Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL

The race to land the coveted first-overall spot in the 2014 NHL Draft next June is wide open.

Though Kootenay captain Sam Reinhart tops the current McKeen’s rankings, a handful of challengers have steadily closed the gap and could conceivably leapfrog to the front of the pack. 

Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL

Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL

Aaron Ekblad was a standout throughout Canada’s gold medal win at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial, and has followed that with a strong opening half for the Barrie Colts. The Belle River, Ontario native currently sits second among OHL blueliners with 10 goals.

German import Leon Draisaitl has also blossomed at an accelerated pace. During an eye-catching second season in Prince Albert, the Cologne native has been involved in nearly fifty percent of the Raiders’ offense this season (50 points on 102 goals) and is tied for fifth in league scoring with Reinhart.

Close behind Draisaitl in the rankings is big, skilled winger Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals.

The Woodbridge, Ontario native is delivering big breakout numbers in his second season and ranks third in the OHL scoring race having soared to career numbers well before the midway mark.

Arguably the biggest riser among the 2014 draft class so far has been Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs.

The Holland Landing, Ontario native turned heads at the Ivan Hlinka as one of Canada’s top performers – and continued to rocket into top-five consideration with some dazzling performances this season.

Strapping Peterborough winger Nick Ritchie worked past an injury to hit stride in November (12-9-4-13). The Orangeville, Ontario native now leads a lean-scoring Peterborough club with 15 goals while racking up a career-high 70 minutes in penalties – tied for seventh in the OHL.

Ritchie is trailed closely by a pair of talented WHLers in Jake Virtanen of the Calgary Hitmen and Red Deer’s Haydn Fleury, notably the only other blueliner ranked in the top ten aside from Ekblad. Both Virtanen (Abbotsford, BC) and Fleury (Carlyle, SK) have hit career highs by the midway point in their sophomore WHL seasons.

Sliding into the ninth spot is smooth playmaking center Jared McCann of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, while rounding out the top ten is Danish import Nikolaj Ehlers of the Halifax Mooseheads. Hailing from Aalborg, Denmark, Ehlers has exceeded all expectations in a spectacular North American debut, and is currently eighth in QMJHL scoring with 47 points – tops among all CHL rookies.

The top ten prospects all play in the Canadian Hockey League.

The last time the CHL produced the first ten selections in a draft was 26 years ago in 1987, although it nearly happened in 2010 except for Finnish forward Mikael Granlund going at No. 9 to the Minnesota Wild.

It would also mean the exclusion from the top ten of Swedish-based forward William Nylander, easily the biggest faller in the opening half.

Nylander entered this season as a likely top five pick following a commanding 2012-13 campaign, however his play has slipped alarmingly while skating in the Allsvenskan with his father and former NHLer Michael Nylander.

Though Canadians dominate the top of the draft rankings, the rest of the opening round is more cosmopolitan in makeup.

Five Americans are currently rated in the top 30 led by Verona, Wisconsin native Nick Schmaltz of the Green Bay Gamblers.

The University of North Dakota recruit earned MVP honours leading the U.S. to gold at the World Junior A Challenge last month, contributing a tournament-record 12 points (4-8-12). Schmaltz also led all scorers at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial in August in a second-place finish (5-4-9).

Finland and Sweden each placed three players in the first round projections, with the most noteworthy riser being Finnish defender Julius Honka, making his North American debut in Swift Current.

Despite being a lightweight size wise, Honka has made substantial gains in his physical 1-on-1 play while showing off his special puckmoving abilities.

Moncton pivot Ivan Barbashev is ranked 19th and is the lone Russian-born player in the top 30 at this stage. The Moscow native leads the Wildcats with 37 points, yet has been underwhelming in his second QMJHL term. NHL scouts will want to see more of a hungry edge to his play over the second half to justify going in the top 20.

That is approximately where the quality seems to dip – with most of the players in the 20 to 30 range being considered more as second-round material.

The QMJHL is partly responsible for the drop-off in comparison to a bountiful 2013 draft crop. The Quebec league have just the two imports – Ehlers and Barbashev – ranked in the top 30 – after producing six first-rounders in 2013 – and nine of the first 57 overall picks.

RANK PLAYER POS TEAM HT/WT DOB
1 Sam Reinhart C Kootenay (WHL) 6-1/185 06-Nov-95
2 Aaron Ekblad D Barrie (OHL) 6-3/215 07-Feb-96
3 Leon Draisaitl C Prince Albert (WHL) 6-2/210 27-Oct-95
4 Michael Dal Colle LW Oshawa (OHL) 6-2/180 20-Jun-96
5 Sam Bennett C Kingston (OHL) 6-0/180 20-Jun-96
6 Nick Ritchie LW Peterborough (OHL) 6-2/230 05-Dec-95
7 Jake Virtanen RW Calgary (WHL) 6-1/205 17-Aug-96
8 Haydn Fleury D Red Deer (WHL) 6-2/200 08-Jul-96
9 Jared McCann C Sault Ste Marie (OHL) 6-0/180 31-May-96
10 Nikolaj Ehlers LW Halifax (QMJHL) 5-11/165 13-Feb-96
11 William Nylander C Rogle (Swe) 5-11/175 01-May-96
12 Brendan Perlini LW Niagara (OHL) 6-2/205 27-Apr-96
13 Julius Honka D Swift Current (WHL) 5-10/180 03-Dec-95
14 Brycen Martin D Swift Current (WHL) 6-2/185 09-May-96
15 Nick Schmaltz C Green Bay (USHL) 5-11/175 23-Feb-96
16 Adrian Kempe C MoDo (Swe) 6-1/185 13-Sep-96
17 David Pastrnak RW Sodertalje (Swe) 6-0/170 25-May-96
18 Roland McKeown D Kingston (OHL) 6-1/195 20-Jan-96
19 Ivan Barbashev C Moncton (QMJHL) 6-1/185 14-Dec-95
20 Dylan Larkin C NTDP (USA) 6-1/195 30-Jul-96
21 Joshua Ho-Sang C Windsor (OHL) 5-11/165 22-Jan-96
22 Alex Tuch RW NTDP (USA) 6-3/215 10-May-96
23 Kasperi Kapanen RW KalPa (Fin) 6-0/180 23-Jul-96
24 Anton Karlsson LW Frolunda (Swe) 6-1/190 03-Aug-96
25 Sonny Milano LW NTDP (USA) 5-11/185 12-May-96
26 Jakub Vrana RW Linkopings (Swe) 5-11/185 28-Feb-96
27 Conner Bleackley C Red Deer (WHL) 6-0/195 07-Feb-96
28 Kaapo Kahkonen G Blues (Fin) 6-1/210 16-Aug-96
29 Robert Fabbri C Guelph (OHL) 5-10/170 22-Jan-96
30 Ryan Mantha D Sioux City (USHL) 6-4/225 18-Jun-96
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