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Top prospects at Hlinka tournament

8/19/2013

The Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament wrapped up with Canada winning its sixth straight gold medal at the tournament. But perhaps more important, the event provided the hockey season's first look at some of the top draft-eligible prospects for 2014.

Here are some notes on some of the big names who played well at the event based on my conversations with scouts in attendance and watching video of a couple of games.

Note that this is a focus on 2014 NHL draft prospects, so players like Yevgeni Svechnikov, Mikko Rantanen, Pavel Zacha, Rasmus Andersson and Gustaf Franzen are not profiled.

Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie (OHL)

Ekblad was the second OHL player to be given "exceptional" status -- allowing him early entry into the league -- in between John Tavares and Connor McDavid. While he doesn't have the same level of game-breaking talent as those two, he is still a very good prospect who could be a top-five or even top-three pick at next year's draft. At the Hlinka tournament, Ekblad was the top defenseman for Canada, logged a ton of minutes and was the top-scoring defender on any team. His best tools are arguably on defense, as he's a big body (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), skates at a high-end level, is very physical and makes a lot of stops.

One scout noted he made a few defensive errors during the event, but generally he was very good. Ekblad was also the top power-play guy for Canada, flashing some solid creativity and puck movement.

Spencer Watson, RW, Kingston (OHL)

Watson was the tournament's leading scorer and did a great job on Canada's top line alongside Brayden Point and OHL teammate Sam Bennett. Watson is a gifted offensive player with great instincts as a playmaker, and set up many scoring chances at this tournament. He also skates well and has above-average puck skills.

Watson is below-average in size and needs work on his defense, but the offensive upside with him is really good.

Sam Bennett, LW, Kingston (OHL)

Bennett was second in scoring among Canadians during this tournament -- well behind Spencer Watson -- but one scout I talked to thought he was the most impressive player on this roster. Bennett is a do-it-all player: he skates very well, has good -- if not high-end -- puck skills, controls the play well, sets up teammates, has a decent physical game and plays good defense.

He's locked into the top 10 as of now for the 2014 draft, and with a good season may even work his way into the discussion in the top five.

Joe Hicketts, D, Victoria (WHL)

You don't find many defensive defensemen who are 5-8, but Joe Hicketts is one and is very good in this role. He lined up on Canada's top pairing with Ekblad and excelled. He may be small, but he's tough and hits like someone much larger. Hicketts skates very well, and his defensive hockey sense is really high. At the Hlinka, he was always in the right place at the right time -- getting in lanes, closing gaps and separating forwards off the puck.

He has average offensive skill, but he will make his living as a tough minutes penalty killer who chips in on offense.

Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer (WHL)

Fleury is a very toolsy defense prospect; he's a mobile 6-3 defenseman with good offensive skills. He had a quality tournament alongside Roland McKeown on Canada's second defensive pairing. Fleury isn't your typical "all athletic ability" player who needs a ton of work either: His reads look solid in both ends, even though he made some bad plays here and there. Scouts also noted that he played at a good pace. He is a potential first-round pick in 2014.

Robby Fabbri, C, Guelph (OHL)

Fabbri notched only one point at the tournament, but he still played very well, and his on-ice performance isn't reflected solely by his point total. The 5-10 forward created a ton of scoring chances with his high-end speed, puck skills and tremendous work ethic. Fabbri plays at a fast pace, but doesn't run around; he makes a lot of smart plays at both ends. If he continues to play the way he did at the Hlinka, he could be a first-round pick at the 2014 draft.

Jake Virtanen, LW, Calgary (WHL)

Like Fabbri, Virtanen also had only one point at the tournament, but still looked impressive despite his low scoring. His skating is really good, as he's a top-level if not an elite skater who can generate chances out of nothing because of his quick bursts; defenders have a tough time trying to contain him. He has above-average hands, drives the net and battles well. Virtanen could be a desirable player for an NHL team in the first round because of his power-game potential, even with average size.

William Nylander, RW, Rogle (Allsvenskan)

Nylander was arguably the top forward prospect at the Hlinka, and while he was fourth in forward scoring, his elite skill was on display; one scout said he clearly stood out. Nylander's puck skills and offensive instincts are elite. He's also a very shifty skater who is quick, albeit not a blazer. His main issue is his size. He's a slight 5-10. It will be interesting to see how he develops this year in a men's league in Sweden, but for now his skill level has him as a potential top-three pick.

Nick Schmaltz, C, Green Bay (USHL)

Schmaltz had a very good tournament, ranking second among all players in scoring and impressing scouts with his very high level of skill. Schmaltz's pure offensive abilities drive his value, as he can make a lot of flashy plays. His hand-eye coordination, creativity and vision are his best traits. However, he is small, a slightly above-average skater and needs to work on his all-around game. Even with those warts, Schmaltz is a potential first- or second-round prospect.

Other notes: Czech forwards Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak had solid tournaments. They have very good puck skills, although Vrana's are better. Pastrnak was impressive, and a good season could have him in the first-round mix. Vrana is a potential top-10 pick.

• The most impressive player for Russia was -- oddly for that team -- a defenseman, Alexei Sleptsov. He's small at 5-10, but skates very well, can move the puck and makes good defensive reads.

Jack Dougherty played well for the U.S., showing good mobility and instincts at both ends. He played high school hockey last season, but will go to the USNTDP this season.

Michael Dal Colle received a lot of praise as a 16-year-old in the OHL as a big skilled player with very good hockey sense. He showed that at the Hlinka, but his average skating hurt him on the big ice surface and may hold him outside the top-10 overall draft prospects.

Joseph Snively was up and down for the U.S., but he had some pretty good flashes. One scout described the Yale recruit as a very skilled player who works his tail off at both ends. The issue is that he's 5-7, and thus sometimes saw his ice time cut at even strength.

• Two Swedish forwards to know are Adrian Kempe and Anton Karlsson. Kempe displayed elite speed and solid offensive instincts. Karlsson is a potential top-15 pick with his great combination of speed and puck skills. He played top-line wing for Sweden alongside Nylander.

• Two Russian forwards -- Maxim Lazarev and Ivan Nikolishin -- showed very good puck skills and an ability to create offense, but they're small and at times shied away to the perimeter. It should be interesting to see how they fare in the CHL this coming season.