TORONTO -- Is it possible to predict the No. 1 choice at the 2014 NHL Draft in June?
If you were to ask five scouts to provide their top choice right now, you would hear several different names at the top.
At this stage in the season there seems to be four legitimate contenders in the mix for top honors: Forwards Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League, Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League and Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice of the WHL, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts of the OHL.
There's also a chance forward Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals of the OHL also might sneak into the mix at some point prior to the announcement of the No. 1 selection June 27 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
NHL.com on location at final meetings
Mike Morreale of NHL.com will be on site for NHL Central Scouting's final meetings in Toronto from Wednesday through Friday to provide daily blog posts and features from the final gathering to discuss the best North American prospects on the draft board.
A final list of the top 210 North American skaters, 140 European skaters, 30 North American goaltenders and 15 European goaltenders is scheduled for release in April. The first round of the 2014 NHL Draft will be held at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on June 27. The remaining six rounds will be completed June 28.
Follow the 2014 NHL Draft blog this week for exclusive posts and updates directly from the NHL offices in Toronto. Additionally, you can follow Morreale on Twitter for real-time updates at @mikemorrealeNHL
There also will be an exclusive alphabetical listing of the top-10 players from each of the major junior leagues, including the WHL, OHL and QMJHL, as well as USA-East, USA-West and the Canadian juniors and midgets, when made available.
NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr and the top evaluators from the bureau will look to make sense of it all here this week at their final meeting, where the final rankings of the top 210 North American skaters and 30 goalies will be set. The six-day selection process begins Wednesday. From a separate location, NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb will give his recommendations to Marr on the top 140 international skaters and 15 goalies.
"The opinions will likely be somewhat different as there have been more viewings of the players, but considering our history with the top five I would not expect the opinions of the players to vary too much [from the midterm rankings]," Marr said. "There will be much more discussion on the order of the top five from midseason to now. These players have been so scrutinized that I expect there to be quite a healthy discussion on the final ranking order."
The final rankings release will be made released next month.
In Central Scouting's midterm rankings in January, Bennett was the No. 1-rated North American skater, followed by Draisaitl, Ekblad, Reinhart and Dal Colle. Kasperi Kapanen of Kalpa in Finland was the No. 1-ranked European skater, followed by forwards William Nylander of Sodertalje in Sweden's second division and Adrian Kempe of Modo Jr. in Sweden's junior league.
Bennett (6-foot-0.25, 178 pounds) finished his second season in Kingston with career highs across the board in goals (36), assists (55), points (91), power-play goals (10), penalty minutes (118) and plus/minus rating (plus-34).
The one sure thing heading into the final meetings is that Ekblad (6-3.5, 216) will be the choice as the top defenseman available at the draft. He is fourth among OHL defensemen in with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games. In three seasons Ekblad has 40 goals, 116 points and a plus-31 rating in 175 games.
"I'm always hesitant to label a sure thing any young athlete, as they have enough pressure on them in their draft year," Marr said. "I would describe Aaron Ekblad as one of the most solid NHL prospects you will find in this year's class. He is the best defenseman available and he would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."
Ekblad was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2011 OHL draft as a 15-year-old, a year younger than the standard age of 16, and was selected by Barrie with the No. 1 pick.
Ekblad and Reinhart represented Canada at the 2014 Word Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Ekblad played well enough to earn a top-four role and finished with one goal, two points and eight shots on goal in seven games. Reinhart played a top-six role and had two goals, five points and a plus-3 rating.
Draisaitl (6-1.75, 208) represented Germany at the 2014 WJC for the second consecutive year. He had two goals, six points, and a tournament-leading 52 penalty minutes. He was fourth in the WHL with 105 points (38 goals, 67 assists) in 64 regular-season games and is considered by many to be the dark horse in this tight race to be the No. 1 prospect in North America.
The scouts will scrutinize and debate the future of all potential blue-chip prospects from within the OHL, WHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, USA-West and USA-East regions, which include all U.S. colleges, prep schools and high schools, and the Canadian junior and midget leagues. Prospects from the United States Hockey League, which includes the United States National Team Development Program, will be included in the USA-West ranks.
"The NHL projection factor is always the key component, particularly with players ranked in the first round," Marr said. "Does this player have the skills, assets and intangibles to translate his game, production and style of play to the NHL?"
Five of the six prospects from the USHL that are among the top 30 on Central Scouting's midterm list are from the USNTDP U-18 team, led by left wing Sonny Milano. Milano, No. 16 on the midterm list, is second U-18 team with 47 assists and 68 points in 48 games.
"The NTDP continues to excel in identifying and developing the top U.S. players," Marr said. "There should be many of the program's players selected throughout the top- to mid-rounds in the draft. There are highly skilled forwards and power-forward candidates, as well as two solid goalies [Edwin Minney, Blake Weyrick] and a good mix of defensemen."
The top American-born prospect is defenseman Anthony DeAngelo of the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. DeAngelo, born in Sewell, N.J., is No. 10 on Central Scouting's midterm rankings and led all OHL defensemen in scoring with 71 points (15 goals, 56 assists).
"I'm looking forward to [the final meetings]," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "I think it's going to be fun. We did a really good job of crossover [into different leagues] this year, so that always helps for good discussions all the way through the draft."
Gregory acknowledged this year's draft might be the most unpredictable in his 12 years with Central Scouting.
"It's a real interesting year," he said. "It would be considered the most wide-open that I've ever been a part of for two reasons. First, there could be a lot of change up at No. 1. Second, it's so thin and flat that after 20 to 25 players, picks could be made from all over the map."