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Day 1 recap: How Central Scouting has evolved

by Mike G. Morreale

TORONTO -- The opening day of NHL Central Scouting's meeting to determine the final rankings of the top draft-eligible North American skaters proved to be both entertaining and enlightening.

Entertaining in the fact the top players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia in June were discussed and debated for eight hours. Enlightening in the way Central Scouting has taken a proactive approach in making projections at a time when the game has certainly evolved since the bureau was established prior to 1975-76 as a courtesy to NHL teams.

"Our whole business is projection, so you have to project where the game will be a little bit down the road," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "We have to look at those trends. We have to know that the game is evolving this way because we're telling you who will play there in the next three-to-five years; it's one of the hardest but best things about our job."

Chris Edwards, who specializes in prospects from the Ontario Hockey League, acknowledged that there was a day when 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensemen dominated the rankings. They were in high demand and, at the time, key to a long and successful run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

That just isn't the case anymore. See 5-foot-11, 181-pound right wing Patrick Kane.

"When [late director of Central Scouting] EJ McGuire came along [in 2005], he changed our way of thinking about the game, or at least what we thought it is," Edwards said. "We were stuck in a rut at a point and we had big defensemen who weren't great skaters in our first round because that's where big defensemen went. EJ came along and was fresh out of coaching; he knew what kind of guys were playing and what their limitations were."

There's no question that while most teams would require a few stay-at-home defensemen, the League has become faster and more skillful on both ends.

"You have to be able to move and skate and be mobile in this game now or you can't play no matter what size you are," Gregory said. "If you're big and can do that, that's an added bonus. But it also means that guys that may have in the past struggled as smaller guys, now have a chance to have an impact."

The best discussion of the day involved those players from the Western Hockey League, where Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders, Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice and Jake Virtanen of the Calgary Hitmen were under the microscope. There was also intriguing debate about WHL defensemen Haydn Fleury of the Red Deer Rebels and Julius Honka of the Swift Current Broncos.

Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, who was No. 1 on Central Scouting's midterm list, was certainly given the thumbs up when the top blue-chip prospects of the OHL were discussed earlier in the day. He finished with 36 goals, including 10 power-play goals, 91 points and 118 penalty minutes in 57 regular-season games. In two seasons with the Frontenacs, the 6-foot-0.25, 178-pound left-hander has 54 goals, 131 points and 205 penalty minutes in 117 career games.

In addition to Bennett, OHL forwards Michael Dal Colle of the Oshawa Generals, Nicholas Ritchie of the Peterborough Petes and Brendan Perlini of the Niagara IceDogs, were talked about in great detail.

"You expect 17- or 18-year-old kids to get stronger at some point, and Bennett certainly fits that mold," Edwards said. "That's something that every prospect will work on, so I don't see it as a problem in his development down the road. Bennett doesn't get pushed around, or he's not weak, but he'll be even more effective when he gets stronger."

The only sure thing at the draft might be Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who is considered the top defenseman available on the draft board. All the scouts were in agreement that Ekblad was the top defenseman at the midterm rankings in January.

"I don't see anyone going ahead of him defense-wise," Edwards said. "But not only is he possibly the top defenseman, but he could be the No. 1 pick overall."

The final meetings will continue Thursday and run through April 1.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

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