The Next #FlaPanthers Coach is Available

By Bill Whitehead

On Monday I put forth the notion the Florida Panthers should look past the joy of Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov returning to the lineup and do even more to improve the team by trading for a veteran.

The name I tossed out was Detroit’s Thomas Vanek, who scored his 13th goal last night in the Red Wings’ tough 3-2 loss to Columbus. It was the 10th overtime loss for Detroit, which is the number they’ll look at when this season ends poorly for them.

The response to the proposition of a Vanek acquisition varied. Most thought it was a good idea but would be harder and take a sweeter deal than I proposed. Some felt Vanek would loaf in the playoffs and be of no help; others felt the Cats should wait a bit and see what unfolds on the road trip.

I said the Panthers should move right now and try to pry away the 33-year-old Vanek before the Penguins or another playoff club needing a veteran forward steps in. In fact, I said to “act fast.”

But when it comes to the search for the next coach to walk behind the Panthers’ bench, I have more urgent advice.

Act faster.

The Boston Bruins, who have frankly played better than most would have expected this year, handed bench boss Claude Julien and his 419 career wins and Stanley Cup championship a pink slip yesterday morning.

GM Don Sweeney, whose own future could be hanging in the balance, axed Julien, the league’s longest-tenured coach, as the Patriots were getting ready to celebrate their Super Bowl win with a parade through Boston.

A fellow hockey scribe suggested the Panthers, Jets, Avalanche, Islanders and Canucks should start the calls ASAP to Sweeney asking permission. Julien’s services will be in high demand, and you can rest assured Vegas and GM George McPhee will be interested in Julien’s services, too.

As Mike Babcock pointed out yesterday, when you fire someone with the numbers Julien has posted, you’d better have someone better in place. The Bruins now have Bruce Cassidy, who once referred to Jaromir Jagr as a “coach killer.”

Florida put the interim tag on Tom Rowe for a reason, and regardless of what he does this season, it’s hard to envision him being back as coach. He took over after 22 games and will receive the lion’s share of the blame if the Cats miss the postseason.

If they get in, well, he’d better win a round or two because he isn’t a fan favorite. That’s partially due to how Gerard Gallant was dismissed and also to the team’s performance. Whatever the reason, I’m guessing Rowe likely re-assume his former position after this season ends.

Which leads us back to a new coach.

That hasn’t been discussed much, mainly because so many teams still believe they have a viable playoff shot and aren’t willing to make a change at the top.

Plus, there’s no guarantee of a coach keeping his job when occupying a playoff spot. Ken Hitchcock was fired while the Blues held the second wild-card position, and Julien’s Bruins were in third in the Atlantic Division over the weekend.

Though his teams play well for him right away, Hitchcock is 65. Jack Capuano failed with a good Islanders roster. Gallant’s obviously not a candidate.

This column didn’t need writing then when those coaches were fired, but it does now, which takes us back to the 56-year-old Julien.

Unless Tampa Bay fires Jon Cooper any time soon (and the Bolts are playing better), this is a real no-brainer decision for the Panthers.

Hiring Julien right away demonstrates the organization’s commitment to winning, which they’ve shown with the Keith Yandle signing, trying to improve the team through trades and locking up the young core.

I’m not sure of the relationship Dale Tallon has with Julien, but they both seem like both old-school hockey guys who have deep backgrounds and like to ice teams that play with an edginess and tons of size.

Florida has some of the former but very little of the latter. However, a good coach coaches around what he has and gameplans to his strengths.

And there’s no denying that Julien is a good coach. Surly at times? Sure. Always appearing disgruntled while pacing behind his team? Yep.

But this isn’t a popularity contest. See Bill Belichick or Nick Saban on that front and how the word “championship” factors into their legacies.

It’s about winning a Stanley Cup, and Julien has done that.

Rumors are that Julien already has a couple of offers out there, but he hasn’t been hired as of this writing.

Tallon and the Florida Panthers need to change that.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and with the Associated Press and SportsXchange

#FlaPanthers draft moments, plus tonight’s pick

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Sadly really, this piece doesn’t have the dateline “BUFFALO, N.Y.” leading it, but that’s the result of having other sports in full swing as the summer unfolds. Ever since the Florida Panthers’ brass decided to draft Jonathan Huberdeau five years ago, I’ve usually spent this week in the summer away from the oppressive South Florida heat and at the host site of the NHL Draft.

