Scouts who have spent the last year evaluating the prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft can agree on one thing: This year's class is one of the most difficult in recent memory to evaluate.
That difficulty starts at the top, where with less than 48 hours to go before the start of the draft Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS), there's no consensus as to who will be the first player picked.
"I think there's more guys that are similar to each other than a lot of years," Tampa Bay Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray told NHL.com. "It's a little bit difficult. It tends to come down to team preferences."
Unlike previous years, where Sidney Crosby (2005), Steven Stamkos (2008), John Tavares (2009) and Taylor Hall (2010) were clear-cut top choices, this year's No. 1 selection won't be known until Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon steps to the podium at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia -- assuming he hasn't traded the pick.
The choice likely will be one of four players who have moved to the head of the class -- Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart and Prince Albert Raiders center Leon Draisaitl.
That's the order NHL Central Scouting ranked them in their final list of the top North American skaters. However Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting, told NHL.com he can make a good case for any of those players to be picked No. 1.
"These players are all going to be long-time, big-minute impact National Hockey League players," he said. "And to try and get the correct order, that's an exercise in futility. ... We're telling everyone the top five players [Oshawa Generals left wing Michael Dal Colle is No. 5], any of them could go No. 1."
Bennett has been No. 1 on Central Scouting's list all season, ahead of the more-hyped Ekblad and Reinhart. The 6-foot, 178-pound center finished ninth in the Ontario Hockey League with 91 points and led his team in goals (36), assists (55), plus/minus rating (plus-34) and power-play goals (10). He also had a 25-game point streak, the longest in the league since the 2010-11 season; Bennett had 17 goals and 29 assists during his streak.
He's also highly regarded for his speed, smarts and two-way play.
"When we look at Sam Bennett we see a guy who could potentially have a Jonathan Toews-type of career," Marr said.
Bennett said going first would be nice but that it's not something he's putting a lot of energy into worrying about.
"It would be pretty special [but] at the end of the day it is just a number and everyone will be in the same spot come training camp trying to make the team," he said. "Obviously it's every kid's dream to go as high as they can into the NHL and [getting picked No. 1] would be pretty special."
Ekblad, the highest-ranked defenseman, is no stranger to hearing his name called first. In March 2011 he was granted exceptional player status from Hockey Canada and allowed to enter the 2011 OHL draft at age 15, where was the first player picked, by Barrie. Three seasons later, the 6-foot-3, 213-pound Ekblad is still exceptional.
He led all OHL defensemen with 23 goals, was sixth with 53 points and was named the league's top defenseman. He also played on a top defense pairing for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"I am always hesitant to label as a sure thing any young athlete as they have enough pressure on them as it is, but I would describe Ekblad as one of the most solid NHL prospects you will find in this year's draft class," Marr said. "He is the best defenseman available and would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."
Making the NHL next season is Ekblad's top goal, but if he can be the first player picked, that's a pretty good status symbol. If he goes No. 1 he would be the first defenseman picked at the top of his draft class since Erik Johnson by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, and the first Canadian defenseman to go No. 1 since Chris Phillips of the Ottawa Senators in 1996.
"[Going No. 1] would mean a lot," he said. "Lifelong dream for sure. Something I've been working toward all last season and most of my life. It would mean a lot. Does it matter? Not so much. I think wherever you go you just have to embrace that and have a lot of fun with it."
Going No. 1 would make Reinhart the highest-drafted member of his family. That's saying something considering his father, Paul Reinhart, was the 12th pick of the 1979 draft, and one of his brothers, Griffin Reinhart, was the fourth pick in 2012.
Reinhart, who's 6-1, 186 pounds, tied for fourth in the Western Hockey League with 105 points in 60 games and was second on his team with 36 goals. He also had two goals and three assists for Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championship and got professional experience in May when he attended Canada's training camp for the World Championship and played in an exhibition game.
"I would compare Reinhart to Adam Oates; he's a very cerebral player who takes what's given to him," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "He probably has the highest hockey IQ of any player in this draft and he knows where to go with the puck, even before he even gets it."
Reinhart said being the first player picked is something he would consider very special.
"It would be a huge honor," he said. "I don't know too many kids that would stand up here and say they don't want to go first overall."
Draisaitl, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound forward, would be the first German-born player to be drafted No. 1, a distinction he'd certainly have earned after an outstanding 2013-14. He had 38 goals and 105 points in 64 games for Prince Albert, as well as six points in six games for Germany at the WJC and one goal and three assists in seven games for Germany at the World Championship.
"He's the best prospect I've seen from this draft class at protecting and handling the puck," MacDonald said. "He's very Jaromir Jagr-esque. He protects the puck, makes those button hooks and hits guys coming in late. He'll hold onto that puck until he sees the right play to make. He has a great wrist shot and good snap shot, and can surprise a lot of goalies with it."
Draisaitl has said he would like to be a role model for young German hockey players, so going No. 1 would certainly be a nice example.
"I'd be extremely proud and honored," he said "We've had some high picks. To be considered as maybe the highest drafted German player ever would be a huge honor. ... I'm proud to be German. It's important to have the German hockey have a guy like Christian [Ehrhoff] and other guys like [Marcel] Goc, so little kids have guys to look up to. I want to be the same type of guy. I want to be a guy that maybe makes younger guys in Germany play hockey. I'm proud to be German and I want to make the country proud and make as many kids play hockey as possible."
However Draisaitl, like the other top prospects, knows the draft is just the starting point, and a lot of work remains.
"It's just a draft," he said. "It's something special but it doesn't mean you're going to be an NHL player one day. You still have a lot of work in front of you. You're going to have to prove you're a good player."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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