Tallon sticks to word, Panthers draft Hawryluk

By Bill Whitehead

PHILADELPHIA – Brandon Wheat Kings right winger Jayce Hawryluk has only been to Florida once, but he hopes to bring his fiery style of play to the Sunshine State in the near future.

Hawryluk, 18, met with Dale Tallon on Friday before the draft, and the GM told the Manitoba native that if he were still on the board at No. 32 in the second round, the Cats would be all over him. On Saturday, Hawryluk – plus a few projected first-round players who had slipped to the second round – was still there. Tallon and Florida honored their word.

“They contacted me (yesterday) and said, ‘You’re our guy at 32.’ They kept to their promise, 100 percent. I appreciate, and it means a lot,” said Hawryluk, who led Brandon with 64 points (24-40) in 59 games on a team that also featured John Quenneville, the first round’s final selection by New Jersey Friday night.

“They’re a good, young team and I know some of the players. I know Colby Robak, he comes from near where I am. He trains at the same gym.”

 

JaceHawryluk

Hawryluk lives in Roblin (population 3,284) but was born across the border in Yorkton, Sask., because Roblin didn’t have a hospital. The town held a draft party for him.

“My work ethic,” Hawryluk said when asked what his biggest asset was. “I describe my playing style as a Brad Marchand or Brendan Gallagher type of player…(New Florida Panthers coach Gerard Gallant), I heard he played a lot like me back in the day, with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a great coach and I heard he’s a great guy.

“Obviously, you want to go in with the confidence that you can be a first-round type of pick. I had that confidence and this is a dream come true for me. It’s a great accomplishment.”

Hawryluk said being on the receiving end of sibling rivalries, many of them hockey oriented in a very competitive environment, likely contributed to his style of play.

“I’m a fiery guy, you know. I’ve always been like that my whole life and don’t expect it to change. I play with a chip on my shoulder and I’m a tenacious guy every shift. I have three older brothers; that could’ve helped it,” he said

As for Florida?

“I went to Disney World when I was 13 maybe. It was hot. It’s been awhile, but I’m excited to go back. I don’t mind (the heat),” Hawryluk said.

The knock on Hawryluk has been his 5-foot-10, 192-pound build, but his tenacity and work ethic may be worth the difference and more. It worked for Marchand and Gallagher, smaller players who have earned the reputation as being pest-like.

Personality wise, there’s a ton to like about the kid. You could say he’s kind of fiery during the interview process as well, or at least direct and kind of amped up. I like the pick mainly because it sort of resembles the Trocheck selection from Minnesota in 2011 – a team-leading scorer who is gritty and does the little things well, though Vince was never rated this highly.

With some good talent falling to the second round, Tallon must really like Hawryluk because he made a promise to the kid and kept his word.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

Advertisements

Draft Day Arrives, All Eyes on Florida

By Bill Whitehead

PHILADELPHIA – It’s the morning of the 2014 NHL Draft, and there really is a calm before what should be a storm inside the Wells Fargo Center tonight at 7 p.m. It won’t have the ferocity of a Rangers-Flyers’ playoff tussle – imagine that ornery orange-and-blue parking lot full of boozy tailgaters before a game – but the managerial action should be intense tonight.

The looming question, of course, is, “What’s going to happen at No. 1?” During his meeting with the media yesterday at the team hotel, Florida GM Dale Tallon claimed he was 70 percent certain he would make the first overall selection but also said he had received two “intriguing” offers, one “above and beyond” what the organization expected.

In percentages, there’s probably also a 50-50 chance this is just gamesmanship and posturing on Tallon’s part. Maybe a lucrative offer involving a top-pairing defenseman or skilled sniper is out there, maybe not. That’s part of the serve-and-volley that takes place between NHL GMs. Anything less would simply be a GM not doing his part. And a team builder like Tallon, sitting there with the top pick and with the best chance of improving his club, would be remiss not to stir the pot about the most attractive asset in Philadelphia that isn’t the Liberty Bell or a cheesesteak.

Tallon emphasized one point: He knows who he’s taking at No. 1 if he walks up to the podium tonight and uses that pick. It would be foolish of anyone to think there isn’t some consensus within the organization and he’ll go up there in front of a national audience and decide on the spur of the moment. Did he know right after the lottery took place?

“It was not clear cut, but we know who we’re taking,” Tallon said.

