When Tim Murray steps to the podium in Philadelphia he’ll have a number of different directions he can take the Buffalo Sabres. Will he go with speed? Smarts? A Safer pick? Or will the Sabres make a pick based on an absolutely insane stat?
Most NHL experts and draft pundits will tell you that the 2014 NHL Draft has a group of four players that set themselves apart from the rest. GM Tim Murray spoke with us last week and mentioned Michael Dal Colle as a potential fifth in that mix, but that Dal Colle was more of a swing man in the hierarchy. You can include him as the bottom guy in the top five, or the top guy in the next group.
Let’s stick with the top four players available, and what each may bring to the Buffalo Sabres.
Speed - Sam Bennett
Smarts - Sam Reinhart
Safety - Aaron Ekblad
The Stat - Leon Draisaitl
SPEED - Sam Bennett
Off the bat it’s important to note that Sam Bennett was voted the smartest player in the OHL East. He has an awful lot to offer any NHL club. Bennett plays a complete two-way game but what sets him apart from Reinhart and Draisaitl is his speed.
Bennett has elite feet, and plays at full speed. The Sabres are sorely lacking quality wingers at the NHL level, and in the farm system as well. Bennett, who I’ve liked since I heard him described as a “warrior on the wing”, would fill an immediate need for the Sabres.
He’s been Kingston’s go-to guy in every situation. When I saw him play in St. Catherine’s he blazed down the wing on the power play to set up the game winning goal in overtime. He also spent time on the #1 PK, both 4 man and 3 man. It was a cool sight to see Kingston killing a penalty, and take another to drop to 5 on 3. Bennett never even looked at the bench or took one stride toward it. He knew it’d be his draw on the 2-man kill. Great stick, great hands, great speed, and great drive.
SMARTS - Sam Reinhart
Sam Reinhart is one of the best playmakers to come into the NHL in the last 10-15 years. That’s how Sabres Assistant GM and Director of Scouting Kevin Devine described the Kootenay product. Reinhart has been a top prospect for several years, making it a bit of a surprise that he wasn’t listed at #1 at the mid-term rankings for NHL Central Scouting. He didn’t make the top spot to finish the season either. The thing about Reinhart is that he’s not the fastest, or strongest, and sometimes he won’t jump out at you.
Sam Reinhart has elite hockey sense. Sabres GM Tim Murray says that Reinhart has been the smartest player on the ice, every time he’s seen him play (This likely includes Leon Draisaitl because the two squared off in a game and I’m told Murray was there)
When looking for Reinhart highlights, they’re not quite the same as Bennett or Draisaitl. Those two do a bit more in the one-on-one game. Reinhart beats you up with his mind. His hockey IQ, or hockey instincts, or hockey sense, or whatever you’d like to call it…are elite. He’s not considered an elite skater. He’s where he is because he senses the game. Where some players don’t seem to get the message despite years and years of coaching, Reinhart seems to know what to do all the time. He has a sense for the game that many say you can’t teach. Bennett is also the youngest of the group, as he’s just about to turn 18. It’s fair to say that his rocketing up the rankings this year is a sign of what is to come.
SAFETY - Aaron Ekblad
Defensemen are harder to project in the NHL. If you look at the top of the draft through the years, it’s a mix of franchise defensemen and journeymen that don’t prove to be worthy of a top pick. Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad may be regarded by many as the safe pick. This isn’t to take away from Ekblad at all, but if he goes Busty McBusterson, chances are he still plays for 10 years in the league as a top four d-man.
Ekblad has the body to play today, and earned lofty honors in the OHL. He was named the best offensive defenseman, and the best defensive defenseman. Ekblad could be a franchise defenseman, but he’ll need to grow offensively to be worthy of that #2 overall pick. Top picks rarely bust. Aaron Ekblad’s NHL-ready body would lead you to believe he’s a lead pipe cinch for a long career. The Sabres are pretty strong on the blue line, and while Ekblad could make a bright future even brighter, I’d shy away from spending the pick here.
The STAT - Leon Draisaitl
The Deutschland Dangler brings size to the forward ranks. A big, skilled centerman sounds like a great pick in any draft. It’s hard enough to find elite centers, and often that comes down to size. You need a player with the skill to perform at the top level, but also the size and strength to fight off hulking blue-liners and relentless back-checkers. Leon Draisaitl might be that player for the Buffalo Sabres.
There’s quite a bit out there about each and every one of these players, but what I’m going to show you here, remains the most memorable thing I’ve seen in all the draft prep.
You down with IPP?
It’s Individual Points Percentage, and to get an idea of what it is, and what it means with Draisaitl, I’ll link you to the piece from David Staples in the Edmonton Journal:
“In the last two months of the 2013-14 season, the skilled German attacker scored 54 points in 31 games for the Prince Alberta Raiders. That works out to 1.75 points per game. Only two players in major junior were hotter, Tampa Bay’s top pick Jonathan Drouin, 2.52 points per game, and Reinhart, 2.04 points per game.
More context comes from looking at the quality of linemates of Reinhart, Draisaitl and Bennett. This kind of context is important because a player like Gagner, who hasn’t yet fully lived up to his major junior goal-scoring totals, was on a high-powered London Knights team, led by Patrick Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn.
None of the 2014 crop were surrounded with that kind of star talent, but Reinhart’s skilled teammates include Jaedon Descheneau, who scored 98 points, Luke Philp, 77, and Tim Bozon, 62. Bennett was on a high-scoring Kingston team, lining up with Henri Ikonen, 70 points in just 54 games, Spencer Watson, 68 points, and Darcy Greenaway, 62.
Draisaitl? He was assisted by a top defenceman in Winnipeg pick Josh Morrissey, who had 73 points, but other than these two, the talent level in Prince Albert was low, with not one other forward likely to crack the top two lines on a strong Western Hockey League team.
In this regard, some interesting research was done by an analytics writer who goes by the pen name of Romulus Apotheosis at the Oilers Rig blog. He looked at Draisaitl and the other top prospects in terms of the percentage they chip in on a goal when they are on the ice for an even-strength goal. The theory here is that the higher percentage of goals a player chips in on, the more likely it is his team is asking him to carry a heavy load. For example, in the last four years, Taylor Hall has led the NHL in this particular stat, individual points percentage, chipping in on 85 per cent, with Sidney Crosby in second at 83 per cent.
This year with Prince Albert, Draisaitl chipped in on 91 per cent, Reinhart 84 per cent and Bennett 74 per cent. It’s clear Draisaitl was asked to push a big rock up a tall mountain in Prince Albert, and he did so very well…”
NINETY ONE PERCENT. Draisaitl was the lone bright star at forward for Prince Albert meaning he'd be seeing the highest competition, and that opposing teams would essentially set out to stop him at all costs. And yet he scored on a pace with Sam Reinhart over the full season, and was in on 91% of his team's goals at 5-on-5. In a world of scouting reports, analytics, gut feelings, and straight guesses….Leon Draisaitl’s IPP (if you care about it at all) is drool-worthy.
So which is your pick?
Speed? Smarts? Safety? Stats?