The 2014 NHL Draft signals the start of a new era in the life of Dallas Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell.
McDonnell spent a decade aiding Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland at the draft table. This year, he will be sharing his insight with Stars GM Jim Nill, who hired him in July 2013.
The timing is impeccable too, as the 2014 Draft class poses a unique challenge.
"This is the toughest draft to gauge that I've ever been involved in," McDonnell told NHL.com. "Guys that maybe are tenth on your list, could go No. 30 or vice versa. It's not a big gap, like some years where it drops off. It's pretty close all the way through and I think it's just going to sort itself out at the draft table once teams start taking different players. You just hope something you have falls to you."
McDonnell went on record to say that defenseman Aaron Ekblad, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2014 Draft, is probably the top defenseman available. The veteran scout is a big believer in building from the goal line out and top defensemen are hard to come by in any draft.
Last year with the Red Wings, McDonnell had right wing Valeri Nichushkin ranked third on his wish list. The Red Wings didn't select until No. 20 last year and, wouldn't you know it, the Stars ultimately tabbed the Russian-born standout with the No. 10 choice. The general consensus among scouts was that Nichushkin slipped that far in the draft because of the possibility of him returning to the Kontinental Hockey League.
"I remember sitting at the Red Wings draft table last year and [Holland] turning to me and saying, 'Do you think Dallas is going to take [Nichushkin]?' I said, 'If it's not Nichushkin I'd be shocked.' So they took him and it was a great pick.
"Everyone knew the 'Russian Factor' was the reason he fell to No. 10 but you have to do your homework and if they're already playing over here that's one thing, and if he doesn't you need to do the research. Dallas did their homework and got Val and it has certainly worked out."
McDonnell said the 2014 NHL Scouting Combine once again provided a great opportunity to learn more about the top prospects, particularly during the interview stage.
"It's important to find out if they can at least put a sentence together," McDonnell said with a grin. "Seriously though, I know they can do that. We're just sizing the player up when he comes to our door for the interview; shake hands with him and you immediately get an idea who you might be dealing with. There were actually a couple of real surprises for me. I'm not going to name names but I thought they looked small on the ice and when they came to the door I thought, 'Wow, this kid is way bigger than I thought he was.'"