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