PHILADELPHIA – Despite plenty of trade speculation, the 2014 NHL Entry Draft produced few surprises. The Florida Panthers kept their pick and used it to select Aaron Ekblad from the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts.
However, history was made, as Leon Draisaitl became the highest drafted German player to date when the Edmonton Oilers took him third overall. Sam Reinhart was picked second overall by the Buffalo Sabres.
In all, twelve European skaters were taken in the first round, up from the nine selected in 2013. The Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden produced two draft picks apiece in the round.
Pre-draft chatter suggested that since most insiders believed this to be a weak draft, that the Panthers would trade their top pick. They kept the pick and took the talented Ekblad. Not since 2006 has a defenceman been taken first.
“He is a strong, smart and physically mature defenceman who skates well and can play at both ends of the ice,” General Manager Dale Tallon said of the selection. “Aaron is another building block for our team and we are confident that he will fit well with our young nucleus of talented players.”
After the Buffalo Sabres tabbed Sam Reinhart with the second pick, Edmonton would get their man. For quite some time the Oilers have been interested in Draisaitl. His combination of size and skill should provide a complement to the talent the team has upfront.
“I didn't know it for sure, but I mean, I think I knew they were interested,” Draisaitl said after being drafted. “I'm kind of speechless right now. This is just incredible. They've had so many great players on their team, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, (General Manager) Craig MacTavish.”
Draisaitl emerged as a top-five pick this season thanks in large part to his play with the Prince Albert Raiders where he led his team in scoring with 105 points. Then the big centre made his senior men’s national team debut at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships in Minsk, Belarus, showing his abilities to play with men.
Draisaitl becomes the highest player drafted from Germany. Previously, Marcel Goc held the distinction. The San Jose Sharks took him 20th overall in 2001. In 2013/2014 there were six Germans playing in the NHL.
Toronto’s pickup of William Nylander eighth overall was the first time since 2006 they drafted a European in the first round and a Swede for the first time since 2002. The son of Michael Nylander was excited about going to the Leafs.
Then Winnipeg took Nikolaj Ehlers, the Danish goal scoring phenom who speaks five languages. Ehlers admitted to a case of nerves leading up to the draft.
“I've been thinking about this day since I was little so sitting here right now in a Jets jersey, I can't really describe it,” Ehlers said. “I was pretty tired because I didn't really sleep last night. It's hard to explain because I was shaking a little bit all day. I was shaking during the draft. So I'm just fine, I'm happy to finally sit here and be through with it.”
Nikolaj Ehlers was drafted exactly 30 years after the New York Rangers had picked his father Heinz, who coaches in Switzerland where Nikolaj spent six years as a junior before joining the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads last summer.
The rise of Denmark into the top division of the World Championships in 2003 has no doubt stirred interest and passion among the youth in the emerging hockey nation.
“I know all of my friends were watching the draft, and family back home,” he said of the interest back home. “I think a lot of people were following it. I think hockey is getting big again in Denmark now, which I think is fantastic. I think a lot of people were following it this year.”
Switzerland’s Kevin Fiala can now call himself a Nashville Predator. Picked eleventh by the Predators, Fiala will join Roman Josi in Musictown, and maybe another fellow countryman with Simon Moser, who was offered a new contract.
Add to their talent, Draisaitl, Nylander, Ehlers and Kapanen all come from prominent hockey lineage. Draisaitl’s father Peter represented Germany internationally at the World Championships and Olympics. Nylander’s father Michael played for Sweden and in the NHL.
Kasperi Kapanen, father and grandfather represented Finland internationally. His father Sami also played in the NHL.
Fourteen Canadians and five Americans went in the round. The five Americans were taken over between selections 15 through 20.