NHL scouts have logged thousands of hard winter miles, slugged back hundreds of cups of arena coffee, and weighed the athletic merits of hundreds of teenaged hopefuls, all in the name of mining the talent that will power Stanley Cup dreams.
Nobody understands the prospect game better than they do. And yet here we are, the 2014 NHL Draft upon us, and they'll tell you the whole thing is still up in the air.
“Honestly, I wouldn't hazard a guess how this will all play out,” one scout said of this year's event, which gets underway on Friday night in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN). “There's always a degree of volatility, but this year is something else.”
If there's any consensus, that's probably it. Compare two top-30 lists and maybe 20 names will appear on both. Compare three and you'll wonder if these guys were watching the same kids.
Most agree that it's an off-year for talent, but that doesn't make it a bad year. While it lacks the MacKinnon/Drouin/Jones sizzle of 2013 or the franchise-altering potential of the Connor MacDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes of 2015, this year's crop features some good players...maybe even some very good players.
But it's also a group that leaves a lot of questions to be answered. Does Aaron Ekblad, the season-long favorite to go first overall, have the offensive upside to mature into a legitimate No. 1 defenseman? Can Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart overcome their lack of size to become front-line centers? Will Leon Draisaitl and Nick Ritchie grow out of the inconsistency that dogged them this season? Can the physical gifts of Josh Ho-Sang or Anthony DeAngelo convince a team to overlook their nagging character issues?
And is there even one of these good kids who can emerge as someone great?
There are so many variables in play that while there's a general agreement on the top-four picks -- Ekblad, Bennett, Reinhart and Draisaitl -- the order in which their names will be called remains up in the air. And once you get past that group, what happens next is anybody's guess.
One scout asked to peruse this final list said there were 27 names consistent with his team's top-30. Another said I was "in for a surprise" and said there were 10 players on his list that don't appear here. He wouldn't name names, but going by his team's history I'd guess Brandon center John Quenneville, Kitchener center Ryan MacInnis and St. Andrew's College winger Warren Foegele could sneak in. So could Swedish defender Marcus Petterson, Plymouth goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and Moose Jaw forward Brayden Point.
“We'll look back at this group of kids in five years after everything has shaken out and wonder how we missed so badly on this guy or the other guy,” that scout said. “All we can do now, though, is go with what our guts are telling us and hope we're not the ones who screw it up.”
To try to make sense of things, we tapped into our network of bird dogs to give you the lowdown on each of the 30 players we think will get the call in the first round. Their insights range from glowing to damning and if they seem contradictory at times, that's a perfect reflection of the difficult debates that will shape the selection process.
As with all mock drafts, this is strictly opinion. No wagering, please.