NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr acknowledged that while the 2014 NHL Draft will have its share of high-caliber players, there remains no clear front-runner as to who the top pick could be at this point in the season.
But after tireless deliberation and constructive debate at Central Scouting's midterm meetings that concluded Jan. 7, one player had to be deemed the No. 1 skater.
That honor belongs to center Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League.
The 6-foot-0.25, 178-pound left-handed shot ranks fourth in the Ontario Hockey League with 66 points (26 goals, 40 assists) in 40 games. He leads the team with a plus-26 rating and seven power-play goals. At this juncture Central Scouting believes he is the top North American player available for the 2014 draft, which will be held June 27-28 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
The selection might come as a surprise to some, considering many NHL draft pundits have center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League as the potential top pick. Reinhart, who played a top-six role for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, is the third-ranked forward on the midterm list, behind Bennett and German-born Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.
Marr told NHL.com there have been more than a couple of players making a case for themselves.
"At this stage, and from what we have seen with each of these frontrunners and their development, is that there is a fine line distinguishing them and in all likelihood it will remain that way until the first player is selected in Philadelphia," Marr said.
Central Scouting's Chris Edwards, who specializes in scouting the OHL, said he considers Bennett one of the most exciting prospects on the board.
"Bennett has not only been very noticeable but extremely effective every shift of every game so far this season," Edwards told NHL.com. "His puckhandling and playmaking are excellent and he has one of the best shots in this year's draft class.
"He has scored several goals from the high slot and coming in off the wing and has been very effective on the power play."
Bennett has 44 goals and 106 points in 100 OHL games spanning two seasons.
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"Bennett is there because, as a group, we feel he stood out to us in the first half of the season as the one that has the skills and intangibles to be a difference-maker," Marr said. "He's a player that can play in all situations, elevate his game and rise to the occasion."
Draisaitl, who represented ninth-place Germany at the 2014 WJC, is No. 2 on Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters.
The 6-foot-1.75, 208-pound left-handed shot has 18 goals and 51 points in 33 WHL games this season. In the WJC, he had two goals, six points, a tournament-leading 52 penalty minutes and was suspended for one game.
Marr said any time a player in his draft season is selected to participate in the WJC its viewed as a positive, but said scouts don't get caught up in over-analyzing a player after one tournament.
"We chose Draisaitl based on his play in the first half of the season for Prince Albert," Marr said. "At the WJC he isn't with his team, his coach, his system. We're judging him on his play with his team; that carries the most weight. All season long he's continued to develop as a prospect. You noticed him all the time last year and he's gone out there and become a dominant player for Prince Albert this year. We like him as a top-five pick."
Reinhart was ranked No. 4 on the midterm list. The 6-0.75, 185-pound right-handed shot has 16 goals and 50 points in 33 games. He's in his third full season with the Ice and has 81 goals and 199 points in 176 games with the team.
"Reinhart has an exceptional hockey IQ; his hockey sense is the best of any player in this draft class," Marr said. "When he has the puck his vision and skills stand out and he always knows where the puck is, where others are and where he needs to be on the ice."
Reinhart is the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart, who played 11 seasons with the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. Sam also has two successful hockey-playing brothers: Max Reinhart was a third-round pick of the Flames in 2010 and Griffin Reinhart was selected No. 4 by the New York Islanders in 2012.
Bennett is one of two skaters from the Frontenacs ranked among the top 15 on Central Scouting's midterm list. Roland McKeown (6-0.75, 197) comes in at No. 15, No. 5 among defensemen. Scouts like his heavy, accurate shot that gets through to the net. Additionally, Kingston right wing Spencer Watson (5-9.5, 166) is No. 43 on the midterm list.
The top defenseman on the board is Central Scouting's No. 3-ranked skater, Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. Ekblad, who has 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games, also played for Canada at the 2014 WJC and impressed the coaching staff to the point that he earned top-four ice time at the tournament.
"He's smart and an excellent all-around skater for his size [6-foot-3.5, 216 pounds]," Marr said. "He handles and distributes the puck very well in all zones, passes with authority and possesses an accurate point shot. He's highly consistent and displays strong leadership ability."
Rounding out the top 10 among North American skaters are: No. 5 Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals (OHL); No. 6 Haydn Fleury of the Red Deer Rebels (WHL); No. 7 Nick Ritchie of the Peterborough Petes (OHL); No. 8 Brendan Perlini of the Niagara IceDogs (OHL); No. 9 Jake Virtanen of the Calgary Hitmen (WHL); No. 10 Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting (OHL).
The top 10 players all were invited to participate in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary on Jan. 15. Bennett will not be able to play after sustaining a groin injury.
Central Scouting's international midterm list also offers high-end talent, including a pair of forwards vying for top honors. The top European skater on Central Scouting's midterm list is Finnish forward Kasperi Kapanen of Kalpa in Finland's top professional league. Swedish forward William Nylander of Sodertalje in Sweden's second division is No. 2.
The top-rated U.S.-born player is DeAngelo, the Sarnia defenseman. DeAngelo, a native of Sewell, N.J., was one of the last players to be cut from the United States team for the WJC. DeAngelo leads all OHL defensemen with 48 points in 33 games. He has nine goals, five on the power play.
"His puck skill and playmaking ability are excellent," Edwards said of DeAngelo. "He sees the ice very well and creates offensive scoring chances with great passes. He has a very good shot and gets it on net, likes to jump up into the rush. He normally makes good decisions with the puck. However, he gets himself into trouble when he over-handles the puck."
There are five players among the top 30 from United States National Team Development Program under-18 team, which plays in the United States Hockey League: left wing Sonny Milano (No. 16); center Dylan Larkin (No. 17 ); right wing Alex Tuch (No. 21 ); defenseman Jack Glover (No. 27 ); and defenseman Jack Dougherty (No. 29).
The top North American goalie is San Diego native Thatcher Demko of Boston College in Hockey East. The 6-3.75, 192-pound left-hander is 4-1-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in six games; he's also the youngest player in NCAA hockey this season. Demko also made the U.S. team for the WJC but as the third goalie did not dress for a game.