PHILADELPHIA -- A hat trick of firsts took place in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center on Friday.
It began when Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon ended months of speculation by taking Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League, the first defenseman selected No. 1 at the draft in eight years. The Buffalo Sabres then made center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League the highest-drafted Reinhart in family history with the No. 2 choice.
DEFENSEMEN DRAFTED NO. 1 OVERALL
The Edmonton Oilers kept the theme of firsts going when GM Craig MacTavish made center Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) the highest German-trained player selected at the draft with the No. 3 choice.
Ekblad was projected to be the one sure NHL-ready performer of the group, reason enough for Tallon to scrap the idea of dealing the No. 1 choice. Ekblad was the first defenseman chosen No. 1 since Erik Johnson, now with the Colorado Avalanche, was picked first by the St. Louis Blues in 2006. Ekblad is the first Canadian-born defenseman chosen with the first pick since the Ottawa Senators took Chris Phillips in 1996.
"That's a pretty crazy feat," Ekblad told NHL.com. "But it's something I've looked forward to for a long time. It was definitely one of my goals to go No. 1 as a defenseman. It's a great thing to have on my resume for sure and it's fun and I know this is just the beginning."
Ekblad finished with career highs in goals (23), assists (30), points (53) and penalty minutes (91) and was named defenseman of the year in his third OHL season. He earned first-place finishes for best shot, hardest shot, best offensive defenseman and best defensive defenseman in the Eastern Conference of the OHL and was voted second in the category of best penalty-killer.
"I think GMs are also looking for a guy who will jump into the rush and score goals, so versatility is a big thing," he said. "I'm sure that's what they look for; every so often you have to throw your weight around too. But obviously being steady and knowing your position is important."
Having that knowledge is expected of the 6-foot-3.5, 216-pound right-handed shot, who was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada and became eligible for the 2011 Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft as a 15-year-old. That's a year younger than the standard age of 16.
"I was the youngest and the guy under the most scrutiny; it always seems to follow me around," Ekblad said. "But that kind of pressure seems to motivate me and I'm going to go for it. I want that burden of expectation, feel motivated and want to succeed."
Reinhart, who had 36 goals and 105 points in 60 regular-season games, is the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart, who played 11 seasons with the Atlanta/Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. He also has two successful hockey-playing brothers. Max Reinhart was a third-round pick (No. 63) by the Flames in 2010 and Griffin Reinhart was selected No. 4 by the New York Islanders in 2012. Paul was selected by the Atlanta Flames with the 12th pick in 1979.
"It's very motivating and nice to know where you're going for sure," Reinhart said. "I'm familiar with where the Buffalo Sabres organization is going and am excited for the opportunity. I really visualize myself playing a role there and to be picked by Buffalo is very exciting."
Reinhart finished fourth in the WHL in scoring with 105 points (36 goals, 69 assists) in 60 games. He has 101 goals, 254 points and a plus-52 rating in 203 career regular-season games spanning three seasons.
NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr acknowledged that Reinhart has a "throwback" style on the ice reminiscent of Hall of Famers Ron Francis and Adam Oates.
"He's extremely responsible in any area of the ice and, as a result, has excellent on-ice positioning," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald said. "He's exceptional at anticipating and is a very good opportunist. He has the ability to make something out of nothing and can dish effortlessly to both sides. He really thinks the game well."
Sabres general manager Tim Murray acknowledged that Reinhart was No. 1 on their draft board.
"He has the ability to be a special player and make the players around him very special," Murray said. "Going forward, we're going to try to surround him with the best players we can."
Draisaitl finished in a fourth-place tie with Reinhart for the WHL scoring title with 105 points (38 goals, 67 assists) in 64 regular-season games for the Raiders. He becomes the highest German-trained player selected at the NHL draft. Dany Heatley is the highest German-born player selected at the draft (No. 2, Atlanta Thrashers, 2000).
"It's a huge honor and I'm proud to be a German," Draisaitl said. "I love to represent my country, especially here in North America. It's a tremendous honor to wear the Edmonton Oilers jersey, knowing guys like [general manager Craig] MacTavish, [Mark] Messier and [Wayne] Gretzky wore the jersey before me."
Marr said a good comparison to Draisaitl might be James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs or Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.
"What sets Draisaitl apart from other prospects is his ability to protect the puck; he's very Jaromir Jagr-like in that sense," MacDonald said. "He's got that same style. He'll connect with guys coming in late and hold onto that puck until the right play is there. He's got a great wrist shot and snap shot and has surprised a lot of goalies."
MacTavish was thrilled to get Draisaitl.
"You have to draft big centers and they are hard to come by," MacTavish said. "We play in a difficult conference and difficult division and Leon's skill set fits tremendously well for us. We have a lineup of wingers ready to play with him; there are a lot of good combinations when you add a player of this caliber."