Barkov Pick a Bold, Strong One

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.

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Who Should the Panthers Draft at No. 2?

By Bill Whitehead

“The Florida Panthers would like to congratulate the Chicago Blackhawks on winning the Stanley Cup and the city of Newark and the New Jersey Devils for their hospitality. And with the second pick in the 2013 NHL draft, the Florida Panthers are proud to select…”

Those are the words Florida general manager Dale Tallon will likely utter Sunday afternoon. What happens at the end of that sentence is anyone’s guess at this point. Unlike his counterparts from Denver selecting No. 1 overall, Tallon has been typically tight-lipped on which player will walk up and greet him onstage in Newark. However, he has made it clear that he expects to be shaking the hand of a top quality player — someone who will step right in and contribute when the season opens in October, not spend time honing his skills in juniors.

While Tallon hasn’t tipped his hand, Cats fans on this forum have made it perfectly clear what they want to do: Draft no worse than No. 2 and select the best talent available. In the poll included in this space last week, fans of Red Rising decided the right move is to stay in the second spot — or even try to move up. Fifty-six percent wanted the Cats to stand pat while 30 percent felt the club should try to sweeten a deal and swap picks with Colorado, so 86 percent want Florida to draft first or second. The remaining votes were in favor of a scenario having Florida trading for a top player and/or prospect and drafting at a lower position.

Drafting first, of course, puts Tallon and company in position to take whoever they want, and “whoever they want” is probably center Nathan MacKinnon. Drafting second? Well, that gets a little more interesting. Defenseman Seth Jones, viewed as a dead solid lock at No. 1 for most of the past few months, has watched his stock plummet since MacKinnon and fellow offensive talent and Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin beat Jones’ Portland club in the Memorial Cup. Then Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche  revealed part of their strategy by saying they would take a forward instead of Jones at No. 1.

Many in the sport think the Avs are putting up a smokescreen to drum up deals. And some organizations have already come calling. Calgary reportedly offered all three of its first-round picks for the first overall but was turned down by Colorado. Craig MacTavish, the new GM at Edmonton, might be willing to make a splash by dealing a top six forward and/or a prospect and the No. 7 selection for Jones. Only Carolina, at No. 5, has made it clear it’s more prone to trading down rather than up.

Then there’s Nashville. The Predators sit at No. 4, which most consider the starting point of stepping off after the Big 3 of MacKinnon, Jones and Drouin. Nashville GM David Poile made his opinion of the draft, particularly Jones, known earlier this week:

“(Jones is) the whole package,” Poile stated to Smashville247.net. “He has size, he’s got great skating, offensive abilities – he could be a Norris Trophy winner. That’s not to say the other guys couldn’t equally be as good, but right now that’s how I would have him, as the best player in the draft.”

If Nashville likes Jones that much, it’s not out of the question that the Preds could attempt to strike a deal with the Avs and get him at No. 1. Or Nashville could hope to get lucky and see if Jones would fall past Florida and Tampa Bay and into the fourth spot. Looking for high-end quality rather than a solid player, the Panthers could be offensive-minded in this draft (at least with their first pick but would probably love to see a blueliner like Shea Theodore at No. 31 with their second pick), but the Lightning would feel like they hit the jackpot if Jones were there at No. 3. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Nashville, a frequent trading partner with Florida, could forge a deal with the Cats.

However, with Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier being bought out on Thursday, maybe center is a bigger need, though the Bolts have prospects Tyler Johnson and Vlad Namestnikov pushing for ice time. Tampa’s need at center could lead them right to Finland’s Aleksander Barkov, a 17-year-old power forward who was outstanding while playing against men in the premier Finnish league and is the top-ranked European skater by most scouting services.

It’s your call and a simple question: If the Cats stay at No. 2 and Nathan MacKinnon is off the board after being chosen by Colorado at No. 1, who would your pick be?

Your comments and feedback are appreciated!

Many Draft Scenarios Possible for Panthers

By Bill Whitehead

If the word that came out of Denver on late Tuesday night is true — and if is the big word here — the NHL draft next Sunday may have taken its first interesting twist. Of course, if it’s out of Denver, that means Avalanche. And if it affects the Avs, it affects the Florida Panthers, who are slotted to make the second selection after Colorado gets the ball rolling.

