then, is a look at the top 10 prospects out of the OHL for the 2014 NHL Draft heading into the season's final third.

1. Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie, 6’4”, 220 (Central Scouting Services — 3; ISS Hockey — 1)

The big defender was the first of three granted exceptional player status by the OHL in consecutive years — post-Tavares. And he made an impact right away, earning the league’s top rookie award.

Ekblad has continued to grow — both on and off the ice. And as impressive as his stature between the boards is, it’s what he brings to the table off-ice that may be his greatest attributes. At 17, Ekblad is captain of the Barrie Colts. He also captained his Ivan Hlinka U-18 squad and played a key role on the Canadian World Junior Championship squad.

Ekblad does a little bit of everything and he does it well. In 33 games this season, he’s playing just shy of a point-per-game level, with 14 goals and 18 assists. He’s also shown a willingness to throw that 6’4” frame around and is a solid, defensively responsible crease clearer who can quarterback your power-play.

Oh, and he still has room to grow.

While he finds himself third on Central Scouting’s list behind Kingston’s Sam Bennett and Prince Albert’s Leon Draisaitl, ISS Hockey put him atop their rating. Like last year, during the presumptive MacKinnon/Jones debate, it will come down to what team is drafting first and what their needs are. But the appeal of a player who has the game and body of Pronger with the maturity of a young Yzerman may be hard for any team to resist.

2. Sam Bennett, C, Kingston, 6’, 180 (CSS — 1; ISS — 2)

One hundred games into his OHL career, Bennett has made a dramatic impact, both on the league as a whole and on the resurgent Frontenacs.

In 40 games this year, Bennett is averaging over a point-and-a-half per game, with 26 goals and 40 assists. Over his 100-game OHL career he has scored 44 goals and added 62 assists.

But what makes Bennett even more appealing is his willingness and ability to play a physical game. Last year, in 60 contests, he racked up 87 penalty minutes. This year, in only 40 games, he’s almost surpassed those totals with 85 penalty minutes.

He’s also displayed a maturity beyond his years, playing a focal role on the Frontenacs despite not turning 18 until late June.

At only 6’ and 180 pounds, Bennett will have to pack on some pounds to continue to play that gritty role, but as a goal-scorer with an edge, he’s a tremendously appealing prospect at the NHL level. And while traditional thinking has been to take a blueliner if two players are of relatively equal talent, recent history shows that more teams are willing to look at forwards — especially because their NHL-ready progress tends to be a little quicker than their blueline brethren.

3. Michael Dal Colle, C/LW, Oshawa, 6’1”, 180 (CSS — 5; ISS — 4)

Last year, Dal Colle lined up with Boone Jenner and Tyler Biggs, both NHL-drafted talent. He took the opportunity to soak up as much information as he could and it’s paid off in spades as he has been able to parlay that knowledge into a stellar draft-eligible campaign to date.

He has already shattered his rookie-campaign totals with 28 goals and 66 points in 45 games so far. Dal Colle, who is committed to playing a two-way game, is also a steady plus player for the contending Generals.

A solid offensive player with two-way potential, Dal Colle skates well, but could improve his overall speed. He has a good shot, has room to add to his frame, and plays all aspects of the game well.

4. Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara, 6’2”, 200 (CSS — 8; ISS — 6)

Perlini has rocketed up the draft boards ahead of some other players who entered the season with higher profiles. But he’s full credit for his performance this year, with 28 goals and 32 assists so far this season.

The 17-year-old winger benefits from being part of an IceDogs squad that is squarely in the midst of a rebuilding campaign, so he’s getting plenty of opportunity. However, the lack of complementary talent around him also means he’s getting an inordinate amount of attention, which makes his performance all the more impressive.

Perlini has deep roots in the game, with a father who had a couple of cups of coffee at the NHL level and a brother who went the U.S. collegiate route and currently finds himself in the minor leagues.

At 6’2”, Perlini has good size and he has the game that could translate into a power-forward role in the future.

5. Roland McKeown, D, Kingston, 6’1, 190 (CSS — 15; ISS – 11)

Coming into the season, the Kingston Frontenacs boasted a big-three of draft-eligible prospects. The aforementioned Bennett has lived up to his expectations while fellow Frontenac Spencer Watson has slipped. The defenseman McKeown finds himself squarely in the former category as he’s established himself as one of the draft’s elite defenders.