Until tonight.

For the just the second time since 2011, I won’t be at the draft as teams make deals on the floor of an arena and shape their future. I missed the draft two years ago in New Jersey – aka, The Barkov Draft – but that one was a real mess anyway, with too much back and forth from Newark to NYC. A bad experience other than snagging Barkov, of course – a brilliant move by Dale Tallon as the lure of Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin hung in the Jersey air.

The draft has been extremely rewarding to the Florida Panthers in the eight years I’ve been covering the team, but that’s usually what happens when your club is floundering. This year is similar to 2012, though, when the Cats actually drafted after the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh and selected Michael Matheson. I make the Chicago reference because I really had my eye on Teuvo Teravainen at that draft, and he’s been in the news lately.

There are a lot of those moments, though, in the time I’ve covered the draft.

I chatted with a friend as I rode the Light Rail in the Twin Cities, hoping Rocco Grimaldi would be available early in the second round after Florida chose Huberdeau the previous night. Grimaldi was there – the consensus was he was another first-rounder who just happened to be in the second round – and Tallon pounced when the 33rd selection came up.

Yesterday, he was traded, ending the Rocco Era in Sunrise.

Florida also made the 64th pick that day. We interviewed the young forward, who naturally had South Florida ties (they all do, it seems, though it’s usually through retired grandparents), liked what he had to say and went on our way. As I walked away, a scout said to me, “Keep your eye on him, he’ll be a good one.”

Yeah, he was probably right. Vincent Trocheck has been better than good; he’s been outstanding. And Kyle Rau, chosen at No. 91 that day, has a great chance to do with this team what Grimaldi couldn’t.

The same anticipation of watching these new prospects become a part of the organization and develop moved to Pittsburgh, where Matheson joined the fray. And from the Barkov Draft, second-round pick Ian McCoshen, who recently signed an ELC, could make an impression at rookie camp with bottom-pairing spots on the blue line up for grabs.

Florida chose the big prize in 2014, getting love from Philadelphia in the form of star defenseman Aaron Ekblad. I stayed up late that Friday night wondering who Florida would choose with the second pick on the next day when Round 2 began. Buffalo had the first pick, and the anticipation of the second round is indescribable because clubs selecting early have those “fallers” like Grimaldi just sitting there waiting to hear their names called.

Brendan Lemieux, goalie Thatcher Demko and Ivan Barbashev were the hot names, and I was keen on the latter, despite Tallon rarely selecting high-profile Russian players. I chatted with friends on Twitter about who to take, and most agreed on Barbashev but didn’t think Tallon would do it.

The next day Tallon followed up on a promise he made to Jayce Hawryluk, taking him and leaving us in the media with a great interview. Like Demko, who was a media darling in the prospect interviews, Hawryluk was very open and immediately likable. He talked about his village of a hometown and the hotly contested pick-up games he played with his older brothers, aggravating matches that often left him frustrated but determined to win the next time.

It was obvious to see that while this kid’s pest-like quality will likely lead to him being disliked by opposing teams and fans in the NHL, maybe to a Brad Marchand-like degree, Panthers jerseys sporting his name will be prominent at BB&T Center at some point. Especially if he keeps developing like he did these last few seasons in Brandon.

In fact, when speaking of that anticipation that comes with prospects maturing, are there two more we’re eagerly awaiting to see make it than Hawryluk and last year’s first-round Lawson Crouse?

As for tonight, I won’t fib and pretend I know too much about this draft. Like in Pittsburgh, there’s a tad less excitement when Florida picks this late; however, that’s the price of progress and success. But that old anticipation and anxiety will surface when the Cats’ selection comes up.

If I had two longshots, I’d go with Val-d’Or power forward Julien Gauthier or Wisconsin Badgers center Luke Kunin, both dynamic offensive players but who likely won’t be around if the Panthers stay at No. 23. Either would be excellent additions. Since draft analysis usually deals in hyperbolic comparisons, Gauthier reminds some of Rick Nash while Kunin is a Dylan Larkin clone.

So here we go: “With the 23rd pick, the Florida Panthers select…Alex DeBrincat, from the OHL’s Erie Otters.”

Russian-born Vitali Abramov, also a right winger like the American DeBrincat, is super skillful and dazzling at times, but it’s hard to pass on a player like DeBrincat, who has produced consecutive 50-goal seasons.