The problem? According to reports by multiple sources, including Denver Post Avs beat writer Adrian Dater, the Colorado brass reached a decision, one that goes against the grain, which maybe should be considered typical of that franchise. The organization made a statement saying it would not choose local product Seth Jones as the top pick and reiterated it Thursday to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun.

sethjones

The defenseman and son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, Seth Jones has been ranked at the top of many prospect rankings and mock drafts since 2013 rolled around, but Colorado stated it had ruled out Jones and would take one of three forwards — speedy center Nathan MacKinnon, high-scoring winger Jonathan Drouin or big center Aleksander Barkov. Colorado would do this despite having Matt Duchene, Paul Stasny and Ryan O’Reilly anchoring the middle and having much more depth in forwards than defensemen who post big minutes.

It all could be posturing on Colorado’s part. What stands to be gained by making this announcement so soon and turning over all the team’s cards face-up at the table? Will it diminish the public relations problem of passing on a player in Jones that Avs executive vice-president of hockey operations Joe Sakic influenced and helped develop into youth hockey?

Here are a few scenarios that could happen:

Colorado, which stated it didn’t want to trade out of the top three or four (a range that ends, likely, at Barkov), could hope Florida, Tampa Bay or Nashville picks up the phone to make an offer. Florida looks to go offense, and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has said his club will get quality at the third pick, regardless of who’s there, so Tampa may not be willing to trade. The Predators could go offense or defense, but MacKinnon is the hot commodity right now after his spectacular showing in Halifax’s Memorial Cup-winning tournament. However, new Colorado coach Patrick Roy will have an important role in making the top selection, and he thinks very highly of MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate Drouin, a Quebec native who is the top-rated prospect in the recent rankings of Hockey Prospectus.

With Yzerman perhaps staying put, the onus could be on Florida GM Dale Tallon either to make a deal with the Avalanche to secure the player the Panthers want — that is if the Cats have their sights dead-set on a certain player and feel they must get him. If Florida offered a top 6 forward, defenseman or good prospect, the Panthers could swap with the Avs and insure that it gets the player it has targeted as the top one overall — essentially the player it wanted before the Avs turned the tables by winning the draft lottery.

Tallon could stay put and be content to pick second, knowing the Panthers will get one of the Big Three of Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin. The organization could keep its current assets and not deal away a key player or prospect to the Avs and just take the BPA (best player available) at No. 2. That would mean Florida would have the opportunity to choose between two of Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin with at least one of those choices being one of the two dynamic forwards.

Staying inside that first three picks in this draft is key because most feel a drop-off occurs from No. 4 on back, which has to do with Barkov’s shoulder injury he suffered in March. If the Avs go ahead and take Memorial Cup MVP MacKinnon or CHL MVP Drouin, do the Panthers take Jones or the other forward? Or do the Cats trade down to a team who may want Jones like defensively-needy Edmonton for a top 6 forward and its No. 7 pick, which could likely be in the range of wildcard Russian power forward Valeri Nichushkin (below), center Sean Monahan or sniper forward Hunter Shinkaruk?

Nichushkin

Huberdeau Named NHL’s Top Rookie

By Bill Whitehead

It should be no surprise that the pace quickened at 7 p.m. Saturday when the remainder of the National Hockey League awards were announced. With just a one-hour time slot to work with before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, the broadcast crew rushed through five trophies — the Calder, Ted Lindsay, Vezina, Norris and Hart.

Why should it be no surprise? Well, with the 2012-2013 season being essentially cut in half — actually, you can forget the “2012” part of that — it only makes sense that the awards show was just as abbreviated and crowbarred into a one-hour time slot. The broadcast crew rushed through as if they had to get ready for a game, which they did.

If you followed Twitter earlier Saturday, you had a pretty good feeling Florida Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau was going to be awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy honoring the premier rookie. TSN leaked out word that the Quebec native would receive the award and become the first Panther ever to claim the honor.

