By Bill Whitehead
The most important number for Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon and the organization over the summer may be the number of minutes dished out for a fighting major.
If the Panthers are to have any fight in them next season, they will need to add significantly in the offseason. The number of NHL veterans Tallon wants to add to improve the team? Five.
Funny, that number plays a prominent role in this year’s draft. Tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports, the initial fate of the Florida Panthers will be determined when the NHL holds its draft lottery. It will be tense, brief and decisive in affecting how the Panthers approach the summer.
Last year’s lottery, of course, proved to be a major letdown for Florida, who struggled to the league’s worst record in a truncated season. Gridded to pick No. 1 overall, Tallon sat and watched as the Colorado Avalanche climbed over the Cats to grab the top selection.
Instead of choosing homegrown defenseman Seth Jones, the Avs went offense and took standout center Nathan MacKinnon, who responded with 24 goals and 63 points a rookie season that will surely earn him Calder Trophy honors. Florida then selected Aleksander Barkov, who was having a fine first year before injuries during NHL and Olympic competition shut him down.
As for this draft, Tallon is letting members of the new ownership, the Violas, represent the club, but the GM will be watching, knowing his Cats will have a shot at another impact player. Just where is the question.
“Some of these guys aren’t ready yet either. We still have kids coming. We’re going to have another good draft this year, either 1, 2, 3 or 4 and 31, 32, 33 or 34. This draft is pretty good on the front end,” Tallon said over the weekend before Florida and Edmonton determined their pre-draft lottery slotting at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively.
The Buffalo Sabres have the best shot at landing the top pick, and the Panthers find themselves in a nice position by picking no worse than third if last year’s bad luck is resurrected.
The top four picks are expected to be – in some order – Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Oshawa Generals center Michael Dal Colle and Kingston Frontenacs center/left winger Samuel Bennett. That’s the top-four order ISS Hockey released on Tuesday.
After those talented skaters, watch for big German-born center Leon Draisaitl of Prince Albert and Swedish center William Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, though the former seems to be a much better fit for the physical type of team Tallon is molding.
“This draft in the front end is pretty good and we have 10 picks next year. There are some wingers who are very good,” said Tallon, who added that some Panther prospects will have to move from center to wing if they want to move up the system.
“There are some good players in the draft in Europe and North America.”
But there are five really good ones. Five who put distance between their talents and a thinner group below them.
First, though, let’s see what happens tonight — and hope it’s better than a year ago.