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Top prospects take in bright lights of Cup Final

by Adam Kimelman

NEW YORK -- Mere feet separated five of the top prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft from the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings while the teams went through their morning skates Monday ahead of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), in which the Kings hold a 2-0 series lead.

In a few months, those same five prospects could be living their own NHL dreams.

Kingston Frontenacs center Samuel Bennett, Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Prince Albert Raiders left wing Leon Draisaitl and Oshawa Generals left wing Michael Dal Colle, the five top players in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, were on hand here at Madison Square Garden to watch the teams skate and meet a few current NHL stars.

"Just watching them practice, thinking that I could be there next year, is pretty cool," said Bennett, Central Scouting's top-rated prospect. "It's a dream come true if that could ever happen."

After the teams skated the prospects got to meet players from both teams in their respective locker rooms. Among the players saying hello were Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis from the Rangers, and Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar from the Kings.

Bennett said his highlight was meeting St. Louis; for Draisaitl it was meeting Kopitar. Besides the Los Angeles center's on-ice ability, Draisaitl, a native of Cologne, Germany, said he liked how Kopitar also came from a country not known for hockey talent, Slovenia.

Ekblad, the lone defenseman in the group, was happy to meet Doughty.

"You watch the way Drew Doughty will take a point shot or where he sets up his one-timers," Ekblad said. "Just the way he skates up the ice and surveys things. There's five options, he picks the best one every time. Always got his head up skating. Pretty cool to watch."

Though fun to watch, the prospects also know the players they met Monday could be teammates, or more likely opponents, as soon as October.

"I think you have to imagine that," Dal Colle said. "It's one of your goals. It's going to be in the back of my mind, for sure."

"You can't really be idolizing them too much anymore because you could be playing with them next year, or against them," Bennett said. "I'm trying to look at it in a different perspective. It's cool to think about."

Reinhart got a little taste of life as a pro in May when he joined Canada in Switzerland for training camp and exhibition games ahead of the 2014 IIHF World Championship.

"Going over to Europe and practicing and playing with a bunch of pro guys, it was the best experience for me," Reinhart told "It really started to sink in there."

In addition, his father Paul Reinhart played 11 seasons in the NHL; his oldest brother Max Reinhart plays for the Calgary Flames; and middle brother Griffin Reinhart likely will be in the NHL next season with the New York Islanders. All that time around NHL-caliber talent has made the chasm between junior hockey and the NHL seem a bit easier to cross, even when he's watching the best of the best in the Stanley Cup Final.

"You're not in the headlights, shocked, watching these guys," Reinhart said. "Try to take as much in and learn. We know where we want to be next year. It's a good learning experience for us."

In addition to watching the practices and meeting the players, they shot a segment with CBC broadcaster Don Cherry and made an appearance on Sportsnet's "Hockey Central at Noon." They also saw how the locker rooms overflowed with media after the teams skated.

"Walking into the dressing room and seeing how many people are in there after practice looking to talk to the players, it was pretty crazy," Bennett said. "I guess that's something you've got to get used to."

In just a few hours they got the full NHL player experience, but from a distance. In a few months they could be enjoying the real thing.

"I guess it's slowly sinking in," Ekblad said. "It's a goal for sure. I don't think any of us expect that. It's going to be a lot of hard work for any of us to make the NHL next year. That's the message that I get from this thing. You can see how good they are, the skill they have and how much time the put into it. I guess that's the lesson I take from this."


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