Huberdeau, who turned 20 earlier this month, had my vote for the Calder, and he did win the award over Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. The pair tied with 54 first-place votes each, but the former Saint John Sea Dogs star beat Gallagher, who plays for Huberdeau’s childhood fave Habs, by a margin of 1,141 to 1,048. And Huberdeau deserved it: He had multiple highlight-reel goals and posterized Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov twice. And don’t forget he was the top-scoring rookie. That goes a long way, especially on a club that finished 30th in the NHL. Huberdeau was also the second consecutive player from the 2011 draft class to be named Calder winner, joining Gabriel Landeskog, who was selected in front of him at the Minnesota draft and won the award last year.

HubyCalder2

It was the second consecutive season a Florida player won a trophy. Brian Campbell claimed the Lady Byng award for sportsmanship last year by being assessed just six penalty minutes in 82 games. Tampa Bay’s Marty St. Louis, a classy player like Soup, earned the honor this year, though his 14 PIMs in 48 games looks goonish next to No. 51’s numbers.

The other two winners who were interviewed live on set were Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a translator with him to discuss his Vezina win as the top goalie, and P.K. Subban, who was resplendent in a suit that looked like it had been dipped in dijon and splendid in his interview accepting the Norris Trophy. The Canadiens defenseman is a PR dream — he’s extremely talented, articulate, candid, often somewhat controversial and fiery. What’s not to like about that? I’m always dumbfounded by Habs fans who complain about Subban; 29 other teams would love to see him on their blue line.

Huberdeau was complimentary and answered all the questions posed to him. He couldn’t have been any better on the set. The only complaint I have is that the crew cut him short, kind of like how the season was cut short. Looking back, though, 48 games was enough to see of this Florida team. Huberdeau’s season is the brightest spot in a lousy 2013 campaign — the 31 points he tallied and the Calder Trophy were fun experiences — and another great addition will be acquired on June 30 at the draft. But I still wanted to hear more from Huberdeau Saturday night. I wanted to hear more of that story of him and Kris Versteeg rooming together.

No worries, though, Huberdeau will do all his talking next year on the ice and for many seasons to come wearing the red of the Florida Panthers.

Nathan MacKinnon Dazzles in Memorial Cup

By Bill Whitehead

Unlike the past few years, I didn’t really get to enjoy the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament from Saskatoon this time around. Due to other obligations, I didn’t get to catch the dazzling show that Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin put on as the Halifax Mooseheads raced to their first Canadian Hockey League championship in a 6-4 win over the Portland Winterhawks, who feature potential top overall draft pick Seth Jones.

Apparently, MacKinnon’s dynamic showing has had the Colorado Avalanche, owners of the first pick, rethinking their strategy. And how could they not hesitate a bit? MacKinnon, likely playing his final game in juniors, shredded Portland’s defense, scoring three times, including an empty-netter to ice the championship, and adding a pair of assists in a five-point night.

If you missed it (like I did), here you go:

MacKinnon was spectacular in the tournament, scoring 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in four games. To a lesser extent, so was Drouin, who had perhaps the most overshadowed five-assist night a player can have in a championship game. But the tournament and title game belonged to MacKinnon, who was elevated to the No. 1 overall spot in International Scouting Services’ latest ranking last week. MacKinnon jumped Jones, a defenseman who was the hot commodity as 2013 rolled around. Drouin slots at No. 3 by ISS.

MacKinnon and Jones, the top-ranked North American skater by NHL’s Central Scouting, did meet up before. Here’s what happened in the first meeting in the Memorial Cup tourney:

With all of the trade talk and draft scenarios that have surfaced, much of them likely from Colorado in an effort to dangle the pick — who knows, maybe to Florida in a swap — I still believe the Avs will grab Jones with the first selection in Newark later this month. They and new coach Patrick Roy need defense, plus are stacked up the middle with centers, and the team can’t deal recently signed center Ryan O’Reilly until next February.

I felt really ripped off by the NHL Network showing the majority of the Memorial Cup a day after each game was played, except for the final. However, I did record Halifax’s championship game and have watched one period of play. That’s enough to reinforce my opinion even more: MacKinnon must be the name Florida general manager Dale Tallon calls out in New Jersey.

For me, the hope from here on out isn’t to finish watching that Memorial Cup title game I missed (though I will) but to cover MacKinnon live the next 10 years wearing another red-themed sweater.

The one of the Florida Panthers.