By Allan Muir
Central Scouting raised a few eyebrows when it named Kingston Frontenacs center Sam Bennett as the top prospect for this year's draft in their midseason rankings.
No one is surprised to see him there again.
That's not to say that the Toronto native, who scored 36 goals and 91 points for the Fronts, is universally regarded as the best choice, but the 6'-1" pivot did nothing to sway his staunch supporters away from their position.
"There are guys who elevate their game when it matters most, and you're looking to project which players will do that consistently at the next level," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "The guys we have at the top all are in that mold, but when we look at Sam Bennett we see a guy who could potentially have a Jonathan Toews type of career."
Bennett's effectiveness was apparent when the votes were tallied in the Ontario Hockey League's Eastern Conference Coaches Poll. He came in first overall in the smartest player, best playmaker and best stick-handler categories. He also finished third in the best defensive forward category.
"There's a lot of bite in his game," a scout told SI.com. "He's a fierce competitor in all three zones, absolutely miserable to play against. Great hands, great head. Best case, maybe [Central Scouting is] right and he matures into an elite No. 1 [center]. Worst case, he's a really solid No. 2. He's really a no-risk pick."
Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad was ranked second, while center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice was third.
"I would describe Ekblad as one of the most solid NHL prospects you will find in this year's draft class," Marr told nhl.com. "He is the best defenseman available and would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."
"He looks like a man out there already," our scout said of the 6'-3", 210-pound blueliner. "He's a guy who will play 25 steady minutes a night against the opposition's top line. He's the one you want protecting a lead, killing penalties, doing all the little things that help a team win."
Reinhart is the most explosive offensive weapon in the draft, but that might not be enough to convince the Buffalo Sabres to take him ahead of the feisty Bennett. Or maybe it will.
"I would compare Reinhart to Adam Oates," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told nhl.com. "He's a very cerebral player who takes what's given to him. He probably has the highest hockey IQ of any player in this draft, and he knows where to go with the puck even before he even gets it."
"Just send him over the boards and watch him go," our scout said. "He's so smart. He has that gift of anticipation ... he makes his linemates better."
Rounding out the top-10 North American skaters were German center Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert); left wing Michael Dal Colle (Oshawa Generals); right wing Jake Virtanen (Calgary Hitmen); left wing Nick Ritchie (Peterborough Petes); left wing Brendan Perlini (Niagara Ice Dogs): defenseman Haydn Fleury (Red Deer Rebels); and center Jared McCann (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds).
Thatcher Demko of Boston College is the top-ranked goalie available, while the premier European skater was winger Kasperi Kapanen, the son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen.
Here is Central Scouting's complete final ranking.