The early albeit extremely long-range forecast for the 2014 NHL draft is cloudy, with not as many stars immediately visible as a year ago.
By all accounts, this year's draft, compared to the Nathan MacKinnon-Seth Jones sweepstakes of 2013, isn't quite as star-studded at the top end and isn't nearly as deep, but what it may lack in star power/depth, it will make up for in unpredictability and competitiveness.
Indeed, in TSN's annual pre-season survey of 10 NHL scouts, no less than four players received at least one vote as the No. 1 ranked prospect. While two players – Kootenay Ice offensive centre Sam Reinhart and big Barrie Colts defenceman Aaron Ekblad – somewhat distanced themselves from the rest of the pack, everything about this draft is as far from clear cut as you can get. Reinhart and Ekblad were the only two prospects to show up on every one of the 10 scouts' Top 10 ballots.
Reinhart, the son of former NHL defenceman Paul and younger brother of New York Islander prospect Griffin and Calgary Flames' centre Max, received five first-place votes from TSN's 10-man NHL scouting panel. He's a skilled, point-producing forward with an extremely high hockey I.Q. Ekblad, the big defenceman who was deemed an "exceptional player" by Hockey Canada and permitted to play in the OHL as a 15 year old, received three first-place votes. Ekblad demonstrated strong two-way play with a stellar effort at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Underr-18 tournament in August, captain of Canada's gold-medal team.
But eight of the 10 scouts had Ekblad no lower than No. 2 overall while some scouts had Reinhart as low as No. 3 or No. 4. By the time the voting points were tallied, Reinhart and Ekblad finished with identical voting points, though Reinhart gets the edge as TSN's pre-season No. 1 by virtue of more first-place votes (5) than Ekblad (3).
"It's the classic offensive forward versus a big defenceman," one NHL scout told TSN.
Historically, the forward almost always wins out, at least in this millienium. Last year, forward MacKinnon went No. 1, defenceman Jones went No. 4. In 2012, forward Nail Yakupov went first ahead of defenceman Ryan Murray, who went No. 2. In 2011, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went first, defenceman Adam Larsson went fourth and in 2009, forward John Tavares went first to defenceman Victor Hedman's second. You have to go back to 2006 to find a defenceman who went first overall, when American Erik Johnson was No. 1.
In fact, since 2000, more goaltenders (Rick DiPietro in 2000 and Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003) have gone No. 1 overall than defencemen. Johnson is the only one in that time period. That's in stark contrast to the five-year stretch from 1992 to 1996, when defencemen (Roman Hamrlik, Ed Jovanovksi, Bryan Berard and Chris Phillips) were the top picks in four of those five years.
In this year's TSN survey of scouts, two other players besides Reinhart and Ekblad – rangy German centre Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders and Oshawa General forward Michael Dal Colle, who plays both wing and centre – received first-place votes.
Draisaitl is ranked No. 4 on TSN's pre-season list and he showed up on nine of 10 scouts' ballots. Dal Colle checks in at No. 9 on the TSN list and while one scout had him at No. 1, five other scouts didn't include him at all in their Top 10.
It's that kind of year.
William Nylander, the Calgary-born Swedish son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, is No. 3 on TSN's list. The skilled and exciting forward actually plays on the same line with his soon-to-be 41 year old father on Rogle, in the Swedish Allsvenska league.
And Nylander, amazingly, isn't the only projected Top 10 prospect in this draft who's playing on the same team as his former NHL father in his draft year.
Finnish forward Kasperi Kapanen is the son of former NHL winger Sami Kapanen, now 40, and that father-son combo is playing on KalPa in Finland. Kapanen, a dynamic albeit sub 6-foot offensive forward, is No. 8 on TSN's Pre-Season Top 15.
Kingston Frontenac centre Sam Bennett, who plays a strong, heady two-way game, is No. 5 on TSN's list.
Calgary Hitmen power winger Jake Virtanen checks in at No. 6, followed by big Peterborough Pete winger Nick Ritchie, who is the younger brother of Dallas prospect Brett Ritchie.
With Kapanen at No. 8 and Dal Colle at No. 9, TSN's Top 10 is rounded out by Czech offensive-minded forward Jakub Vrana, who is playing with Linkoping in Sweden this season.
Spots 11 thru 15 on TSN's list are occupied as follows: Swedish winger Anton Karlsson of Frolunda; Red Deer Rebel defenceman Haydn Fleury; American forward Nick Schmaltz of Green Bay in the USHL; Russian centre Ivan Barbashev of the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats and Kingston defenceman Roland McKeown.
Swedish forward Adrian Kempe of Modo and Plymouth Whaler forward Matt Mistele checked in as Honorable Mentions, just outside the top 15.
"It's going to be a wide open draft," one scout said. "You're going to see a lot of movement over the year. It's going to be a real sorting out process, much more than usual."