By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE — It’s finally here – the morning of the 2015 NHL Draft.
It’s hockey’s version of Christmas Day, with fans up early and excited about what gifts lie ahead for them. What will be under the tree this year for the Florida Panthers at No. 11? Another center to get in line and wait his turn at a position where the Cats are strongest? Maybe another collegiate defenseman whom fans will pine for over the years to see wear the home red?
Doubt it on both accounts.
Unless GM Dale Tallon pulls off a trade, the Panthers should be after a productive winger who might be a year away from playing in the same arena where he was drafted. The only way a defenseman’s name is called by Tallon is if one of the big names falls somehow like Cam Fowler did in 2010.
So here we go with my mock draft – the only one I do – up through the Panthers’ selection at 11, which is where I feel they’ll pick. This draft is projected as strong through the top 12 picks, so I’ll look for Tallon to secure a strong prospect and do his wheeling and dealing around July 1.
1 – EDMONTON. This is the no-doubter of all no-doubters. In fact, what would a team have to offer to pry a generational talent away from the club who will now have four – yes, four – No. 1 overall selections skating in its top six? PICK: Connor McDavid, C, Erie Otters (OHL).
2 – BUFFALO. The Sabres weren’t exactly thrilled to have the draft’s second pick, were they? After the lottery loss, the organization’s brass slipped up and expressed disappointment in not being able to give its fans McDavid. Nothing like an American club slighting the best American in the draft. PICK: Jack Eichel, C, Boston University (H-EAST).
3 – ARIZONA. This is where it gets dicey. If there are any moves at the draft, it starts right here. GM Don Maloney has been very active in fielding inquiries around the selection, but I don’t see Florida giving up a lot to move up eight spots. I’ll play it as it lies. PICK: Dylan Strome, C, Erie Otters (OHL).
4 – TORONTO. Oh, the fun that is the Maple Leafs. Always the center of attention, always full of drama, and with the shape the club’s currently in, it’s hard to fathom that they’re only two years removed from that tremendous choke job in Boston in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. There’s a new sheriff in town though. PICK: Mitch Marner, C, London Knights (OHL).
5 – CAROLINA. Florida’s former divisional rival needs serious help. Cam Ward hasn’t been elite in goal, fan favorite Jeff Skinner might be the best trade piece, and enigmatic winger Alex Semin has been a regular in coach Bill Peters’ doghouse. A reliable defenseman to pair ultimately with Justin Faulk will ease the Hurricanes’ pain. PICK: Noah Hanifin, D, Boston College (H-EAST).
6 – NEW JERSEY. The Devils need to get much younger and need help up the middle. The club will be excited to get a playmaking center who was knocked out of the spotlight due to injury. No worries there, though, as he returned to true form and produced. PICK: Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL).
7 – PHILADELPHIA. The obvious pick here by GM Ron Hextall is high-scoring blueliner Ivan Provorov, who played for Brandon – the same as Hextall. But this is Philly, and size, grit and tenacity trump WHL history. This forward’s body in more impressive than his body of work, but the Flyers will be thrilled to choose a talented intimidator who won’t hesitate to throw his body or his fists. PICK: Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL).
8 – COLUMBUS. The Blue Jackets desperately need defense in the system. The WHL’s leading scorer among rookies fits the bill. PICK: Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL).
9 – SAN JOSE. Plenty of talk surrounds this pick as well, as the Sharks are going through a change at the top, too. But a top collegiate defenseman is well worth the wait. PICK: Zachary Werenski, D, University of Michigan (BIG10).
10 – COLORADO. The Avalanche could use a defenseman, but they will decide to go in another direction with the top 3 defenders off the board. They’ve brought their selection in a number of times and have made no secret about their interest in him. PICK: Pavel Zacha.
That leads us to the Florida Panthers.
If the above scenario plays out, Florida will be in excellent position to choose a talented winger who might be fast-tracked to Sunrise. Hanifin, Provonov and Werenski should be gone, so the X factors above are forwards Barzal and Crouse. If either or both falls outside of the top 10 – and that definitely could happen — that means Zacha, Mikko Rantanen, Timo Meier or Kyle Connor slots into their place. But few in the media have the latter two projected in the top 10. Of course, any trades throw this all out of kilter.
Florida’s pick: Mikko Rantanen, RW, TPS (Finland). The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Finn and his story are too much like Aleksander Barkov’s – Tallon’s crown jewel selection – to pass up. Rantanen has been playing against professionals for the last three years in SM-liiga. He has great size, uses it well and is an all-around responsible, dynamic forward who may be NHL-ready now.
Sounds like Barkov, huh?
If a club in the 7-10 range chooses Rantanen, the high-scoring Meier or electrifying Zacha would be fantastic alternatives. I’d prefer the sniperish Meier, who was the best player in the QMJHL last season and has perhaps the most explosive shot in the draft. He’s also a shoot-first player, having led the Q with 316 shots on goal. And what frustrated cry do we hear often at BB&T Center? “Shoot the puck!”
Either way, without doing much tonight – absolutely nothing other than striding to the podium and taking their pick — Tallon and the Panthers will high-five their way out of their barn with a highly-skilled player who is close to playing in the NHL now and projects as a future top 6 difference-maker.
That’s a nice gift for the home fans.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers online at TCPalm.com