Aaron Ekblad could be selected No. 1 overall. ©2014, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart all in mix to be top pick as NHL Draft approaches

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – For the next few weeks, their skills, personality, body type – everything about them – will be dissected. Twenty-six days before the NHL Entry Draft, there’s still no consensus No. 1 overall pick.

To many observers, three coveted youngsters – center Sam Bennett, defenseman Aaron Ekblad and center Sam Reinhart, the top North American prospects, according to NHL Central Scouting – are vying for the pick owned by the Florida Panthers.

What would the honor mean?

“It would mean a lot, a life-long dream, for sure,” Ekblad said Saturday during NHL Scouting Combine inside the Toronto International Centre. “It’s something I was working toward all through the season and most of my life. …

“Does it matter? Not so much. I think wherever you go, you just have to embrace that and have a lot of fun with it.”

How much are these guys being scrutinized? Bennett’s inability to do a pull-up during Saturday’s rigorous testing became a focal point of his chat with the media.

“I was definitely disappointed with myself,” the 178-pound Bennett said. “I want to do the best I can in every test. But, I guess, ultimately games aren’t won or lost if you can do a pull-up in the gym. I’m not too, too worried about it.”

Bennett, the No. 1 prospect, shouldn’t be worried. He just enjoyed one of the best seasons in junior hockey, compiling 36 goals, 91 points and 118 penalty minutes in 57 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs.

The Buffalo Sabres desperately need a franchise forward. At least one will be available when they pick second.

All three players said they spoke with the Sabres at the combine.

“I think it went really well,” said Bennett, who spent about 30 minutes chatting with the Sabres.

Not surprisingly, all three players believe they’re NHL-ready. Ekblad, 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, already looks and sounds like a big leaguer.

“I wouldn’t say I’m cocky, but I’m confident and I believe that if I work hard and I do all the little things and pay attention to details, I can be in that league next year,” Ekblad said.

Ekblad was a stud defender with the OHL’s Barrie Colts in 2013-14, compiling 23 goals and 53 points in 58 games. Reinhart, meanwhile, had 36 goals and 105 points in 60 contests with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.

“It’s not starting right now,” Reinhart said about making the NHL. “It’s been a few years of really working hard, both on and off the ice. This year, I’ve spent a lot more time throughout the year getting in the gym, putting those extra hours in. A guy my age, I think when you do use your hockey sense to your advantage, I think the biggest thing is getting bigger and stronger to play with grown men.”

Bennett will spend much of the summer getting bigger and stronger.

“My upper body isn’t really my strong suit,” Bennett said.

Still, Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, called Bennett, who turns 18 on June 20, “kind of a complete package.”

“When you talk about skating with speed, skill, hockey sense, scoring ability, and he’s got that will and that edge to his play where he really doesn’t really want to be denied on the play,” Marr said.

Marr said past prospects have often had a summer in the gym “that really made a difference in their development.”

“So maybe at this stage he doesn’t have that summer of development,” Marr said.

Even with limited upper-body strength, Bennett showcases a feisty style. Observers have compared him to former Sabres center Doug Gilmour, his general manager in Kingston.

Come October, Bennett believes he’ll be ready for the NHL following the breakout campaign.

“I was asked by a whole bunch of teams if I thought if I was ready, and my answer every time was, ‘I think I’m ready to play next year,’” he said.

Check back later for much more from the NHL Scouting Combine.

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