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With draft's importance, Prospects Game is pivotal

by Mike G. Morreale

CALGARY -- Calgary native and former NHL player Tim Hunter said he knows just how important the NHL Draft has become during the past decade.

Following a 16-year career with the Flames, Quebec Nordiques, Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, Hunter served as an assistant coach for three NHL teams. He's seen many top players drafted and develop into NHL stars while others struggle to rekindle that magic they once had as juniors.

"You can't make a mistake and take a flyer on someone with the hope he'll be a player," Hunter said. "You have to be precise on your positions at the draft."


Team Cherry (Coach Jim Peplinski)

Goalies: Ty Edmonds, Prince George, WHL; Alex Nedeljkovic, Plymouth, OHL

Defense: Anthony DeAngelo, Sarnia, OHL; Haydn Fleury, Red Deer, WHL; Aaron Irving, Edmonton, WHL; Roland McKeown, Kingston, OHL; ^Jacob Middleton, Ottawa, OHL; *Nelson Nogier, Saskatoon, WHL; Alexis Vanier, Baie-Comeau, QMJHL

Forwards: Daniel Audette, Sherbrooke, QMJHL; Ivan Barbashev, Moncton, QMJHL; Conner Bleackley, Red Deer, WHL; Michael Dal Colle, Oshawa, OHL; Chase De Leo, Portland, WHL; Robert Fabbri, Guelph, OHL; Nikolay Goldobin, Sarnia, OHL; Ryan MacInnis, Kitchener, OHL; Matt Mistele, Plymouth, OHL; Sam Reinhart, Kootenay, WHL; Nick Ritchie, Peterborough, OHL; Nikita Scherbak, Saskatoon, WHL

Team Orr (Coach Tim Hunter)

Goalies: Julio Billia, Chicoutimi, QMJHL; Mason McDonald, Acadie-Bathurst, QMJHL

Defense: Aaron Ekblad, Barrie, OHL; Aaron Haydon, Niagara, OHL; Julius Honka, Swift Current, WHL; Brycen Martin, Swift Current, WHL; Alex Peters, Plymouth, OHL; Ben Thomas, Calgary, WHL

Forwards: *Samuel Bennett, Kingston, OHL; Clark Bishop, Cape Breton, QMJHL; Blake Clarke, North Bay, OHL; Eric Cornel, Peterborough, OHL; Leon Draisaitl, Prince Albert, WHL; Nikolaj Ehlers, Halifax, QMJHL; Josh Ho-Sang, Windsor, OHL; Brendan Lemieux, Barrie, OHL; Jared McCann, Sault Ste. Marie, OHL; Brendan Perlini, Niagara, OHL; ^Brayden Point, Moose Jaw, WHL; Jake Virtanen, Calgary, WHL; Spencer Watson, Kingston, OHL

*- injured and unable to participate
^- injury replacement

Hunter will have the opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse of many of the brightest 2014 NHL Draft-eligible prospects in action Wednesday when he works the bench as coach for Team Orr at the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19th annual Top Prospects Game will showcase 40 of the Canadian Hockey League's top draft-eligible players, featuring talent from the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

One player who won't be participating is center Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League. He sustained a groin injury last week. Bennett, began the week fourth in the OHL with 66 points in 40 games, on Monday was named the No. 1 skater in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American prospects for the 2014 draft.

"This is an event that all NHL scouts look forward to attending," NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr said. "The 40 players competing in this game were chosen by the 30 NHL clubs with the game being a unique opportunity to evaluate 40 of the top draft-eligible prospects on a single stage in what has annually become an intense competition."

The rosters include many of the top-rated players recognized on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings for North American skaters and goaltenders.

"A lot of NHL teams are targeting the key areas; not just skill but character and hockey sense," Hunter said. "There's no room for error. The draft has become a vital tool for every franchise. I'm just glad the kids have these types of opportunities and scouts have a way to make solid evaluations."

Team Cherry coach Jim Peplinski, who played 11 seasons in the League and won a Stanley Cup alongside Hunter with the Flames in 1989, doesn't deny the fact players today are better equipped to handle the rigors of the NHL.

"I'm a firm believer in the older we get, the better we were," Peplinski said. "There's no question the game today is faster and different. The one thing that is similar for scouts and NHL teams is the fact it's a lot better to see prospects against better competition than average competition. Today's players have a lot more experience on the world stage and in stressful situations than what we had 30 years ago.

"I'm not worried about the players being nervous at this game. The one thing I would look at when determining if a particular player can play for my organization is how they perform against players comparable or better. Fans and scouts get that chance at this game."

Last year's game featured 19 players who were taken in the first round of the 2013 draft, including top-10 selections Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1, Colorado Avalanche), Jonathan Drouin (No. 3, Tampa Bay Lightning), Seth Jones (No. 4, Nashville Predators), Sean Monahan (No. 6, Calgary Flames), Darnell Nurse (No. 7, Edmonton Oilers) and Bo Horvat (No. 9, Vancouver Canucks).

Since the event was introduced in 1996, the game has featured 11 players chosen with the first pick in the NHL draft, including Chris Phillips (Ottawa Senators, 1996), Joe Thornton (Boston Bruins, 1997), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning, 1998), Rick Nash (Columbus Blue Jackets, 2002), Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2003), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks, 2007), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning, 2008), John Tavares (New York Islanders, 2009), Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers, 2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers, 2011) and MacKinnon.

The first choice of the 2012 draft, Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, sat out the 2012 Prospects Game after sustaining an ankle injury at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice (WHL) will be the captain for Team Cherry and Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts (OHL) will be the captain for Team Orr. They were teammates with Canada at the 2014 WJC in Malmo, Sweden. Canada finished fourth in the tournament.

Joining Reinhart with letters on their jersey for Team Cherry will be alternate captains Roland McKeown of the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) and Ivan Barbashev of the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL). Wearing letters for Team Orr along with Ekblad will be alternate captains Jake Virtanen of the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) and Nikolaj Ehlers of the Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL).

In addition to Bennett, Saskatoon Blades defenseman Nelson Nogier was invited but will be unable to participate due to injury.


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