Some in the organization obviously liked the Sams – Reinhart and Bennett — while others probably were high on defenseman Aaron Ekblad. There may have been no unanimous choice, but the organization has reached an agreement

This is my third time covering the draft, having attended the Jonathan Huberdeau-producing one in Minnesota and the event two years ago in Pittsburgh when Florida chose Michael Matheson in the latter half of the first round. The former one had plenty of intrigue, the latter not so much. This year’s has the lion’s share of the offseason.

Two reports surfaced last night from credible sources, and it appears – as of this writing around breakfast – that Vancouver, Edmonton and perhaps Winnipeg are interested parties in what Tallon is peddling. The Canucks would love to have a homegrown talent like Reinhart, and it’s rumored that the Canucks have offered 19-year-old offensive-minded winger Hunter Shinkaruk, a roster play and its No. 6 pick for No. 1. That player could be physical defenseman Chris Tanev, a need in front of Roberto Luongo. It also would allow Tallon to make a selection in the range to get a dynamic player like Nikolaj Ehlers or William Nylander, both flashy skaters who have exceptional stickhandling and shooting skills and who can torch blueliners.

“(Nylander’s) really skilled. I saw him in Europe in the under 18s and he was dominant. He had 10 points in two games,” Tallon said. “He’s versatile and can play any forward position and has great speed and skill and eyes. He passes the puck accurately and can score. He’s just an all-around offensive weapon.

“Ehlers has dynamic speed, maybe the fastest guy in the draft with really electrifying skill. It’s another good player in the draft. Everyone said maybe this draft wasn’t that strong, but I disagree.”

So as hard as it is to read Tallon – he plays it very close to the vest – it’s time for some options/predictions, and like Dale, it wasn’t clear-cut for me either. If Florida makes the first pick, I feel they’ll go with Ekblad because it’s a safe, solid pick that most would do and be fine with. It’s the conservative approach.

But let’s face it, Dale Tallon’s not conservative (see 2010 draft), and he’s in a unique situation with the top pick. Therefore, I feel he trades it and descends in the top 10 but not too far.

The first option could be sliding to 3 because, well, Edmonton has to have the No. 1 pick, it’s their recent manifest destiny, right? Or Florida could go to 6 because if nothing else, we know the Cats trade with the Canucks. It’s just what they do. If Florida does the first and moves to 3, they grab Bennett, who had a meeting with the Panthers last night. If the Vancouver deal is struck, expect one of Nylander or Ehlers, depending on which dazzling player Tallon covets more.

You’re in for a treat. Enjoy the show, folks!

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

Aaron Ekblad Enjoying the Moment

By Bill Whitehead

PHILADELPHIA – On a day of hockey prospects playing baseball at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, nothing about Friday’s NHL Draft was as certain as a 3-0 pitch being called a strike.

Likely top selection Aaron Ekblad displayed some decent hitting skills from the right side of the plate, the opposite side of the dish where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard helped the Philadelphia Phillies win a World Series in 2008, while some of the other prospects showed that they were better suited for leading a rush. All of them participated in a day-long tour of Philadelphia – part of the time downtown, a stop at legendary Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak joints on Passyunk Avenue a little later, and ending at home plate at CBP, one of the top five ballparks I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

photo (2)

Ekblad (third from left), the imposing former Barrie Colts defenseman, seemed to be batting cleanup when it came to enjoying the attention.

“This whole week has been pretty exciting. I’ve had a few of my friends like Mark Scheifele go through it. He said it was a pretty cool experience. I’m excited about what’s going to happen this week,” the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Belle River, Ont. native said.

“I’ve never experienced something where you go through a tour of the city. You get to see the baseball stadium and some of the historical landmarks.”

_DSC0288

The Panthers, of course, could take Ekblad at No. 1, though the rumors of trading down have been rampant and will intensify over the course of Thursday, when the elite prospects meet with the media at the National Constitution Center. Ekblad simply described himself as a two-way defenseman.

“That’s kind of what I take pride in. I play good, responsible defense. I play on the penalty kill, power play and I produce offensively as well. I had a lot more power-play (goals) than 5-on-5, but I still support the rush,” said Ekblad, who had 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games during his third season with the OHL club. He also had 91 penalty minutes.

As for his talks with the Panthers: “I met them at the combine and had a short talk with them.”

