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Youngblood: Top storylines in an unpredictable 2014 NHL Draft

 The 2014 draft class has been scrutinized, talked about, debated and picked apart to the nth degree. Deemed "weak", "underwhelming" and occasionally "awful" by experts, whatever your own personal take is on the 2014 draft class, there is one undebatable fact – the stage has been set for June 27th to be an extremely exciting event. While this draft crop isn’t as deep at the top as 2013 nor does it offer the franchise players that 2015 will, the eligible players in 2014 are rather exciting when you look at their long term upsides. From year to year, most 1st or 2nd overall draft selections are players with high likelihoods of becoming franchise players (sooner than later too) but the jury is still out on whether this year’s top end contestants will reach their true potential. If they can, all this chatter is for nothing.

The thing to remember with the 2014 crop is that these young talents definitely have the potential and upsides but there is an aura of uncertainty looming over them. There is certainly much less consensus among scouts…especially after the opening eight or so picks and that is where the draft gets labeled “unpredictable”. Looking for a stud defenseman at the top of the draft? Well, after Ekblad and Fleury, you will need to invest time and patience to develop raw prospects like Travis Sanheim, Marcus Pettersson or Jack Dougherty.

It may sound cliché in a draft world that is all about investing in the long-term potential of prospects but the 2014 class is all about cashing in on “potential”. Specific to this crop, drafting future NHLers will require teams' scouting staffs to be on their games and then insulate their draftees with proper development to ensure return on their investments.

The 2014 group has some promising undersized skill forwards with intriguing offensive games and the same can be said with the defensive group as well. Kevin Fiala, David Pastrnak, Sonny Milano, Nikolay Goldobin, Nick Schmaltz, Josh Ho-Sang, Brayden Point…the list goes on and on with these exciting forwards. On the back end, Julius Honka leads a group of defenseman including Anthony DeAngelo, Marcus Petersson, Sebastian Aho, Joe Hicketts, Dysin Mayo, Jake Walman and Jacob Middleton – all blue liners with some issues in their game whether that be size, defensive deficiencies, or something else. If there was a year that NHL GMs would like a little luck on their side, it would be right now at the 2014 NHL Draft.

Here are some storylines to watch leading up to and during the 2014 NHL Draft…


Shopping Spree

If draft chatter indicates anything, there could be a shopping spree in Philadelphia and it won’t be be just cheesesteaks on the shopping list. With NHL General Managers well aware of the consensus group at the top of the draft and where players begin to “fall off”, teams could certainly be looking to trade up into the top tier of players. Conversely, teams sitting on the cusp of the drop off may be more apt to listen and place their high pick on the trade market.

A storm is brewing for a trading frenzy and several different factors including some key top NHL free agents becoming available and an unpredictable draft class could set the stage for prime trading opportunities.

With Philadelphia as draft hosts and a record for being aggressive, keep an eye on the Flyers as Ron Hextall looks to make on impression early in his tenure as GM. The Florida Panthers and GM Dale Tallon hold the golden ticket and with history of the franchise moving the 1st overall selection in past years (Florida has traded the top pick three of the five times it was dealt), all eyes will be on the 2015 draft hosts. Furthermore, Garth Snow has proven to be an aggressive GM and after somewhat foolishly boldly opting to keep their 2014 top pick, the pressure is on to add an impact player via trade or draft to prevent his 2015 selection that was dealt to Buffalo from being a lottery pick in a stacked 2015 draft class. The Toronto Maple Leafs (8th), Vancouver Canucks (6th) and Calgary Flames (4th) are all eager to mold new identities after undergoing some revamped management and will be kicking tires in hopes of landing a key future piece.


Wildcard Prospects

Sure, the 2014 NHL Draft class gets a bit of a bad rep after a fairly exciting 2013 crop that featured several high end talents at the top in MacKinnon, Drouin, Barkov and Seth Jones. It doesn’t help its cause that the 2015 draft is shaping up to be one of the most dominant in a long, long time with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin leading a group of dozen or so prospects that could, arguably, contend for a top spot this year if they were eligible. In saying that, I remain fascinated and hopeful of the 2014 draft class simply because while there may not be the high-end depth at the top, there are several exciting high risk-reward players to keep tabs on.

