As players selected at the 2014 NHL Draft reach their seventh season in the NHL, this provides a perfect opportunity to look back on the top-10 players selected. So, have the top-10 lived up to their franchise-defining billings, or have these players failed to reach meet the hype of their draft position?
Note: The 2014 NHL Draft was held on June 28-29 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
#1: Aaron Ekblad
Heading into the 2014 Draft, Aaron Ekblad was seen as the consensus top defenseman in the class, even if there was some debate over if he should be selected first overall instead of one of the highly-talented forwards. When the time came for the Florida Panthers to make the first-overall selection, they hedged their bets on Ekblad, seeing him as a franchise-defining player that they could build their defense around for years to come.
Out of the gate, Ekblad impressed, posting 12 goals and 39 points during his rookie season en route to the 2015 All-Star game. He followed that up with a 15-goal, 36-point All-Star campaign that showcased him as an elite offensive defenseman.
As his career continued, however, Ekblad’s scoring totals largely stalled. Over the next four seasons, he failed to top his rookie scoring totals as the Panthers regressed out of the playoffs. However, even in a shortened 2019-20 season, he posted 41 points and was well on his way to breaking 50 for the first time in his career.
So, does this mean that Ekblad is a first-overall bust? Not in any way. He still is one of the NHL’s elite young defensemen and if he can fully grow into his game, he will be a key player in bringing the Panthers their first playoff series victory in over 20 years.
#2: Sam Reinhart
Even if Ekblad was considered to be a safe bet for the first overall pick, many analysts felt that Sam Reinhart could be the player to challenge him for the top spot. Heading into the draft, Reinhart was considered to be the top-forward prospect available, as he showcased incredible goalscoring potential while playing for the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League.
Unsurprisingly, after Ekblad went off the board first-overall, Reinhart immediately followed to the Buffalo Sabres. As a rebuilding franchise, the Sabres were looking to stash young, high-end scoring talent to build their franchise around.
Despite his high draft position, Reinhart didn’t find immediate NHL success. He only played nine games during the 2014-15 season with the Sabres, before returning to Kootenay to finish out his WHL career.
From the 2015-16 season on, Reinhart has been a staple on the Sabres roster. While his scoring has been consistent, he has yet to be truly dominant. His best season came in 2018-19, where he registered 22 goals and 65 points, both solid numbers, but a somewhat lower expected total for his second-overall status.
The future is still incredibly bright for Reinhart in Buffalo, though. He is slowly rounding out his game and could develop into a top-end offensive player. As said by Jason Moser of diebytheblade.com:
Coming off a career-high 65 points, Reinhart is starting to display that he is more than just a player who does the “little things” right. His shot has really developed to compliment the net awareness he diplayed early-on in his career.
#3: Leon Draisaitl
When the Edmonton Oilers made Leon Draisaitl the highest-drafted German-born player in NHL history with the third-overall pick, they did so in order to inject a needed big-bodied, high-skill center into a lineup littered with top offensive draft picks. While Draisaitl may not have been seen as the top skater in the draft, the expectation was for him to become an all-around stud.
Related: Top 15 NHL Power Forwards
Needless to say, the Oilers struck gold with this pick. Since joining the franchise, Draisaitl has been a top-end scorer and playmaker, only being overshadowed by the generational talent that is Connor McDavid.
The 2018-19 season was Draisaitl’s best yet, with a 50-goal, 105-point campaign that showcased him as one of the leagues truly elite players…then following that up with a monster 110 point campaign in the Covid-shortened 2019-20 season, which earned him the Hart, Lindsay, and Ross trophies. At only 25 years old, the future is bright for this German All-Star, who will continue to be one of the faces of the Oilers’ return to relevance.
#4: Sam Bennett
Despite Sam Bennett being unable to do a single pull-up at the 2014 NHL combine, he was still seen by most to be one of if not the top North American skater at the draft. As said in his THW Draft profile:
He’s arguably the most talented all-around forward in this year’s draft class. Bennett has impeccable vision up and down the ice and an uncanny ability to create plays and make tape-to-tape passes with ease.
Not wanting to miss out on the ‘best all-around forward’ at the draft, the Calgary Flames jumped at the opportunity to draft Bennett, making him the fourth-overall selection.
After making his debut with Calgary throughout the 2015 playoffs, Bennett played his first full NHL season in 2015-16, registering 18 goals and 36 points in 77 games. This start looked like a solid foundation that the Ontario native would build upon as his career progressed.
Unfortunately, this did not occur. Over the next three seasons, Bennett would fail to break the 30-point mark, while running a combined minus-40 during that time.
As he is signed with Calgary through the 2020-21 season, it would not come as a surprise if the Flames decided to walk away from their fourth-overall selection should he continue to struggle. Even if he can carve out a small role with the franchise, it certainly is not what they had hoped for on draft day.
#5: Michael Dal Colle
In a draft deep with offensive skill, Michael Dal Colle was seen as one of the standout playmakers. His 95-point season with the Oshawa Generals was among the best in his draft class, with his stickhandling ability being second to none.
With the fifth-overall pick, the New York Islanders selected Dal Colle, hoping that they had found a perfect top-six forward to complement their star center, John Tavares.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, Dal Colle has been unable to secure a consistent spot on their roster. Through the 2018-19 season, he only played 32 games with the team, registering seven points. The 2019-20 season was similar, where he only scored 10 points scored despite starting in 53 games.
So, while he still has the time and the talent to put it all together at the NHL level, it is looking less and less likely that Dal Colle will be able to do so for New York.
#6: Jake Virtanen
To say that the 2013-14 season was catastrophic for the Vancouver Canucks would be a bit of an understatement. After being a model franchise for the better part of five seasons, the Canucks missed the playoffs while firing both their general manager Mike Gillis and head coach John Tortorella.