The media I talked with agreed in unison that selecting Ekblad is the right choice. At worst, he becomes a decent second-pairing defenseman with a strong shot who can inject life into Florida’s abysmal power play. At best? Well, if he and Erik Gudbranson can develop into the kind of bruising blueliners that are needed in this era of defensive strength in the rush to the Stanley Cup, the Panthers could be in much better shape over the next few years.

Whoever picks Ekblad, whether it be Florida, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or any of the other teams who’ve apparently inquired, will be getting a great commodity – an extraordinarily physically gifted, tough as nails player who is equally articulate and accommodating. Tallon has pointed out that a defenseman’s development usually takes 300 games, so the organization would have to be patient with Ekblad, especially if he breaks camp with the Cats.

I’m just not sure the Panthers will be there at No. 1 to select him tomorrow night.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

Gallant’s Hiring Another Step in Right Direction

By Bill Whitehead

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has had a major task at hand since the Cats closed a miserable season that left them with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, primarily because of a defense with as many holes in it as a bullet-riddled car after a mob hit and an offense that simply couldn’t shoot straight.

Tallon’s task is four-part, and as of Saturday afternoon, the first two steps were officially in the books.

The first move was a quick one, the firing of Peter Horachek shortly after the season ended. His sacking was timely and had a clean-cut, surgical precision to it. There was no hemming or hawing over keeping Horachek, a class act who did his best in a tough situation by coming onboard when Kevin Dineen was released early in the season. Initially during Horachek’s reign, the Cats had jump and appeared improved, perhaps trying to impress their new bench boss. But over a larger sample in the long haul, Florida was just as bad with Horachek. Losing talented rookie Aleksander Barkov to injury was an unfair loss, but the special teams were atrocious, particularly the power play, which had no leader, no quarterback, no direction and just appeared a pointless waste of two minutes.

That description of the power play also described Horachek’s coaching tenure – aimless and floundering at sea with no way of getting back to shore. Tallon had to let Horachek go. Florida fans are unsure of the new hire, Prince Edward Island’s Gerard Gallant, but how deflating would it have been to start camp in a few months under the helm of Horachek, who had accomplished so little? At least there’s a sense of  “Hey, maybe Gallant can be the guy” and provide stability for a club that’s had 13 coaches over two decades.

Imagine how critical the media and fans would have been of an organization that kept Horachek as coach and failed to make a run in the offseason at Dan Bylsma, Gallant and other fine candidates like Bill Peters and Willie Desjardins.

The hiring of Gallant, 50, was a meticulous process that kept dragging out, leaving many feeling like they were watching some cliffhanger episode of their favorite TV show each day. Most wanted ex-Pens coach Bylsma. True, he would have brought a strong pedigree and perhaps giving Florida an inside track during free agency with players like Jussi Jokinen, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, but it just didn’t work out, whether he asked for too much money or Florida held the purse strings too tightly. There’s a strong chance Bylsma won’t be coaching at all next season, and Vancouver and Pittsburgh still have no coach.

So bringing in Gallant – step 2 of the rebuilding process (I hate that word, let’s go with “the strengthening process” because this isn’t really a rebuild) – was also the right call. From every account I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, Gallant is nothing but a winner and a player’s coach. Sure, he didn’t win in Columbus, but Scotty Bowman wouldn’t have been successful coaching that bad roster for an organization in flux at the time. As I tweeted yesterday, there’s a sense that Gallant’s players will do anything for him – run through a wall for him – and that feeling wasn’t prevalent with the Cats as they skated through the motions under Horachek.

Gallant is also intense and fiery yet humble. In all I’ve encountered, I’ve heard nothing negative, no “Watch out when he does this” or “He gets over his head when …” warnings. Former players and coaches, including P.K. Subban and Doug MacLean, have been effusive in their praise of Gallant. And fans of the Canadiens have lamented losing him on the bench.

So it’s two steps down, two to go for Tallon.

The third will take place at the draft in Philadelphia, where the GM will do everything he can to fortify this team. He will likely do it by selecting one exceptional prospect like Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett with the top pick or another in a trade, maybe with a Canadian team that covets one of those three and is willing to give up a handsome bounty for him. The final step starts July 1 with free agency, just three days after the draft.

For now, Tallon’s 2-for-2 and batting a thousand in the offseason.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com