The 2014 NHL draft begins Friday in Philadelphia (7 p.m., NBCSN), and barring a last-minute splash by general manager Brian MacLellan – say, a blockbuster to move up to No. 1 to select Aaron Ekblad — the Washington Capitals will select 13th overall, the last team in the lottery.
“Our philosophy has always been to take the best player that’s available to us,” said assistant general manager Ross Mahoney, who is tasked with running the entry draft operation. “You don’t want to pass on a player specifically for a position and then you have that player turns out to be a much better player than the positional player you took. Having said that, all things being fairly equal, you obviously want to try to be strong down the middle. Good defenders, good defensemen, but we’ve always tried to take the best player.”
But in a reputedly thin pool for defensemen, and given that aforementioned insistence on a best-player-available strategy, who might MacLellan and Mahoney look at for the first-round pick? Here’s a look at what the mock drafts are predicting, with accompanying blurbs by experts much more qualified than us:
ESPN.com’s Corey Pronman (Insider): Kevin Fiala, LW, HV71 (SHL)
Yet another management change makes yet another pick tough to project, but given that the Capitals’ change was in-house, there could still be some stability in drafting philosophy. Washington has typically targeted high-risk, high-reward type players with skill, and Fiala fits that bill. The team needs defensemen at the NHL level, but if they stay this high, and [Haydn] Fleury is gone, there isn’t really a defenseman who will meet equal value at this slot.
TSN’s Craig Button: Julius Honka, D, Swift Current (WHL)
(TSN didn’t have a scouting report for its mock draft, so here’s one from Pronman instead):
Honka hit the ground running in his first season in North America, looking substantially better as a prospect than when he played in Europe. The factor that’s really elevated his play has been his improvement defensively, which has allowed him to be leaned on more in tough minutes (and will be pivotal to his having a big role in the NHL). His physical game remains a major liability, as he’s small (5-11, 174 pounds), not that strong, and not an intimidating guy when contact is initiated. Overall, he can play a risky style of game, but most of the time he doesn’t get caught and knows how to make the most of his offensive gifts without giving up too much on the back end.
NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman: Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Big, strong defender (6-2, 208) has talented offensive game. Has the look of a cornerstone defenseman.
NHL.com’s Mike Morreale: Nikolaj Ehlers, LW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Danish prospect had 49 goals and 104 points this season as a rookie in the league and was the most improved from the start of the season to the end. He is an excellent skater with NHL speed, good hands and a great shot.
NHL.com’s Steven Hoffner: Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Has a high-octane offensive game reminiscent of a young Mike Green.
The Hockey News: Robby Fabbri, C, Guelph Storm (OHL)
Fabbri is one of the big risers up the draft charts, after his terrific performance at the 2014 Memorial Cup. Therefore, he may not make it to Washington’s pick here. If he does, the new regime may decide he’s too good to pass up. They may want a D-man, though.
USA Today: Brendan Perlini, LW, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)
Brian MacLellan’s first pick in the GM chair is a skilled power winger with size, speed, and puckhandling ability.
SBNation’s Japers’ Rink: Honka
When you come across a defensive prospect with speed, agility, heady passing and a lethal shot, you have a potential NHL power play quarterback. “He’s an elite offensive defenceman,” noted one scout who has Julius Honka ranked in his top 20. “He controls play with his elusiveness, mobility and puck skills.” Honka made a seamless adjustment to the North American game, leading all rookie WHL defencemen is scoring this season. (blurb via McKeen’s Hockey)
So of the mock drafts culled for the purposes of this exercise, and there are many, many more out there, only two agreed on the same prospect: Honka. The point remains: Things are wide open for the Capitals at No. 13. Their options will certainly get whittled down as their pick nears, and it’s likely the organization has already identified several top targets. After all, MacLellan and Mahoney hinted as much during a recent teleconference.
“It’s a decent year,” Mahoney said. “The depth might not be there as it has been in other years, but that’s our job, to find players no matter what type of year it is. A lot of times players prove us wrong four or five years from now also, whether we thought it was going to be a great draft or an average draft or that sort of thing.”