Compared to the much-anticipated 2013 NHL draft class -- a group that featured projected elite talents like Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones -- this year's prospect pool has been flying a little under the radar. But when you start to put the 2014 crop under the microscope, it's clear that there is still plenty of talent to be harvested.
To put it in perspective, compared to last year's draft class (without our current hindsight), I'd have ranked Aaron Ekblad behind MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, with a tough debate about how close he was to Jones and Valeri Nichushkin. He'd have ranked ahead of Aleksander Barkov, however. I'd then have Sam Bennett and the rest of the top tier after Barkov.
Although the No. 1 and 2 prospects are below average compared to the players who have fallen in that range historically, the middle of the top end -- the Nos. 5 to 10 range -- is somewhat above average. This draft may not be one that produces superstars, but there are some very useful players here.
There is a slight drop-off after Ekblad, and the next tier runs three prospects deep, with another tier from Nos. 5 to 9. There's a good argument to fit any of the next seven prospects after the No. 9 slot into that group, but the rest of the draft is a gradual decline from there.
The OHL is represented well, with 10 players in the top 30. This is also a strong year for European leagues, particularly the Swedish ones, as for the first time those leagues emerged as the preferred alternative for top non-Swedish prospects overseas. Kevin Fiala (Switzerland) as well as David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana (Czech Republic) played in Sweden's top leagues and developed well.
It's also a comparatively strong class in terms of netminders, led by Thatcher Demko. However, this is a poor year for defensemen. After my No. 1 overall prospect, Ekblad, it's a big drop to Haydn Fleury (No. 10), and on the whole, there are only four defensemen in my top 30 skaters.
Bear in mind that this is a personal ranking, and I am aware it does not necessarily reflect an industry consensus. For example, it is likely that both Leon Draisaitl (No. 7) and Michael Dal Colle (No. 8) go in the top five June 27.
With the stage now set, here's how the top 100 prospects stack up, with specific ranking explanations for the prospects in that top nine-man group:
1. Aaron Ekblad | D | Barrie (OHL)
DOB: 2/7/96 | 2013-14 stats: 58 GP, 23 G, 30 A, 91 PIM
The second player tagged with "Exceptional" status in the OHL -- between John Tavares and Connor McDavid -- Ekblad is the top player in the 2014 draft class. He's a monster on the back end at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, and plays the game with an edge. Some may point to his size as the reason Ekblad dominates, but he does so much more than just hit and win battles: he skates well with good power in his stride and excellent pivots; he has really developed the offensive side of his game, with above-average puck skills and great coordination for a big man; he sees the ice well, can be creative along the point and join the attack on top of having a high-end shot from deep. Ekblad doesn't have any outstanding skills in particular, and he can still make an odd mistake, but the total package of what he brings to the table is unique, especially considering he's a blueliner. He's a potential star defenseman and may have another level to his game if developed properly.
Ranking explanation: The reason for my choice at No. 1 is two-fold: Ekblad is a superior talent to Bennett, and though he has risks, they were not enough to keep him from losing the top spot. It's rare that we encounter a big, strong defender like Ekblad with the natural hockey skills he has. You add to that his high-end to elite hockey IQ in both ends of the rink, and a huge shot, and the total package looks like a player who has an NHL All-Star floor, and the ceiling of an elite NHL defenseman. Bennett is strong in a lot of areas, but not elite in any one of them. It is not as though we are debating an elite defenseman prospect versus a Steven Stamkos or Tavares type at No. 1. Although defensemen are notably more difficult to project -- and bust more often -- he's certainly worth it compared to the other top options in this class.
2. Sam Bennett | C | Kingston (OHL)
DOB: 6/20/96 | 2013-14 stats: 57 GP, 36 G, 55 A, 118 PIM
It's hard to find a specific part of Bennett's game that is weak; he's simply a fantastic all-around forward. He's a really fast and energetic skater who can play at a high pace and embrace a pressure style with high amounts of effectiveness. However, Bennett's best quality is his hockey IQ. He sees the ice really well, and can dominate the puck in terms of possession due to his hockey brain on top of his speed and puck skills. Bennett has flashy elements to his game, while also being able to generate chances through work ethic and instincts, and has an impressive shot as well. Bennett battles well for pucks, with what one NHL exec coins "superb natural balance" in terms of his center of gravity in board confrontations. He also embraces the physical game, can lay some quality hits and is a fine defensive forward. He could get stronger, improve his positioning a little, and maybe not try to force the tough plays, but for the most part he's the complete package.
Ranking explanation: Bennett, Sam Reinhart and William Nylander were in the same tier for much of the season, with Bennett pushing ahead in the past few months. As opposed to the much more complex explanation of Ekblad versus Bennett, this one is more straightforward. While Nylander is a much better puck handler, with better vision and hockey IQ, Bennett has the positional edge and is a better skater than Nylander, with more defensive value as well. Bennett carries notably less risk in my eyes, with a marginally lower ceiling.
3. William Nylander | RW | Modo (SHL)
DOB: 5/1/96 | 2013-14 stats: 22 GP, 1 G, 6 A, 6 PIM
The son of longtime NHLer Michael Nylander may be the most gifted pure offensive talent in the draft. William had a so-so first half when he struggled to find a role, but had a tremendous second half. Because of that turnaround, I've heard NHL scouts rank him anywhere from No. 2 overall to the 20s. He was over a point per game pace with Sodertalje in the SHL-2, setting a season record for points by an under-18 player, and played around 20 minutes per game with Modo down the stretch. Nylander's pucks skills are elite, as he can be described as "an artist" by some scouts in terms of how well he controls the puck, and the unique plays he makes. Nylander's hockey sense is fantastic as well, in terms of his vision, and offensive intellect. You combine that with a pretty good top gear and Nylander can create all sorts of havoc offensively. Nylander can deke a defender out, make a highlight-reel pass, speed by players. He's not the biggest guy (5-11, 181 pounds), his defensive play needs work, and he can try to do too much sometimes.
Ranking explanation: Nylander has a better skill level than Reinhart, but Reinhart is better physically, and worlds better defensively. Nylander has more upside than Reinhart, but carries more risk in terms of his all-around game. Reinhart's probably a better player right now, but Nylander is in his 17-year-old season (as compared to Reinhart being in his 18-year-old season) and Nylander seems to have more room to grow. For the latter reason, being that I think he has so much upside, and it's easier to close the gap defensively than offensively for an under-20 player, I give the edge to Nylander.