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Top prospects feel they can play in NHL this fall

by Adam Kimelman

PHILADELPHIA -- The goal of every prospect who will hear his name called at the 2014 NHL Draft is to play in the NHL as soon as the 2014-15 season.

While some can only hope that will happen, more than a few are expecting to be on the NHL team that drafts them when the new season opens in October. It's not an arrogant belief, but one that comes from the amount of trust they have in themselves, the work they've done to this point and the willingness to do even more to reach that top level.

"I don't go in expecting and saying if I don't work hard I'll still make the team," Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad said during a media availability at The National Constitution Center on Thursday. "I go in expecting to make it and believing in being confident in myself. I don't expect to make it. ... I don't think that I'm going to rest on my laurels just to get in there. I'm going to expect to make it, and I'm going to make it because I work hard and do the right things."

At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Ekblad is NHL Central Scouting's No. 2-ranked North American skater, and the top-rated defenseman. He led all Ontario Hockey League defensemen with 23 goals and was named the league's top defender. Beyond his on-ice skills, he has a demeanor and maturity that stands out to scouts and makes possibly the most NHL-ready player in this year's draft class.

But Ekblad isn't alone in his NHL readiness. Prince Albert Raiders center Leon Draisaitl, a 6-1, 208-pound forward who was fourth in the Western Hockey League with 105 points in 64 games, is another prime candidate to make the jump quickly. He's No. 4 on Central Scouting's list of the North American skaters.

"The thing you factor in most in that equation is their physical development, and obviously their maturity level," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told "But when you look at Aaron Ekblad and Leon Draisaitl, those are the two most physically imposing players that could actually go in and handle the grind and battle to make a team. So those would be the two guys that I think have an advantage going in to a camp to make a team."

Draisaitl said he wants to get stronger, especially in his lower body, which he thinks will make him a more explosive and stronger skater.

He got a glimpse of the life of a professional hockey player while skating for Germany at the 2014 IIHF World Championship and by watching the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final in New York.

Watching players like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, Draisaitl said he can envision himself lining up against those players as soon as October.

"It was awesome to see those guys do what they do best and that's play hockey," Draisaitl said. "For me personally, I don't think I'm that far off. ... I think I'm going to expect myself to make the team for sure."

Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart also got a taste of the pro life when he skated with Canada at its final training camp for the World Championship and got into an exhibition game.

Reinhart, No. 3 on Central Scouting's list after totaling 36 goals and 105 points in 64 games, said the biggest thing he noticed was the increase in pace from playing in the WHL. However, he said he adapted quickly, which gives him confidence that he can jump into an NHL lineup in October.

"I'm going to be expecting to [make a team]," Reinhart said. "But at the same time hoping for an opportunity. ... I'm confident in my own ability to do that but I know it's not going to be easy."

Two other players looking to make the jump might not have as long a path to travel as those going directly from junior hockey. Central Scouting's top two European skaters, forwards Kasperi Kapanen of KalPa in Finland and William Nylander of Sodertalje in Sweden's second division, have extensive experience playing against men in their home countries' top professional leagues.

In addition, each picked up extra NHL knowledge from his father -- longtime NHL players Sami Kapanen and Michael Nylander.

"It's a different experience level," Marr said of the top European skaters. "It's a professional level they're playing at. Their routine is different, the lifestyle is different, the approach to the game is different. It does give them a better understanding and does set them up to have success. There is that advantage for them."

Nylander, who also played with his father with Rogle in the second division and for Modo in the Swedish Hockey League, said his time against fully developed competition gives him an idea of what he'd be facing in trying to make the NHL.

"Of course it helped playing against older men," he said. "I don't know what the NHL level is like, but on my way there it's probably helped a lot playing against men this year, helping me get used to it."

While the top prospects believe they are NHL-ready and will go into training camps in September with that mindset, they all know work needs to be done, and understand the reality of their situations. At least nine players from each of the 2013, 2012 and 2011 drafts played in the NHL in their draft seasons; in all, 28 players out of 630 who were drafted made it right away.

"I go in there expecting to make the team," said Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, Central Scouting's top-ranked North American skater. "That's going to be my goal. ... I've got to get a lot bigger and stronger. I think this summer getting on the ice and working on little things like faceoffs and my shot, those are the little things I'm going to work on.

"Even if I don't make it I'm not going to be devastated. I realize it's tough at 18 but that's my goal, to make it."


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