We’re now into the Christmas Season, which means we’ve had enough hockey this season to adequately judge the progress of this year’s NHL Draft eligible players. So as you nestle snugly in your homes this holiday season, enjoy this first installment of the 2014 Alternate Rankings. Designed as a complement to THW’s The Next One Rankings, compiled with care and attention by our head draft writer and editor Chris Ralph, the Alternate Rankings are my look at the 2014 Draft class.
My method is rather simple – if I were drafting, who would I want to pick if I were building a team from scratch? Being based in western Canada, I may have a slight bias towards players from the region. I also found last year that, compared to other rankings, I tend to rank defensemen lower than most. As such, your mileage may vary.
Compared to the 2013 Draft class, this year is top-heavy with Canadians and forwards. The European contingent is a bit thinner than in 2013, and a QMJHL-heavy 2013 class has been replaced by an OHL-heavy 2014 class.
#1: F Sam Reinhart – Kootenay Ice (WHL)
Paul Reinhart’s son (and the younger brother of Max and Griffin) is arguably the most talented of the three Reinharts. A dead-ringer for Max, Sam has better size and strength, and possibly better vision than his brothers. If he can put it all together, he has the highest ceiling in the draft class.
#2: D Aaron Ekblad – Barrie Colts (OHL)
A stand-out for several years in the OHL, Eklbad has size, strength and mobility on the back-end. While he’s possibly a slight notch below Seth Jones in terms of overall ceiling, he was the first defenseman granted “exceptional status” by the Canadian Hockey League and, as such, he’s been playing against high-level talent for a long time.
#3: F Leon Draistaitl – Prince Albert Raiders (OHL)
Nicknamed the “German Gretzky” for his puck-handling prowess, Draistaitl has tremendous on-ice vision and the ability to puck the puck tape-to-tape with a crisp pass nearly everywhere on the ice. He’s not the most gigantic player, but aside from that, he’s a very strong player.
#4: F William Nylander – Rogle (HockeyAllsvenskan)
The son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, Nylander has progressed through the European junior ranks rather quickly, to the point where he’s already testing himself in the pros against grown men. Compared to his own age group, he’s shown remarkable skill, something evident at events such as the Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
#5: Samuel Bennett – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
The first of three Kingston players on this list, Bennett is the best of the trio. He leads his team in scoring (by a large margin), he scores quite a bit at even-strength, and his team doesn’t feature a lot of NHL-drafted talent. In short? Bennett’s driving the bus for his team in terms of offense, which is impressive all things considered.
#6: F Michael dal Colle – Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Third in the entire OHL in scoring, dal Colle is a talented, versatile player and a great offensive partner for Scott Laughton. While his numbers are likely inflated due to playing with Laughton, he’s likely just as responsible for Laughton’s numbers as the other way around. It’s incredibly hard to discount good puck distributors, and dal Colle is very effective at that.
#7: F Joshua Ho Sang – Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Once only the talent of the Toronto junior hockey world, Ho Sang has emerged as one of the most-discussed OHL talents. While the Spitfires struggled last season, even with the presence of 2013 first rounder Kerby Rychel, the emergence of Ho Sang as a top-line, top-flight OHLer has given the Spits a more varied attack and really improved the team’s standing.
#8: D Julius Honka – Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
A product of Sweden, Honka came over via the CHL’s Import Draft and has really impressed this year with the Broncos. A very smart player with the puck who boasts a great shot, Honka would be a boon for any team’s power-play.
#9: F Robert Fabbri – Guelph Storm (OHL)
Fabbri’s fourth in scoring on the Storm, but he’s very dangerous at even-strength and the power-play. More of a finisher than a passer, he’s deadly for the opposition around the net.
#10: F Brandon Perlini – Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
One of the top scorers in the OHL, Perlini leads the IceDogs in scoring and has the ability to put up points in every situation. While he may not be quite as “elite” an offensive talent as others in the 2014 class, Perlini’s got consistency and an undeniable ability to get the puck into the net regardless of if he’s scoring the goals or not. That’s a great skill to have.
#11: D Haydn Fleury – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
While his numbers may not be inflated due to the Rebels being a middle-of-the-pack squad, Fleury has been a clutch offensive player (2 of his 5 goals are game-winners) and a strong defensive player for his team.
#12: D Roland McKeown – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
A strong all-around blueliner, McKeown can score, can pass and can play against the opposition’s best and shut them down.
#13: F Spencer Watson – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Another talented Frontenac, Watson is more of a finisher than a distributor with more goals than assists, but he’s scored as much at even-strength as Sam Bennett has. He’s also taken just three minor penalties thus far, which is scary considering how much he plays and who he plays against. If he can use his teammates a bit more, his value as a prospect could sky-rocket. For now, he remains a very able goal-scorer with some great growth potential.
#14: F Nikolaj Ehlers – Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Ehlers is a tough player to place. On one hand, Ehlers’ strong offensive numbers are probably inflated due to playing with Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, he’s ably stepped in and, in the absence of Nathan MacKinnon, the Mooseheads haven’t really missed a beat. Ehlers deserves a lot of credit for that.