Teams that pride themselves on great development have a huge opportunity to cash in on some skilled talent that may get passed by cautious teams early on. Pencil in forwards Josh Ho-Sang, Nikolay Goldobin, Nick Schmaltz, Vladimir Tkachev, Spencer Watson, Brayden Point and Chase De Leo as front-line players with intriguing offensive skills and the raw abilities that could pay huge dividends down the road. Defensemen Anthony DeAngelo, Sebastian Aho, Brandon Montour and Joe Hicketts are all undersized offensive defenseman who get knocked for their lack of size but are game-breakers from the back end.

The list of high potential skaters doesn’t end there as Ryan MacInnis, Vladislav Kamenev and Eric Cornel are a trio of forwards who haven’t begun to tap into their true skill sets and three or four years down the road, we could hear the old adage “how did he fall so far?” when talking about these skaters.

The OHL offers two high-end prospects that are deserving of stories specifically for themselves in the polarizing Tony DeAngelo and Josh Ho-Sang. Considered true “wild cards” and “gambles” by most, draft day will consist of closely following two of the most dynamic players at their respective positions. How long these stories remain active will depend largely on how long they last on the draft board. For me, the DeAngelo and Ho-Sang Draft Watch is the most interesting storyline of the 2014 NHL Draft and should be trending on Twitter near you.


Don’t Sleep on Potential

The draft offers plenty of sleepers and it’s these types of players that can make or break a team’s day at the draft. Highlighting my list of “sleepers” are Brett Pollock, Justin Kirkland, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Dylan Sadowry, Warren Foegele, Jacob Middleton, Jaden Lindo, Alex Peters and Christian Dvorak. Some of these skaters enter the draft as players who haven’t begun to realize their true skill sets (Pollock, Kirkland, Foegele and Middleton, as examples), others are players who struggled with injuries during their draft years (namely Lindo and Dvorak) and the rest are guys who offer a unique skill set that will eventually surface in a breakout when presented with more opportunity (see Aube-Kubel and Sadowry).  


The Re-Entries

Each season the draft is an opportunity for hockey players to realize their dreams of being drafted into the NHL and the feel good stories are often those associated with players who have already been passed over once before before emotionally hearing their name called a second time around.

Hunter Smith is a massive winger who found his game playing in Oshawa this season and teams are enamored with his size, scoring touch around the crease and his overall physicality. Edgars Kulda capped off a great season winning the CHL Memorial Cup MVP and his ability to control the game’s pace with his confident puck skills and creative vision are true assets. Criticized for his sloppy skating last year, Lucas Wallmark continued to play on showing unbelievable playmaking ability and a creative knack for operating a power play. Teammate of Hunter Smith, Josh Sterk had a strong start to his OHL season in Oshawa and showed that he may be worthy of a late round selection in his second go-round at the draft. Gavin Bayreuther is an offensive defenseman who has been funnelled through two drafts and had he been born on a different day, he would have been highly coveted in the collegiate free agent market, especially with his howitzer of a shot. Ville Husso will surely be scooped up as the top ranked European goaltender, despite being passed over last year. An interesting re-entry to watch is one-dimensional defenseman Guillaumme Gelinas who finished as the CHL’s top scoring defenseman with an astonishing 92 points in 67 games with Val-d’Or. Lastly, Ashton Sautner was one defenseman who impressed with his fluid mobility and instinctual reads in all three zones while playing with the Edmonton Oil Kings.

From the OHL, Hunter Garlent, Stephen Harper, Brett Welychka, Max Iafrate and Marcus McIvor are worthy of landing on a team this time around. Don’t be surprised if QMJHLers Anthony DeLuca, Louick Marcotte, Matt Murphy, Philippe Gadoury, Cameron Darcy and Marcus Power could be on the radar of scouts. Out west in the WHL, Rinet Valiev, Richard Nejezchleb, Jaedon Deschaneau, Mads Eller, Colby Cave and goaltender Austin Lotz have good chances of donning NHL sweaters. From other leagues look for players like Matt Iacopelli (USHL), Scott Salvage (Boston College) and Brandon Montour (USHL) are certainly worth consideration as well.

This list of late bloomers doesn’t include players who were drafted and then went unsigned by NHL clubs.


