By Bill Whitehead
Welcome to what could eventually be labeled as Dale Tallon’s Summer of Sams.
With the Florida Panthers bucking the odds last Tuesday and winning the NHL Draft Lottery for the No. 1 overall pick, Tallon, the Florida Panthers general manager, found himself in the enviable position of having that what everyone else wanted: the top pick.
But is it what every GM wants? In this draft the answer might be, “Hardly.” No consensus No. 1 pick has emerged in this year’s crop of talent, though most scouts and services agree that a serious dropoff occurs after the first five selections in the late June draft in Philadelphia. The current pool of skill is forward-heavy, though steady, rugged defenseman Aaron Ekblad will be a key figure at the top and may even be a selection Tallon turns to.
It’s hard to forget about the Barrie Colts blueliner – at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds and owning a strong shot, very hard to do – but let’s set the defenseman aside for a moment and focus on another area of concern for the Panthers.
Tallon has let it be known that Florida wants to add five NHL-proven veterans in some form, and he’d like two of them to be defensemen. He also knows he needs to address the scoring situation because too many times this year the Panthers had a chance to take some pressure off their defense but couldn’t score. The Cats buzzed often but received little production near opposing goaltenders.
One way to fix the scoring is by trading that No. 1 pick that some GM surely covets and get a legit scoring winger in return. Tallon would also likely want to stay in the top five somehow, preferably the top three where the top-tier talent is. There may not be a clear No. 1, but that doesn’t mean a valuable asset isn’t there, perhaps even a future big-time scorer.
Tallon spoke highly of the two premier forwards mentioned in the draft – Kootenay center Sam Reinhart and Kingston center/left winger Sam Bennett – during the season’s final weekend.
“They’re good players. They’re different players. Bennett’s got a little more grit,” said Tallon, who likes physical skaters. “But Reinhart’s very smart. Every play’s got a purpose. He’s very intelligent, makes great passes and is a great scorer. A very intelligent player.”
If Tallon’s looking to get a top six forward and more in exchange for Ekblad at No. 1, three of the first five teams drafting make little sense. The rosters of Buffalo, Calgary and the New York Islanders don’t have much there worth grabbing, and none of those would part with any of their exceptional first-line talent, present or future. Florida’s not going to snag John Tavares or Sean Monahan.
But what about the Edmonton Oilers at No. 3?
No team has stockpiled top-scoring skill and ignored defense more than the Oilers, who drafted first overall in 2010 (top scorer Taylor Hall), 2011 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and 2012 (Nail Yakupov). Edmonton also boasts Jordan Eberle (second in team scoring), David Perron (third) and Sam Gagner (fifth) up front.
Of those six forwards, only the 24-year-old Gagner, who’ll make $4.8 million next year, has a no trade/movement clause to consider, while Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are all locked up until at least 2019 and will make $6 million each season. Perron will make $3.8 million over the next two years, and Yakupov will be an RFA after his entry-level contract expires next season.
Oilers GM Craig MacTavish gave coach Dallas Eakins a vote of confidence last week and said Edmonton is headed in the right direction. The one piece that’s missing is “a very high-end defenceman” to “move the dial of our team from the back end,” said MacTavish, who lost middling rearguard Anton Belov to the KHL last week. Also, there’s no Ryan Suter or Shea Weber in this year’s thin UFA class. Barring a big trade by MacTavish, that might leave the highly-touted Ekblad as the best option. MacTavish has said he’s willing to be patient and ice a young club, and that’s where Tallon’s leverage with Ekblad at No. 1 comes in.
There’s a little history here, too.
The night before the 2011 draft in Minnesota, a rumor floated around that Tallon was trying to move up from No. 3 to the top spot occupied by the Oilers in an effort to choose Nugent-Hopkins, but Tallon and then-Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini never announced anything. At least that’s how the rumor went. Perhaps it was just speculation and the rumor simply had no legs. Regardless, RNH went to the Oilers and Florida selected future Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau after Gabriel Landeskog.
If Tallon can successfully work a deal with the Oilers and bring in some bona fide scoring talent and swap first-round picks, Edmonton can take Ekblad, which would leave Buffalo to choose either of the Sams at No. 2, likely Reinhart. Florida could then add Bennett, whom many say is the most explosive scorer and best shooter in the draft. Or if the Sabres like Bennett, the Panthers could add the cerebral Reinhart, who scored 105 points in 60 games for the WHL’s Ice.
Tallon should suggest a deal with the Oilers that is a clear overpayment to the Panthers. After all, this isn’t a straight-up, talent-for-talent even swap. Florida has access to something Edmonton has shown a blind eye to for years: A top-pairing defenseman who is clearly the best blueliner in the draft; there’s not even a close second. For Florida’s sake, the Oilers will ultimately need to sweeten the deal somehow.
Sure, there will be many trades out there for Tallon involving Florida’s No. 1 pick — if nothing else, he probably has a fantasy five list already lined up that he’s keeping an eye on — but start with MacTavish and the Oilers and go from there.