By Bill Whitehead
When the draft lottery occurred two months ago and the Colorado Avalanche leapfrogged the Florida Panthers by gaining the No. 1 pick overall, most said the Avs had won the “Seth Jones Sweepstakes.” It didn’t quite work out like that, did it?
The forward-laden Avs defied the experts who said they should draft defense, stuck to their word and chose Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon with the top pick — the only forward they took in Sunday’s draft. To most Florida fans, that was discouraging. MacKinnon was the hot commodity coming out of the Memorial Cup tournament, and Jones, while a fantastic prospect, was a local Denver kid with ties to the Avs; Jones staying in Denver seemed to be a sure thing. Frankly, it didn’t seem that Jones excited Cats fans, and in retrospect Sunday afternoon, he must not have blown away the Panthers’ brass away either. Or Tampa Bay’s.
Like Colorado and going against most of the experts’ opinions as well, Florida selected Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, the 17-year-old son of a former Russian player, with the second pick. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and company were on the phone after Panthers GM Dale Tallon passed on Jones, then Stevie Y decided his club, which desperately needs defense like Florida, didn’t want the WHL defenseman either. Surely Carolina, sitting at No. 5, was hoping the drama would continue to play out, but the Nashville Predators, who all along considered Jones the best player in the draft, ended it and drafted the Portland Winterhawks star.
First off, I’m pretty excited Tallon elected to go with offense instead of defense. The Panthers started the draft in the same situation as Tampa: Needing defense. But unlike its upstate rival, Florida has major offensive deficiencies as well. In a few games this past season, especially in the year’s first third of games, the Bolts rallied from late 2-goal deficits to earn at least a point by taking a team to overtime. Florida was incapable of doing that because they don’t have Stamkos, St. Louis or Lecavalier (well, not yet). MacKinnon was first on the list to be taken by Florida, but fans had to feel confident that Jonathan Drouin or Barkov would be there to give the offense a boost and help Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau develop as an elite player.
My impression of Barkov. The good: I like his overall game. The fact that he plays a strong game, as Tallon says, in all three zones makes him a valuable asset and the kind of player coach Kevin Dineen wants; this organization doesn’t want to ice one-dimensional players. Barkov is already big and will fill out even more, has fantastic hockey sense, can score and sees the ice well, and has been outplaying men much older than him in the top Finnish league. He has the potential to make everyone around him better and constantly wins puck battles. The Boston Bruins reportedly tried to trade up Sunday to take Barkov, who received this praise from a Canadian writer after being taken No. 2:
“Many scouts told me in lead up that Barkov could be the best player in this draft. Talk in Finland was always that he would go top three,” said James Mirtle of the Toronto Globe & Mail.
The bad: His shoulder. He hurt it in March in the first shift of his Tappara club’s playoff game against IFK Helsinki. That’s a concern, but I have to feel Tallon, assistant GM Mike Santos and scouting director Scott Luce did their homework and wouldn’t have gambled with such a high selection if they felt the injury was prolonged and perhaps recurring. Drafting at No. 2, Tallon said the Cats would get an immediate impact player, and he would’ve passed on Barkov if health were a major issue. Also bad is that his English isn’t so good and he’s rather laid back and stoic. Really, I’m kidding. If he leads all rookies in points, gives the Panthers a repeat Calder winner and doesn’t speak one word of English over the course of 82 games, I couldn’t care less. It’s all about production.
I could have imagined Tallon taking Barkov, but not at No. 2. I figured if it happened it would’ve been at No. 4 with Florida swapping picks with its trading partners in Nashville. The only reason I can guess that it happened at 2 is that Florida really liked Barkov better than Drouin — much, much better — and felt that Nashville would take Jones. Tampa, having bought out Lecavalier, might seek center help by adding the young Finn at 3. At that point, Florida would’ve been left with the prospect of having to take Drouin at 4, which, again, it didn’t seem to like too much. There was very little talk from Florida about MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate. Drouin seems to be a big risk-reward guy: If he develops, you’ll see plenty of his highlights on NHL Network, but he’s going to have to get much stronger and play in both ends.
Bottom line: I think the Barkov pick is good, rock solid, enticing and exciting — as long as that shoulder injury is a distant memory when camp opens.