#15: F Chase de Leo – Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
A product of the absolutely great Portland hockey factory, de Leo was good (and occasionally very good) in last year’s Memorial Cup. His numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt due to his team being so damn good, but de Leo is a good hand either way.
#16: F Nikita Scherbak – Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
A good player on a team that’s not quite as good, Scherbak has been a beacon of strength for a Blades team that’s hoping to claw back into contention soon. He arguably has less to work on his team with than a lot of his cohort, but Scherbak makes his teammates better.
#17: F Jake Virtanen – Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
If Flames head honcho Brian Burke is looking for truculence, he need not look much further than down the hallway at the Calgary Hitmen’s Virtanen. A big body with hands and a mean streak, Virtanen merely needs to work on using his teammates a bit more and taking fewer penalties. He has the potential to be a strong power forward.
#18: F Ivan Barbashev – Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
There may be concerns about Russians in NHL circles, but Barbashev has done his best to quiet any murmurs. After making the trek to North America last year and producing at just under a point-per-game pace, Barbashev has continued to impress for the Wildcats. He’s been a strong international performer at the U-17s and U-18s for the Russian squad, and will get a chance to do the same at the upcoming World Juniors.
#19: F Jared McCann – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
A gold medalist at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament this past summer, McCann is a strong all-around player with the ability to score, set up his teammates and play in all three zones.
#20: F Nicholas Ritchie – Peterborough Petes (OHL)
The brother of Dallas draft pic Brett Ritchie, Nick has great size (6-3, 235 pounds) and uses it quite well. He’s already won medals at the U-17s, U-18s and Ivan Hlinka Tournaments. His point production alone may not turn too many heads at the junior level, but Ritchie’s physical assets may make him a very valuable commodity at draft time.
#21: F Jayce Hawryluk – Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
The Wheaties have a strong defensive group, anchored by names like Ryan Pulock, Eric Roy and Ryan Pilon, but Hawryluk has emerged as their best forward and a difference-maker.
#22: F Conner Bleackley – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Bleackley has really stepped up for the Rebels this year, already more than doubling his point production from last season and serving as the team’s captain. He’s making the most of the increase in ice-time he got to start the season.
#23: F David Pastrnak – Sodertalje (HockeyAllsvenskan)
After a strong showing in Sweden’s SuperElit U-20 league, Pastrnak has jumped to the pro ranks in Sweden’s secondary AllSvenskan circuit. While there may be questions about the elite-level talent of that league, Pastrnak has put up points consistently for his club, and done so as a teenager.
#24: D Anthony DeAngelo – Sarnia Sting (OHL)
A bit of a below-the-radar player heading into this campaign, DeAngelo has really emerged as a great puck distributor for the Sting. Sarnia may not have the elite forwards that they used to have, but DeAngelo has really worked his tail off. He has 11 more assists than the next-best player on his team. If he had a bit more to work with, his offensive numbers may have been even better than they are now.
#25: G Alex Nedeljovic – Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
The only goaltender I have ranked in the first round right now, Nedeljovic’s win-loss record isn’t amazing (nor is his team), but he’s got a strong save percentage (.911) all things considered. As he matures, that provides him with a strong basis for future improvement.
#26: F Nick Schmaltz – Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
The younger brother of St. Louis pick Jordan Schmaltz, Nick actually has better offensive stats than Jordan did in the USHL. He’s tabbed to head to the NCAA next season (to play for North Dakota), and he boasts strong speed and vision. Given some time to mature and test himself against larger NCAA opposition, he could turn out to be a strong pro.
#27: F Kasperi Kapanen – KalPa (SM-Liiga)
The son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen, Kapanen has the benefit of being part of a considerable hockey family. He’s already made the jump to the professional ranks this season and has fared well, especially considering his age. He won bronze at last year’s U-18s and will represent Finland at the World Juniors this year. A strong U-20s showing could really elevate his stock relative to his age group.
#28: F Jakub Vrana – Linkopings (SHL)
Strong as a junior player in Sweden, this Czech product has had limited success as a pro in the SHL this year. That said, he’s 17 and playing against grown men. He may be too good for Swedish junior hockey, so he may need to take his lumps for now as he adjusts to the pro game. Either way, his pro experience could prove very valuable for him both now and in the long run.
#29: D Ryan MacInnis – Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
The son of Hall of Famer Al MacInnis isn’t quite as good as his old man, but he’s been very effective so far in the OHL.
#30: F Sonny Milano – US National Development Team (USHL)
The lone member of the US Under-18 squad on this list, Milano is a bit on the small side (“only” 5-10 and 160 pounds), but he’s also tabbed for a college stint with Boston College, so he’ll fill out. He’s a very talented offensive player with speed and vision. If he can hone his ability to elude larger collegiate defenders, he may be dangerous as a pro.
Honourable Mentions: F Dylan Larkin (US National Development Team), F Anton Karlsson (Frolunda), G Thatcher Demko (Boston College), F Matt Mistele (Plymouth Whalers), D Brycen Martin (Swift Current Broncos), D Yannick Rathgeb (Plymouth Whalers), F Jason Fuchs (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies)