“With the 11th pick, the #FlaPanthers select…”

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — It’s finally here – the morning of the 2015 NHL Draft.

It’s hockey’s version of Christmas Day, with fans up early and excited about what gifts lie ahead for them. What will be under the tree this year for the Florida Panthers at No. 11? Another center to get in line and wait his turn at a position where the Cats are strongest? Maybe another collegiate defenseman whom fans will pine for over the years to see wear the home red?

Doubt it on both accounts.

Unless GM Dale Tallon pulls off a trade, the Panthers should be after a productive winger who might be a year away from playing in the same arena where he was drafted. The only way a defenseman’s name is called by Tallon is if one of the big names falls somehow like Cam Fowler did in 2010.

So here we go with my mock draft – the only one I do – up through the Panthers’ selection at 11, which is where I feel they’ll pick. This draft is projected as strong through the top 12 picks, so I’ll look for Tallon to secure a strong prospect and do his wheeling and dealing around July 1.

1 – EDMONTON. This is the no-doubter of all no-doubters. In fact, what would a team have to offer to pry a generational talent away from the club who will now have four – yes, four – No. 1 overall selections skating in its top six? PICK: Connor McDavid, C, Erie Otters (OHL).

2 – BUFFALO. The Sabres weren’t exactly thrilled to have the draft’s second pick, were they? After the lottery loss, the organization’s brass slipped up and expressed disappointment in not being able to give its fans McDavid. Nothing like an American club slighting the best American in the draft. PICK: Jack Eichel, C, Boston University (H-EAST).

3 – ARIZONA. This is where it gets dicey. If there are any moves at the draft, it starts right here. GM Don Maloney has been very active in fielding inquiries around the selection, but I don’t see Florida giving up a lot to move up eight spots. I’ll play it as it lies. PICK: Dylan Strome, C, Erie Otters (OHL).

4 – TORONTO. Oh, the fun that is the Maple Leafs. Always the center of attention, always full of drama, and with the shape the club’s currently in, it’s hard to fathom that they’re only two years removed from that tremendous choke job in Boston in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. There’s a new sheriff in town though. PICK: Mitch Marner, C, London Knights (OHL).

5 – CAROLINA. Florida’s former divisional rival needs serious help. Cam Ward hasn’t been elite in goal, fan favorite Jeff Skinner might be the best trade piece, and enigmatic winger Alex Semin has been a regular in coach Bill Peters’ doghouse. A reliable defenseman to pair ultimately with Justin Faulk will ease the Hurricanes’ pain. PICK: Noah Hanifin, D, Boston College (H-EAST).

6 – NEW JERSEY. The Devils need to get much younger and need help up the middle. The club will be excited to get a playmaking center who was knocked out of the spotlight due to injury. No worries there, though, as he returned to true form and produced. PICK: Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL).

7 – PHILADELPHIA. The obvious pick here by GM Ron Hextall is high-scoring blueliner Ivan Provorov, who played for Brandon – the same as Hextall. But this is Philly, and size, grit and tenacity trump WHL history. This forward’s body in more impressive than his body of work, but the Flyers will be thrilled to choose a talented intimidator who won’t hesitate to throw his body or his fists. PICK: Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL).

8 – COLUMBUS. The Blue Jackets desperately need defense in the system. The WHL’s leading scorer among rookies fits the bill. PICK: Ivan Provorov, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL).

9 – SAN JOSE. Plenty of talk surrounds this pick as well, as the Sharks are going through a change at the top, too. But a top collegiate defenseman is well worth the wait. PICK: Zachary Werenski, D, University of Michigan (BIG10).

10 – COLORADO. The Avalanche could use a defenseman, but they will decide to go in another direction with the top 3 defenders off the board. They’ve brought their selection in a number of times and have made no secret about their interest in him. PICK: Pavel Zacha.

 

That leads us to the Florida Panthers.

If the above scenario plays out, Florida will be in excellent position to choose a talented winger who might be fast-tracked to Sunrise. Hanifin, Provonov and Werenski should be gone, so the X factors above are forwards Barzal and Crouse. If either or both falls outside of the top 10 – and that definitely could happen — that means Zacha, Mikko Rantanen, Timo Meier or Kyle Connor slots into their place. But few in the media have the latter two projected in the top 10. Of course, any trades throw this all out of kilter.

Florida’s pick: Mikko Rantanen, RW, TPS (Finland). The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Finn and his story are too much like Aleksander Barkov’s – Tallon’s crown jewel selection – to pass up. Rantanen has been playing against professionals for the last three years in SM-liiga. He has great size, uses it well and is an all-around responsible, dynamic forward who may be NHL-ready now.

Sounds like Barkov, huh?

If a club in the 7-10 range chooses Rantanen, the high-scoring Meier or electrifying Zacha would be fantastic alternatives. I’d prefer the sniperish Meier, who was the best player in the QMJHL last season and has perhaps the most explosive shot in the draft. He’s also a shoot-first player, having led the Q with 316 shots on goal. And what frustrated cry do we hear often at BB&T Center? “Shoot the puck!”

Either way, without doing much tonight – absolutely nothing other than striding to the podium and taking their pick — Tallon and the Panthers will high-five their way out of their barn with a highly-skilled player who is close to playing in the NHL now and projects as a future top 6 difference-maker.

That’s a nice gift for the home fans.

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

 

Friday Options Loom for the #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

This Friday will mark my fourth time covering an NHL Draft in the last five years, and this one should be far different from the previous ones. In fact, this draft could throw more of a curveball at fans and media than the recent drafts.

At Minnesota in 2011, there were talks of Florida trying to move up from No. 3 to first to grab Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but those rumors didn’t come to fruition. I didn’t even bother chatting much with Adam Larsson or Sean Couturier because Tallon loved Jonathan Huberdeau. No point in wasting anyone’s time, right?

After GM Dale Tallon transformed the Panthers with the addition of Brian Campbell and others, Florida was left in Pittsburgh to draft 23rd – moving to the back of the draft floor after making the playoffs. I had my eye that Friday on Teuvo Teravainen, the Finnish right winger I thought would be a great addition, and Jacob Trouba, who was staying at the same hotel as I was. And his family – many of them South Florida residents – and I enjoyed watching the Miami Heat dispatch of Oklahoma City for the NBA title. Both Teravainen and Trouba were longshots to Florida, as the Panthers’ draft position wasn’t accommodating. So I’ll keep my eye on smooth-skating Mike Matheson this season instead.

I skipped the draft at Newark two years ago that nabbed Aleksander Barkov, which is proving to be a fine selection with Florida’s then-need at center. There are no questions about that pick. The key issue from that draft is whether the biggest mistake may have been made by Tampa Bay in passing on Seth Jones, who’s the real deal, with the third pick in favor of Jonathan Drouin, who pretty much had his named etched on the Calder Trophy before last season began. Not only is Drouin not the best rookie in the NHL, he wasn’t even the best rookie in the Sunshine State. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not on record as thinking he’s a bust. It’s too early for that. However, he did have just four goals in 76  games for the highest-scoring offense in the NHL.

The Philadelphia draft was a no-brainer for Tallon in keeping the top pick and selection defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Vancouver and the host Flyers offered some trinkets and beads, but Tallon stood firm and made the right choice. Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander and Leon Draisaitl are fantastic talents who were a pleasure to get to know, especially the German-born Draisaitl, but Ekblad was too good to pass up.

That brings us to this Friday.

Florida is in an unusual situation in owning the 11th pick. That’s an area where a team can easily move up or down, depending on what’s available and whether the club has targeted an individual or not. I think this draft is too deep with talent to trade out of the spot, even in a deal for an elite winger (which I don’t think happens either). In fact, there’s probably a better chance of the Panthers trading up into the 5-10 range if Tallon really likes a player, say, like Mikko Rantanen or Mathew Barzal, who likely slots into that area. Or maybe a high-flying, amped-up Valeri Nichushkin-clone such as Pavel Zacha, who may be a little raw but makes up for it with energy, speed and edginess. With Florida being the host, it makes more sense to see them trading up to get a difference-maker it really wants than trading away that pick or trading back.

And there’s another scenario that’s a possibility. Maybe a longshot but an interesting one to consider.

The Buffalo Sabres get a nice consolation prize on Friday – it’s the old “home version of the game” on the game shows for the contestants who didn’t win – when they get to choose Jack Eichel as the runner-up in the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes. For them, picking second in this draft is a letdown, and  in a very bad PR move, the organization let that slip out after Edmonton won the rights to the first pick. Having another pick at No. 21 likely isn’t thrilling either considering many feel the top 12 is where the talent breaks off, and Buffalo GM Tim Murray will weigh his many options with that second first-rounder.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Tallon contact Murray about Buffalo’s pick at 21. Buffalo also has two second-round selections (Nos. 31 and 51), and a simple swap of first-round selections – Florida getting the No. 21 this Friday, Buffalo getting the Panthers’ first-rounder next year – might be enticing to the Sabres.

Where’s the draft next year? Yep, at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

And Buffalo could feel Florida’s first next year will slot out in the same place as this year’s instead of at No. 21, which is where the Islanders would have picked this year. Does Murray think the Panthers will be a playoff team next year like the Islanders’ or does he feel the Cats will be similar to this year? At worst, Buffalo would have two first-round picks in front of its home crowd.

As for Tallon and the Panthers, they can sit there and take a future top 6 forward at No. 11, then add on 10 picks later with perhaps another forward from a pool of American Paul Bittner or Russians Evgeny Svechnikov or Denis Guryanov. While Tallon hasn’t shown a propensity for drafting Russians, there is no “Russian Factor” with Svechnikov, who played for Cape Breton in the Q and has said his ultimate goal is the NHL. The speedy Guryanov may be too good to pass up at 21. And Tallon did draft Yaroslav Kosov in Minnesota.

Sure, it’s a gamble to trade away a future first-round pick. However, if you think your club next season is bound for the playoffs, putting next year’s pick in the teens, and you can add another talented prospect this weekend, it might be worth the risk to walk out of BB&T Center on Friday with two of the first 21 selections in a very strong draft. True, Florida wouldn’t have a first next season — one it could use at the trade deadline for some help in a playoff push. Yet that’s the gamble, and you err on the side of making the organization stronger.

Of course, this option would result in me not visiting Buffalo a year from now.

Stay tuned Friday morning as I’ll release my mock draft of the top 11 players and who I feel the Cats will select – yes, at No. 11.

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