The 5-foot-7 winger has scored 102 goals in his last two seasons. USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen said he “might be the niftiest goal scorer in the draft.” He’s feisty, tenacious and a good skater, and oddly, most don’t mention his size as a liability. He outskates and outworks much bigger players, and he just scores and scores and scores.

Did I mention those back-to-back 50-goal seasons?

DeBrincat.

Scores.

Goals.

That would have me anticipating even more – despite not being in Buffalo.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

Dale Gets It Done, Adds Quality

There was plenty of chatter in the press box Thursday during Florida’s win over Arizona, and Friday night was full of tweets discussing trade possibilities as the last full weekend before the trade deadline was about to get underway.

Then Saturday arrived. By the time the Panthers had dropped a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss in Columbus, the club had three new acquisitions — forwards Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell plus defenseman Jakub Kindl.

GM Dale Tallon gave up a second-round pick this year and a fourth-round pick in 2018 to Calgary to acquire the versatile Hudler. He gave up a third-round pick this year for Purcell. Florida traded a sixth-round pick in 2017 and took some cash back in getting Kindl, a 29-year-old former first-round pick (No. 19 overall) in 2005.

Hudler, a 31-goal scorer last season and possessing valuable playoff experience, said he had watched Florida a few times on TV and said it looked like they had fun playing together.

“I didn’t know where I would end up. I’m really excited and really happy to go to a young team like that and especially the way the play, and they’re in first place. It’s really exciting for me,” said the 32-year-old Hudler, who has 10 goals and 25 assists in 53 games for Calgary this season.

As for playing with fellow Czech Republic native Jaromir Jagr, Hudler laughed and said, “You’re lucky to have him near you. You call him old guy, but I think he’s younger than anybody else on that team. I know Jags for a long time. Obviously, growing up he was one of my favorite players. He’s a living legend. I played with him a couple of times on the national team. He’s having a great season.

“The team, when I watch some games, they look great. They have fun playing hockey and they play hard. They’ve got a good group going on there.”

As a member of the Lightning from 2009 to 2014, Purcell was a gnat to the Panthers. The right winger won’t get to wear No. 16 with the Panthers, but he said the Cats have a good puzzle and that his goal is to come in and be a nice piece of it.

“Being out west, I didn’t get to see them a whole lot,” said Purcell, a 30-year-old Newfoundland native who will slot in at right wing for Florida. “I think they caught everyone’s attention when they went on that run. That was obviously eye-opening around the league, and people were following that very close. They can burn you with their chances and they’re pretty tight defensively, and they have a pretty solid goalie back there.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things. They’re a fun team to watch, and I’ve heard good things about the coach, too. It’s going to be a pretty exciting stretch for me heading down there.”

And the prospect of possibly facing his old Tampa teammates in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

“That would be a lot of a fun. I still have a lot of good friends on that team. I’d like to get to hate them for a couple of weeks and get to play them in the Sunshine State. That would be great,” Purcell said.

Tallon traded for Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski in 2012, both key players down the stretch as the Panthers won the Southeast Division but lost to the Devils in the quarterfinals. Adding Saturday’s three pieces is a giant step up in quality from the trades four years ago.

“We needed a presence on the blue line and felt we needed three good scoring lines. Now it gives us three wonderful scoring lines and a fourth line that will be invigorated,” said Tallon, who reiterated on two occasions that ownership gave him the go-ahead to get the deals done at whatever cost.

“Overall, we thought we needed to add more depth on all our forward lines to give us more options. These guys are really good hockey players who’ve had success everywhere they’ve been. We’re very fortunate to get these deals done.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the depth of our team now. We needed some scoring and playmaking ability on the wings. I think we achieved that today. We got a good playmaker, passer and point man on the power play in Kindl. Right now we’ve got good positional depth.”

Tallon said it would take a pretty big deal to add more in the next two days but said he was pleased with how the trades played out.

“I was hoping (the trades) wouldn’t affect our roster,” said Tallon, who said he “dipped his toe in the water on Ladd” possibility.

“The goal always for us is not to give up a first-rounder or top prospects, and we achieved that.”

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

 

Dale’s Deal Done, what’s up next for #FlaPanthers?

By Bill Whitehead

With the ink just drying on the contracts of GM Dale Tallon, new assistant GM Tom Rowe and coach Gerard Gallant, the suddenly second-place Florida Panthers (21-12-4) can turn their attentions to the play on the ice and try to finish this season’s second half as strongly as the first.