Weak Defensive Class Limps In

Aaron Ekblad leads the pack at the top of the draft with no player even close to challenging him. He’s made significant strides since being granted exceptional status and reaching new levels in his skating, offensive confidence and powerplay abilities have went a long way to silencing his critics. Behind Ekblad, Haydn Fleury lines up as the next best defender with his mobility and emerging offensive skills which are two of his best attributes. Fleury’s upside is safely projected as a second pairing defenseman capable of playing in all situations but no one is ruling out his ability to develop upon his skills to become a top pair rearguard either.

Based on his raw skills and overall hockey sense, Roland McKeown will be looked at hard to be the third defender selected as he has plenty of room to develop. However, the late surging Travis Sanheim will be close challenger. NHL teams love nabbing defensive prospects with such raw skills and Sanheim fits that bill perfectly. He’s a defenseman who showed great progression and he is at a phase in his development where his game can be molded into a style that suits the team well. Don’t count out Finn Julius Honka as a challenger for the third defenseman selected because this kid’s mobility, hockey sense and two-way game flashes great potential.

After Ekblad, Fleury, McKeown, Sanheim and Honka, the door is wide open for defensemen to walk through. Sarnia’s Anthony DeAngelo is the best offensive defenseman of the draft but his incomplete defensive game and volatile temper has scouts wavering on him. Jack Dougherty is another raw offensive defenseman, albeit with good traces of defensive awareness, and he could push for a first round selection. Dominik Masin and Alexis Vanier are two defensive pillars that would solidify future blue lines. Dysin Mayo used a lengthy season and capitalized on increased playing time en route to a Memorial Cup Championship but his offensive creativity and developing defensive game would make for a great mid-round target.

The top of the draft isn’t flooded with standout defensemen but there are some valuable investments to be made. Following the opening round, the depth is intriguing on the blue line and teams can really stock pile prospects with players like Marcus Pettersson, Jake Walman, Andreas Englund, Johnathan MacLeod, Brycen Martin, Jack Glover, Alex Peters, Ryan Collins, Luc Snuggerud, Ben Thomas, Josh Jacobs, William Lagesson and Aaron Haydon all possessing unique talents.


The Goaltenders

Stanley Cups are won on the back of strong goaltenders but when the draft comes due every year, or at least in recent years, the puck stoppers are normally overlooked. Goaltenders’ development curves are rather lengthy especially compared to forwards so this oversight isn’t overly surprising. Fans are looking for immediate help and this long wait time for crease attendants allows us to focus on the skaters at the draft. With that said there are several high-end goaltenders available in this draft and compared to recent years, the netminders are rather appealing.

At the 2013 draft, Montreal was the first team to start the goaltender run after selecting top ranked tender Zach Fucale with the 34th pick (2nd round). Three goaltenders followed in the second round with Pittsburgh locking up Tristan Jarry (44th), Dallas selecting Philippe Desrosiers (54th) and Eric Comrie (59th) heading to Winnipeg. Interesting enough, these four goaltenders were the four invitees named this week for Hockey Canada’s Summer Evaluation Camp.

The question that surfaces every year is, “how early will the first goaltender be taken?” It’s certainly a difficult question to answer with any certainty. If instincts are any indication, I feel that it won’t be until the second round that we see teams start drafting goaltenders. If a goaltender is to crack the 1st round it will be Boston College puck stopper Thatcher Demko. Look for the lanky Mason McDonald and an extremely competitive Alex Nedeljkovic to challenge Demko and both end up as Top 60 picks.

Finland continues to churn out top quality netminders and Kaapo Kahkonen and Ville Husso (passed over at the 2013 draft) are two to place on your radar. Niagara’s Brent Moran possesses a projectable skill set and Sault Ste. Marie’s Brandon Halverson is one of the best puck handlers that the goaltending position has seen in recent history. Both Moran and Halverson are excellent mid-round targets as their best days are ahead of him. Out east, one goaltender to watch is the undersized Julio Billia as his work ethic and technical aggressive approach are workable attributes. As the draft plays out, we’ll witness plenty of goaltending talent drafted and these are the pillars that teams down the road will eventually lean on, whether they realize it on draft day or not.


As the 2014 NHL Draft commences Friday, June 27th, these are just a few of the appealing storylines to watch. Be sure to follow the McKeen’s Hockey team and @RossyYoungblood as the draft unfolds.