Aaron Ekblad is one of only three under-aged players who have been admitted early to the OHL. (Getty Images)
By Allan Muir
Central Scouting announced this week that it rates Kingston center Sam Bennett as the top prospect available for the 2014 NHL Draft. TSN draft expert Craig Button followed up by listing Kootenay center Sam Reinhart atop his list.
And North American Central Scouting? They like Aaron Ekblad.
"He's so smart, very cerebral" Mark Seidel, chief scout for NACS, said of the 6'-5", 205-pound defender for the OHL Barrie Colts. "He plays better in big games, [he has a] bomb from the point [and] is very mature. [He shows] tremendous poise, excellent leadership."
Ekblad, who will captain Team Orr at tonight's CHL Top Prospects Game, is coming off a strong, but unspectacular under-aged turn at the World Junior Championship. He earned the faith of coach Brent Sutter and handled a much heavier workload than any 17-year-old defenseman has in years for Team Canada. He's nowhere near as smooth as Seth Jones, the defender who topped last year's midseason rankings, but he's mobile, good with the puck, and capable of handling a shutdown role. That's exactly the sort of player that most teams, outside of the defense-prospect heavy Buffalo Sabres, wouldn't mind using a top pick to acquire.
NACS puts Reinhart, the 6'-1", 190-pound center, at No. 2, praising his smarts and calling him a "no risk pick," with German-born Leon Draisatl at three. "He's been unreal in November and December," NACS reports, adding that the 6'-1", 180-pound Prince Albert left winger "won't catch Reinhart or Ekblad, but he's better than the rest."
Bennett, at No. 4, is praised as "a warrior [who] will do it all. [He has a] high motor and goes in ALL areas."
At No. 5, NACS has Sault Ste. Marie forward Jared McCann. "[He] continues to get better every game and practice."
Here's the rest of the NACS Top 10 with its comments:
6. Michael Dal Colle, F, Oshawa (OHL): "Play has leveled off, still a tremendous power forward, has to push through in the second half."
7. Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara (OHL): "Incredible start [but] has cooled off ... so big/strong/skilled ... phenomenal skater that challenges guys."
8. William Nylander, LW, Rogle (SWE): "Slowing down as the season progresses ... very skilled ... dropping a bit."
9. Ivan Barbashev, F, Moncton (QMJHL): "Creates offense all the time ... showing more playmaking lately ... point producer ... wants to be in North America."
10. Nick Ritchie, LW, Peterborough (OHL): "Dominant at times, disappears at others ... word is he wants out of Peterborough ... we have concerns."
Here are a few other NACS rankings that caught our eye:
13. Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary (WHL): "Shown a nose for the net ... love his shot ... victim of over-analysis by scouts."
17. Connor Bleakley, C, Red Deer (WHL): "Along with being a load to handle, he has really shown he can play 200 feet ... biggest riser lately ... smart."
21. Adam Ollas Mattsson, D, Djurgarden (SWE): "Big favorite of ours ... size and reach are impressive ... work on his feet is paying off."
26. Blake Clarke, LW, North Bay (OHL): "Biggest disappointment thus far ... has REALLY struggled ... where did the stud player go? ... victim of tough system."
30. Josh Ho-Sang, RW, Windsor (OHL): "Game is developing but he still needs to understand that it’s not all about offense ... maturing a bit."
41. Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Plymouth (OHL): "Best goaltender in the Draft ... Plymouth would be in big trouble without him ... solid rebound control ... athletic."
43. Brendan Lemieux, LW, Barrie (OHL): "Kid is a ball of hate ... picks his spots with fights ... hits hard, aggressive .... has scored some nice goals." (Note: son of Claude Lemieux.)
50. Alex Vanier, D, Baie Comeau (QMJHL): "Biggest surprise of the QMJHL this year ... his size and strength are obvious but his offensive game is impressive, despite the point production ... his defensive game is OK, too."
51. Aleksander Mikulovich, D, Niagara (OHL): "One of our favorite players and sleepers ... plays a HARD game ... competes, hits to hurt ... should keep climbing as he gets more comfortable ... committed himself to learning English ASAP."
58. Ivan Nalimov, G, St. Petersburg (RUS): "THE star of the Subway Series ... even Russians were surprised ... classic late bloomer? ... really has calm demeanor ... needs to work on stick skills ... quick hands."
86. Daniel Audette, C Sherbrooke (QMJHL):
"Size (5'-9", 181) will always be the concern ... such gifted skills ... very heady, high hockey IQ ... really scoots."