April did nothing to unclutter the mess that is at the top of the 2014 draft board. Oh, sure, there were some high-pressure hockey games played, some grand stages to skate on, but the Big Four of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Leon Draisaitl were kept on the sidelines, keeping the picture as murky as ever.
All four played in the Canadian Hockey League this season, but none could will his team into the conference final. Draisaitl and Reinhart are late 1995 birthdays, while Ekblad and Bennett were recovering from lower body injuries, so none of them played at the world under-18s, either. Only Draisaitl had a chance to extend his season as part of the German national team’s entry at the World Championship in Belarus. Other than that, it’s up to the NHL teams at the top of the board to untangle the best of the best from here on out.
And this is not new. All four players were at the top of a mock draft at some point in the season, with Bennett earning the top slot on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking.
Playing for Kingston in the Ontario League under GM Doug Gilmour, and wearing No. 93 (which predates his time with the Frontenacs) has inevitably led some to compare Bennett to his famous boss thanks to his blend of talent and grit. “Versatility,” says one scout. “That word doesn’t come up a lot when you’re talking about top-five guys. For a skilled guy, he has an ‘I can play any way you want me to’ demeanor.”
But Bennett couldn’t save the perennial hard-luck Frontenacs from another playoff disaster. Hobbled by a groin injury, he did what he could, but he still saw his team blow a 3-0 series lead to underdog Peterborough, losing in Game 7 on an overtime goal at home. “It’s still hard to swallow,” Bennett says. “We went in too overconfident, and before we knew it the series was tied. It’s a learning experience, I guess.”
Coming from the Toronto Marlboros program, Bennett played in the minor midget OHL Cup final alongside Kingston buddy Roland McKeown and top 2015 prospect Connor McDavid. He grew up north of the city in Holland Landing, a quiet stretch off the highway where his love of country artists such as Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean make sense. For fun, he heads over to Haliburton (Matt Duchene’s hometown) in the summer for waterskiing or wakeboarding. But when it comes to workouts, he’s all business, hooking up with elite trainer Andy O’Brien in preparation for his next challenge. “I’ve met so many NHLers through him,” Bennett says. “John Tavares, Jeff Skinner, Nathan MacKinnon. It’s great to see the work they put in.”
If he returns to the OHL next season – the odds lean toward the NHL, thanks to his solid frame and high-end skill – he’ll be expected to take Kingston much further in the post-season. But at least he likely won’t have to face the reigning defenseman of the year in Aaron Ekblad. “We’ve definitely had a few battles,” Bennett says. “He’s so strong, and I have nothing but respect for him.”
Ekblad has the longest resume of all the candidates to go first overall. The first player to join the OHL a year early under the John Tavares rule (after Tavares, of course), Ekblad grew up in the small farming community of Belle River, Ont., near Windsor. His father went from bailing hay to pitching numbers as an accountant, while his mother works in nursing. She’s strumming a guitar in the background when Ekblad phones me on a springtime morning, and her son is beginning to dabble as well, so perhaps there’s also a troubadour inside that hulking 6-foot-4, 216-pound frame. “John Mayer inspires everybody,” Ekblad says. “He certainly inspires me.”
Along with the guitarist and songwriter, Ekblad listens to country and EDM (electronic dance music, nothing to do with the Oilers). His family just bought a boat and he no longer plays lacrosse, so the Barrie Colts blueliner can relax as he tries to sort out why his team couldn’t replicate the playoff success that saw it come one overtime goal away from the Memorial Cup the year prior.
“There were injuries and that didn’t help,” says Ekblad, who missed two games himself out of 11. “It was a disappointment, but what can you say?”
Ekblad had already felt heartache in early January as part of Canada’s fourth-place world junior team. But he was one of the squad’s best blueliners, along with Griffin Reinhart and Josh Morrissey. Because he has already played three full seasons in the OHL, it’s hard to imagine Ekblad returning to Barrie for a fourth, and his skills and size will likely make that so.
