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From Ekblad down, NHL draft is top heavy with Canadian-born talent

Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad, right, battles for the puck against Oshawa Generals forward Sebastian Uvira, left, during first period OHL hockey action in Oshawa, Ont., on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. From Ekblad down, this year's NHL draft is top heavy with Canadian-born talent.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad, right, battles for the puck against Oshawa Generals forward Sebastian Uvira, left, during first period OHL hockey action in Oshawa, Ont., on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. From Ekblad down, this year's NHL draft is top heavy with Canadian-born talent.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

There's a couple of silver linings that come from six of seven Canadian teams missing the Stanley Cup playoffs.

One is that Canadian teams own five of the top 10 picks in the 2014 NHL draft, unless a series of trades shakes up the order.

As it stands, the Calgary Flames pick third Friday night, the Edmonton Oilers fourth, the Vancouver Canucks sixth, the Toronto Maple Leafs eighth and the Winnipeg Jets ninth.

Another is that the Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Leafs and Jets have plenty of homegrown talent to choose from. Four of the top five picks are expected to be Canadians, and there could be eight Canadian-born players taken in the top 10 for the first time in more than 20 years.

"This is one of those years where it's not a strong crop worldwide, in terms if high-end players," scout Ross MacLean of ISS hockey said. "It is a draft that's kind of lacking in terms of those real superstars that we've seen the last couple years or highly touted Russians, or offensive dynamos that tend to pop up here or there."

Without a Nail Yakupov or a Valeri Nichushkin around, Canadian junior players make up the majority of top prospects. Even if there's some debate over who should go No. 1, it's between Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad (Belle River, Ont.) and Kootenay Ice centre Sam Reinhart (Vancouver).

Throw into the top-five mix Kingston centre Sam Bennett (Holland Landing, Ont.) and Oshawa winger Michael Dal Colle (Vaughan, Ont.). The only European who's considered a good bet to go in the top five is German Leon Draisaitl, who played the past two seasons for the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders.

"What's interesting in a lot of ways is this year a lot of the top-end European talent just happened to play in North America, and that's not always the case," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting.

In addition to Draisaitl, that group includes Finnish defenceman Julius Honka (WHL's Swift Current Broncos), Danish winger Nikolaj Ehlers (QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads) and Russian winger Nikita Scherbak (WHL's Saskatoon Blades). The top Europeans are both sons of former NHL players, Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander, and neither is projected as a top-five pick.

That's because cream of this year's crop is Canadian. Beyond Ekblad, Reinhart, Bennett and Dal Colle, there's Jake Virtanen, Nicholas Ritchie, Brendan Perlini and Haydn Fleury.

All of those players were invited to Hockey Canada's world junior summer camp.

If those eight go in the top 10, it'll be the first time since 1993 that Canada has played that big a part of the start of the NHL draft. That year, Alexandre Daigle was the top pick, followed by Chris Pronger, Chris Gratton, Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer, and Jason Arnott and Jocelyn Thibeaut were snapped up by Canadian teams at Nos. 7 and 10, respectively.

This could be another history-making draft for Canadians.

"I'm proud of that," Ekblad said. "I'm proud of even being Canadian and I'm happy that there are other Canadians with me here."

That said, Ekblad added that other countries have caught up in their development programs to push Canada even harder. The U.S., which won gold at the 2013 world junior championship, and Finland, which won gold this past year, have been at the forefront of that.

Still, this could be the first draft without an American in the top 10 since 2011, when J.T. Miller was the 15th pick.

Two players out of the U.S. National Team Development Program, big forward Alex Tuch and winger Sonny Milano, the group of available Americans. But there's no Seth Jones or Alex Galchenyuk in the 2014 draft to choose from over the top Canadians available.

"There's still some tremendous American players," Edmonton Oilers director of amateur scouting Stu MacGregor said. "It's just you had a bit of an anomaly there with the (Seth) Joneses and those kind of players."

The last time even seven Canadians were taken in the top 10 was in 2010, a draft that produced Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen and Jeff Skinner. In 2009, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Nazem Kadri and Jared Cowen were all top-10 Canadians who stuck in the NHL.

Marr cautioned that this year "there may not be a lot of bang at the top end of the draft," so the expectations for this group should be kept below the calibre of 2009 or 2010.

Still, it could turn out to be a banner draft year for Canadian prospects.

"The draft animal is different every year with regards to where the talent is found, but typically Canada is well represented—not only at the top of round one but also throughout the entire selection process," said Dan Stewart, director of the independent scouting firm Future Considerations. "With the top junior aged development league in the world, the CHL, there is no wonder Canada consistently pumps out NHL talent year after year."

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