How much progress has the 6’1” defender made this year? Just look at his plus/minus. He’s gone from a woeful -24 to firmly ensconcing himself amongst the league’s leaders to date at +25. Part of that is part and parcel of Kingston’s improvements, but much of it has to do with the incredibly solid play that McKeown has displayed this year.

In 42 games, he’s accounted for eight goals and 24 assists — eclipsing his totals from last year — but what’s changed in his game is his ability to consistently make the right play in the right situation. The game has slowed down around him to the point where he’s making the sensible pass almost all the time. He’s able to push the Frontenacs’ transition with solid first passes and he rarely finds himself out of position.

6. Nikolay Goldobin, RW, Sarnia, 6’, 180 (CSS — 14; ISS — 25)

As much as the NHL likes to talk about systems and two-way play, the appeal of a pure goal scorer is very hard to resist. And in Moscow-born Nikolay Goldobin, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.

Goldobin has a great shot, is a gifted scorer, and is dynamic with the puck. He is more courteous than conscientious towards his defensive zone responsibilities, but his offensive ability makes it easy to overlook that facet of his game.

Goldobin is a small 180 and needs to put on weight. The moves and dekes he uses now won’t work against larger and steadier competition, without a little more muscle to back them up.

But speed and skills are seductive attractions for NHL teams starving for goals. And the fact that Goldobin has now played two campaigns in North America makes him less of a concern for those teams still leery about drafting Russian players in the upper first round.

7. Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie, 6’, 185 (CSS 11; ISS — 15)

At a point-per-game pace this season, McCann has shown that he can contribute offensively. But where the center shines is in his all-around game, both on and off the ice.

McCann came into the OHL highly regarded, drafted fourth overall by the Greyhounds, and he immediately stepped in to play a vital role on a competitive Soo squad.

This year, McCann’s playing an even bigger role, both offensively and in terms of leadership, and is thriving in both roles.

Size may be a consideration as he’s only 6’ and 185 pounds. And while he has room to grow, he’s never going to be big. However, he is a strong character player with good speed, great hockey sense, and talent in all zones of the ice. He’s not afraid to play a physical game and he’s got an above-average shot.

8. Nick Ritchie, LW, Peterborough, 6’2”, 230 (CSS — 7; ISS — 13)

As a prototypical power forward, Ritchie could be valued much higher than this, but his injury history tends to render him with a couple of question marks. His campaign this year has been solid, with 19 goals and 22 assists. He’s also accounted for 83 penalty minutes in the first half of the year.

Ritchie has great size. He’s a solid body with an adequate skating stride. He can improve his speed and agility, but as long as he can make his way to the front of the net and throw his weight around, it’s not going to be an issue for the team that drafts him.

At 230 pounds, Ritchie’s already a man amongst boys, but likely could add a few pounds of muscle, not to mention filling out his frame, in general.

As long as he stays within his game and concentrates on his strengths — and strength — Ritchie could be a valuable selection for any team looking for size combined with adequate hands.

9. Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sarnia 6’, 175 (CSS — 10; ISS — 23)

He’s not particularly large, he’s not particularly physical, but boy oh boy can DeAngelo skate and move the puck.

You’re not drafting DeAngelo for his defensive prowess. You’re selecting him because you want a dynamic, puck-moving presence that can power your offense from the back end.

Last year, DeAngelo accounted for 58 points in 62 games. This season, he’s well on his way to shattering those totals with 57 points (including 11 goals) in 38 games.

DeAngelo has a good, hard, and accurate shot that he uses with regularity on the power-play. He is an excellent passer and has a smooth, fast skating stride. He sees the ice well and uses his teammates effectively.

If there’s a knock on DeAngelo, it’s his size. He’s a small 6’ and needs to bulk up to withstand the rigors at the next level.

10. Josh Ho-Sang, C/RW, Windsor, 5’11, 165 (CSS — 18; ISS — 19)

Ho-Sang can look down the 401 for inspiration in the form of London Knights’ forward Max Domi. Both players are dynamic offensive players who do not lack for confidence. Both players can fall into the trap of forgetting that there are four other matching jerseys on the ice with them at any given time. But both players can do things with the puck that few others on this list can.

Unfortunately, the production hasn’t yet matched the prodigious potential — or the hype. That said, in 45 games this year, he’s scoring at over a point-per-game pace, with 20 goals and 55 points.

Ho-Sang’s talent, though, is appealing. If he can ever put it together and use his teammates on a regular basis, he could be a dynamic, game-breaking force on a team looking for offense.

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard