Gabriel Landeskog. Drew Doughty. Evgeni Malkin. Eric Staal. Jason Spezza.
Each of those players was selected with the second-overall pick of the NHL Draft in recent years and each has made an impact in the National Hockey League.
The Buffalo Sabres hold the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft and will likely be looking to take the prospect they believe will develop into the best player –no matter his position.
NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings included three centers, a defenseman and a wing. With the defenseman – Aaron Ekblad – likely going first overall, the Sabres would then be picking from the top forwards still available.
The four forwards at the top of Central Scouting’s rankings include centers Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl and left wing Michael Dal Colle.
The players know it’s possible that the Florida Panthers, who currently hold this year’s top pick, could take any of them.
“I think there’s a top five this year that anyone can go first overall. It all depends on what that team needs,” Ekblad said. “If I were to be that person, I know I would work as hard as I possibly can.
“That’s the way I sell it [to teams]. I just want to work as hard as I possibly can and show that I can play in the NHL next year. That’s my goal and I’m determined to do that.”
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Bennett was NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater in both its midseason and final rankings. The Kingston Frontenacs center said he didn’t feel any additional pressure to perform during the year because of the rankings.
He finished the season with 36 goals and 91 points in 57 games and credited his teammates for much of that success.
“It definitely has been a big leap this year. I think it just has to do with the confidence this year and coming in after the Under-18 tournaments,” Bennett said. “I had great support in Kingston, great linemates, great teammates. They’re definitely the reason why I had such a good year.”
I want there to be a ton of pressure because that’s what makes people [...] who are really meant to be there step up and rise to the challenge. - Aaron Ekblad
Whoever goes to the Sabres will be looked upon as a big piece in their continuing plan to build a perennial Stanley Cup contender. For Reinhart, who scored 105 points for the Kootenay Ice, it would be a situation he said he would be comfortable entering.
When he started with the Ice, he said they had a lot of older players and a lot of younger players, but no real bridge players between them. He said he took on a leadership role right away.
“Coming into Kootenay as a young guy, I’ve kind of had a taste of what that would be like,” he said. “Obviously a different stage than the National Hockey League but I’m prepared for it.”
Reinhart was named the CHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year this past season.
Ekblad has dealt with public scrutiny for some time now. He was granted exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League at 15 and now, three seasons later, he feels like he’s ready to make the jump to the pros.
Like Reinhart, he said he’s up to the challenge of being a franchise’s new cornerstone.
“I want there to be pressure or a challenge,” the Ontario Hockey League’s defenseman of the year said. “I want there to be a ton of pressure because that’s what makes fraudulent people step down and people who are really meant to be there step up and rise to the challenge.”
According to some draft insiders like NHL.com’s Mike Morreale, Ekblad is the player who is most likely to be able to step into NHL action right away. However, Morreale told Sabres.com last month that he thinks it’s possible that Bennett and Draisaitl could also make the leap right away.
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Draisaitl is known for being hard to knock off pucks and for his strong possession skills but he’s also very aware of the aspects he needs to work on.
“I think once I improve my weaknesses over the summer, which I’m going to do – I’m going to be working really hard [on] my explosiveness – […] I think I’m pretty close to being an NHL player,” Draisaitl said.
He got a taste of what it might be like to play in the NHL when he competed for Team Germany in the IIHF World Championship in May. He picked up a goal and three assists through seven games.
Draisaitl said it’s the first tournament he’s played against men.
“I needed some time to adjust, but as the tournament went on, I got better and better,” he said. “At the end, I think I played pretty good. It wasn’t the case that I was too slow or anything. I played all right.”
Dal Colle knows the other three forwards may be selected ahead of him, but he’s OK with that. He’s aware that he’s going to have to give it his all to make it to the NHL no matter where he’s picked.
“I’m confident in my abilities to play in the NHL one day. I want to have a long career,” Dal Colle said. “So whether I’m in that conversation [of being among the top three forwards] or not, I know I’m going to be there one day, so it’s all in my head.”
And they won’t have to wait much longer to hear their names called. The first round of the draft begins at 7 p.m. on Friday from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“It’s going to be a very exciting day not only for me, but for my family,” Dal Colle said. “It’s been a day on my calendar for a very long time and it’s coming up real quick so it’s very exciting.”
Stay tuned to Sabres.com for complete on-site coverage.