The only solace for Vancouver fans was a top-ten pick at the 2014 Draft that promised to return some needed young talent to the franchise. With this selection, the Canucks chose Jake Virtanen, a skilled power forward who had the build to become a dominant force in the league.
After he made the Canucks roster to start the 2015-16 season, Virtanen suffered an injury that derailed his rookie season. Once he returned from injury, he bounced around the American Hockey League and the NHL for the 2016-17 season, until he found a full time starting role throughout 2017-18.
Even with consistent ice time, Virtanen has not been able to develop into that dominating power forward that the Canucks had hoped for. As a franchise flush with young, elite talent, his future in Vancouver is uncertain, even if he signed a two-year extension with the franchise back in 2020.
#7: Haydn Fleury
As the second defenseman selected at the 2014 Draft, the Carolina Hurricanes had big hopes for Haydn Fleury. As a big, physical defender that posted solid scoring numbers in the WHL, Fleury was everything that general managers hope to find on draft day.
After being given more time to develop his game in the WHL, Fleury played 69 games with the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, throughout the 2016-17 season. With one full professional season under his belt, he made Carolina’s opening night roster to start 2017-18.
Related: The NHL’s Top-5 Defenses
In the 2017-18 season, Fleury played 67 games with Carolina, but he only registered eight points in the process. Hoping to build on this, he made the opening-night roster again in 2018-19, before bouncing between the AHL and NHL while suffering a concussion.
The problem for Fleury now is breaking through the incredible depth on the Hurricanes’ blue line. Even if he were ready to take on more ice time, it just isn’t available.
Due to this depth, Fleury has become a popular topic for trade talks throughout the NHL. Given the Hurricanes’ need for depth heading into the postseason, you could very well see them make a trade involving their top 2014 Draft pick as a piece of the equation.
#8: William Nylander
Despite being the eighth overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs, no player from the 2014 Draft has had as much of an impact on the NHL than William Nylander. This is due not just to his play on the ice, but the discussions surrounding his contract talk off it.
When Nylander made it to the NHL full-time in 2016-17, he found instant success playing alongside fellow rookie Auston Matthews. By the end of the season, he registered 22 goals and 61 points while becoming a centerpiece of Toronto’s surprise run to the playoffs.
Nylander followed that up with another 20-goal, 61-point campaign in 2017-18 that cemented him as a top-end offensive talent. With two successful seasons under his belt, all signs pointed towards a bright career in Toronto.
Throughout the 2018 offseason, however, contract talks between the Maple Leafs and Nylander stalled, leading him to sit out the start of the 2018-19 season. As a restricted free agent (RFA), this holdout shocked the NHL, as it lasted until just hours before the deadline for him to sign in December.
That contract, which rang in at six years, $41.4 million, became a new benchmark for RFA’s. While no player held out as long in the 2019 RFA class, they tested the limits similarly to Nylander, waiting until just days before the start of the regular season to sign deals.
#9: Nikolaj Ehlers
When the Winnipeg Jets picked Nikolaj Ehlers ninth-overall, they selected one of the most offensively gifted players in the draft. Throughout his career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ehlers torched the competition, registering back-to-back 100-point seasons.
While he joined the Jets to start the 2015-16 season, Ehlers hit his scoring stride in 2016-17, where he registered 25 goals and 64 points. After that fantastic season, he signed a seven-year, $42-million extension with Winnipeg that showed the franchises’ belief in their young forward.
After he signed that extension, Ehlers posted a 29-goal, 60-point campaign in 2017-18 that established him as one of Winnipeg’s top scorers. Given his role with the franchise, he should easily score 20 to 30 goals each season as he plays through the remainder of his contract.
#10: Nick Ritchie
As one of the biggest skilled forwards in the 2014 Draft, Nick Ritchie was expected to be a hot commodity on draft day. As said in THW’s Draft profile:
The old saying around the NHL is: You can’t teach size.
Nick Ritchie has plenty of it and isn’t afraid to use it. In fact, it’s one aspect of his game that makes him such a prized item in this year’s draft.
That prized size and skill led Ritchie to be the tenth-overall pick by the Anaheim Ducks. As a team built around grit like Ryan Getzlaf, this looked like the perfect landing spot for a young, tough forward to grow his game.
While he spent some time in the AHL and NHL throughout the 2015-16 season, Ritchie forced his way onto the Ducks’ full-time lineup to start the 2016-17 season. He would go on to register 14 goals and 28 points in 77 games, earning himself a few suspensions for rough play along the way.
As Ritchie developed his NHL game, he has become less of a scoring force and more of a thorn in the side of the league. His big, tough play makes him a monster to play against, which gave Anaheim a perfect presence on the ice.
During the 2020 trade deadline, Anaheim decided that it was time to move on from Ritchie, so they sent him to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Danton Heinen. This trade sets him up to play important minutes in Boston through the 2020-21 season, meaning that he could start to realize his full potential with the change of scenery.
Impressions of the 2014 Draft Top 10
On the surface, the top-10 picks of the 2014 Draft were a real mixed bag. While some players thrived, most failed to establish themselves as the next stars of the NHL. This is especially harsh in contrast to some franchise-altering players taken later, like David Pastrnak and Brayden Point.
What is unique to this class, however, is how many of these players are still with the original franchise that selected them. Typically, teams will have traded or walked away from top-picks that haven’t established themselves, but many still hold onto their 2014 draftees despite their struggles.
So this means that there still is belief in these players, even if they haven’t made yet. This could change at any time, of course, but for now, it is a unique feature of this draft class.
*All stats from Hockey-Reference.com
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.