NHL draft preview: Breaking down the first five probable picks

The city of Philadelphia is associated with freedom, brotherly love and sports underdogs, like Rocky Balboa. But the first five picks of this year's NHL draft could all be dominant someday, writes John Manasso.

Michael Dal Colle (left to right), Leon Draisaitl, Samuel Bennett, Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart are all vying to be the No. 1 pick in Friday's NHL draft in Philadelphia, with Ekblad (white shirt/gray shorts) serving as the early favorite to be the top choice.


Here's the conventional wisdom surrounding this year's NHL draft, which begins Friday in Philadelphia (Round 1):

The five best players have already separated from the pack.

However, the sequence of that quintet remains to be seen. No clear first overall pick has emerged.

"To me, in watching the games and then talking to our scouts and what have you, to me it looks like there is almost a consensus on the first five players," said Predators general manager David Poile. "Could be wrong by one but pretty sure it will go that way."

In order, the Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and New York Islanders hold the first five selections.

Here's a look at the consensus top five for this year's draft:

1. Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (Ontario Hockey League)

Has similar size to Nashville's Seth Jones (6-foot-4, 217 pounds), which might be an important factor in Ekblad, 18, going No. 1.

Ekblad has a big-time offensive side, scoring 23 goals and adding 30 assists last season in 58 games. If he indeed goes first overall to the Panthers, he ought to have an excellent mentor in veteran defenseman Brian Campbell.

"I am always hesitant to label as a sure thing any young athlete as they have enough pressure on them as it is, but I would describe Ekblad as one of the most solid NHL prospects you will find in this year's draft class," NHL director of Central Scouting Dan Marr, the former Atlanta Thrashers chief amateur scout, told NHL.com. "He is the best defenseman available and would be projected to vie for an NHL job a lot sooner than most."

The one note of caution is that defensemen tend to develop at a slower rate than forwards, as they log more minutes and occupy a more difficult role on the ice. As a result, one of the forwards could go ahead of Ekblad -- if the team at the podium is more risk-averse.

2. Sam Reinhart, C, Kootenay (Western Hockey League)

The last of former NHLer Paul Reinhart's three sons to enter the draft. Max, 22, went in the third round in 2010 to Calgary; Griffin, 20, went fourth overall to the Islanders in 2012. Sam, the youngest, is vying to go the highest of all.

Sam Reinhart (6-1, 183) scored 36 goals and added 69 assists in 60 games last year; and in the WHL playoffs, he tallied six goals and 17 assists in 13 games.

With size similar to Jonathan Drouin -- the third overall pick last year by the Lightning -- Reinhart's best option might be to return to junior hockey. However, there could be plenty of pressure if the offensively challenged Buffalo Sabres select him at No. 2.

Some of that pressure could come from the box office, as well.

3. Leon Draisaitl, C, Prince Albert (WHL)

The German has a bit more size (6-1, 208), possesses solid on-ice intelligence and has been touted as a good playmaker. Draisaitl totaled 38 goals and 67 assists last season for the Raiders.

He has yet to produce in the postseason, though: Draisaitl has one goal combined in eight playoff games over the past two seasons.

With Edmonton slotted to pick third, it's possible the Oilers could take Draisaitl at that slot -- marking four straight years of selecting a forward high in the draft.

Perhaps the Oilers find a way to make a deal for Ekblad or move down to pick a different type of player like ...

4. Sam Bennett, C, Kingston (OHL)

Marr told NHL.com that he would compare Bennett to Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, one of the NHL's top defensive forwards -- and perhaps the game's best overall player.

If the Oilers need anything, it's a healthy dose of grit up front, and general manager Craig MacTavish knows it. Maybe the Oilers grab Bennett third.

Bennett was the top-ranked North American skater in the final rankings by NHL Central Scouting. However, mock drafts have him going at either No. 3 or 4.

If Bennett does fall to fourth, he would fit nicely on the roster of Flames coach Bob Hartley, whose squad played with plenty of grit last season.

Bennett finished plus-34 last season for Kingston. He's a polished two-way player and should adjust well to the rigors of playing in the NHL.

5. Michael Dal Colle, LW, Oshawa (OHL)

The Islanders own the fifth pick, and they also are a team that appears to be awash in young, high-end offensive talent.

Alas, that is often what you find at the top of the draft.

At 6-2, 171, Dal Colle seemingly has plenty of filling out to do. Playing alongside center John Tavares, one of the game's top players, could represent a comfortable landing spot.

All great centers need a wingman and Dal Colle could represent that for Tavares.

Dal Colle showed he is capable of putting the puck in the net, notching 39 goals in 67 games last season for the Generals, along with eight in 12 playoff games.

He would seemingly be able to step in right away and play for the Isles.

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