“You’re getting a building block for any team,” says Dan Marr, head of Central Scouting. “He plays the game with authority and he can move the puck.”
Before Bennett and Draisaitl climbed into the picture, Ekblad was duelling for No. 1 status alone with Reinhart, the third child of ex-NHLer Paul Reinhart and perhaps the most talented. “He’s right at the top,” says one scout. “Seventy percent of junior centers end up playing wing. He’s a center. Cerebral, smart, makes others better. Not flashy, but a solid two-way player.”
Reinhart is a big Jonathan Toews fan and the Kootenay center’s ability to play a responsible game was part of the reason he earned his slot on Canada’s world junior team alongside Ekblad and middle brother Griffin. Although it would seem natural to have assigned the brothers a room together in Sweden, Griffin half-jokingly noted they had their own space, since Hockey Canada wouldn’t have wanted them fighting too much. While Sam was one of the better forwards on the squad, he too felt like there was unfinished business. Should he get another crack at a medal next year, he’d be there in a flash.
“I felt comfortable with my game there,” he says. “I know a lot of the guys eligible would like to come back. There were so many Game 7s you had to win for that tournament.”
A sly wit runs through the Reinhart boys and Sam definitely has it. Scouts have spoken about the fact he leaves his skate tongues wagging when he plays for the Ice, giving the mistaken impression that he’s not as fast as he actually is since they get distracted watching his feet.
“To be honest, I must have missed the memo about tucking them under my shin pads,” he says. “My dad played tongues-out. I kinda do it as a joke. It’s funny to look at. If it distracts a defenseman 1-on-1, that’s great.”
Reinhart had a remarkable season with Kootenay, but he wasn’t the only distraction for scouts out West. Prince Albert’s Draisaitl was practically a one-man wrecking crew, totalling 32 more points than his nearest teammate, Reinhart’s WJC teammate Morrissey. Draisaitl is also eligible for next year’s world juniors, though scouts see him in the NHL next season. But another kick at the international under-20 can would be nice for the big center, who helped Germany barely stave off relegation in Sweden.
“He went in with high expectations for his team,” says Prince Albert GM Bruno Campese. “To be honest, he didn’t have a great tournament. He put all this undue pressure on himself to be The Guy and he got all wound up. The frustration turned into a lack of discipline.”
Indeed, Draisaitl led the Germans in scoring despite getting kicked out of two games (one on a high-stick, one on a hit from behind that led to a one-game suspension) and led all participants with 52 PIM in six games. In contrast, he picked up just 24 PIM in 64 games with the Raiders.
Draisaitl says he loves Prince Albert and the feeling is mutual. “Our community just loves this kid,” Campese says. “He’s been named the fan favorite two years in a row. Being a small market, we don’t have the glitz and glamor, but he has been so appreciative. He’s extremely humble, grateful and respectful. His upbringing was top-notch.”
Draisaitl also has a firm grasp of the English language, which helped his transition to major junior. Based on his 105-point sophomore season, it’s clear the he has the chops to take the next step in his North American career, too.
“My goal is to bring a lot of creativity,” Draisaitl says. “I want to make things happen. Be a playmaker, but a finisher as well. I want to be unpredictable.”
Going first overall would fit the bill, but even if he’s in the top four, Draisaitl will wipe out the current record for highest draft slot achieved by a German national: Marcel Goc was taken 20th overall by San Jose in 2001.
Next season, the race at the top will be much more clear-cut. Connor McDavid is the Canadian wunderkind who has already attracted Sidney Crosby to his games in Erie, where ‘The Kid’ saw similarities to himself. Meanwhile, American Jack Eichel has already usurped McDavid in the minds of some scouts. Eichel is committed to Boston University and just finished tearing up the under-18s, leading the U.S. to gold.
But 2014 will remain chaotic until the first kid selected climbs up the podium steps June 27 in Philadelphia. Whatever happens, the first four teams in the draft will walk away happy.
This article originally appeared in THN’s annual Draft Preview edition.