So what’s next on the agenda?

The suggestion and subsequent answer might put to rest the biggest fear of Florida fans, who’ve watched numerous odd-man rushes by the Panthers and man-advantages produce nothing more than an extra pass or whiff on a shot or…an extra pass. Really, overpassing and poor shooting have doomed the Panthers’ offense for the longest time (Billy Joel at BB&T Center reference).

So add some scoring.

A December to Remember has transformed the Panthers, who were in sixth place in the Atlantic at 9-9-4 in late November and 16 points behind Montreal, into what clearly looks like a playoff team. Even without last year’s top goal scorer Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers have reeled off a 13-3-0 sizzling streak that has had them perched atop the division on two occasions.

There are two approaches to take here.

First, Tallon could leave the club as is – you know, the old “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” method. One key would be getting Bjugstad healthy and back in the lineup, and that looks imminent. You might see him against his home state Minnesota Wild on Sunday.

And while fans may not want this – and their complaints are loud ones – the club wants to work Dave Bolland back into the mix in a fourth-line role with Derek MacKenzie and either Quinton Howden, Connor Brickley or Shawn Thornton. The Panthers are paying Bolland all that cash for production, and they really want it in the playoffs.

The other option – and the one I’m all for – is adding on like on Amazon.

If Tallon and the organization feel they have something special – and last month would indicate that may be the case – then why just settle for getting in the playoffs? Dale didn’t do it last time the Panthers were playoff bound. He added John Madden, Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski, who all made contributions down the stretch and in the postseason.

The numbers say add. Florida is 16th in scoring at 2.60 goals per game, tied with Nashville and Calgary. On the back end, the defense has been stellar: The Cats are allowing just 2.24 per game – third in the league and a reflection of the strong play of Roberto Luongo and everyone in front of him buying in to Gallant’s system.

And if the organization feels it has something special, then add. Maybe bring in a scoring winger and instead of just getting into the playoffs they secure a better spot and get home-ice. Then maybe play not just one round like against New Jersey, maybe a couple.

Those playoff Cats that won the Southeast Division four years ago lost a league-high 18 games after regulation, cashing in on the loser point like it was a winning scratch-off ticket. The Panthers these days are 6-4 in overtime and 5-1 in shootouts. They don’t just get to the extra session, they win more often than not.

For starters, Tallon should look at Winnipeg, Columbus, Vancouver (Radim Vrbata played for Dale), Edmonton (glut of forwards now with Leon Draisaitl breaking out) and Anaheim to see if something can’t be worked out to bring in a 2nd line winger who can bury shots and boost scoring. Florida has the cap space and assets to do it.

Perhaps they should.

Tallon and company just have to figure out how special this team is.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Roll, #Flyers Have No Answers in 7-1 Mauling

By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Just over one hour into Florida’s season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, I tweeted out the following query:

FullSizeRender

The answer to that question in a bit.

The first game of my eighth season covering the Florida Panthers was unlike any I’ve seen, maybe ever in my tenure watching the Cats skate around at BB&T Center.

And I didn’t even get to experience the joy of a winning dressing room, with music, smiling faces and good moments between players who had combined to put a 7-1 butt-kicking on one of the most hated teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Instead I was working the Flyers’ room, which not surprisingly was a complete contrast to the emotions running rampant on the other side of the arena. Our entrance into the visitors’ room was delayed because the players had decided on a players-only meeting.

Yep, you read that right: In Game 2 of an 82-game season – and I cannot under any circumstance fathom that orange-clad bunch playing more than 82 – the players had decided to close the door and call a meeting without first-year coach Dave Hakstol, whose locked stony glare in the post-game presser looked like it was chiseled out of Mt. Rushmore.

The good of the Philadelphia presser: Goalie Steve Mason, who stopped a whopping four of eight shots in 6:46 and made a huge error that led to the fourth goal, was a stand-up guy and faced the tough questions. That isn’t always the case. Some players become “unavailable,” which works against the spirit of the relationship between the media and team. However, the tall netminder took full responsibility, which he surely didn’t have to do. Florida outplayed more than Mason as they blitzed their way to that NHL record-setting four-goal barrage.

The bad: Captain Claude Giroux had nothing to say. Any team leader is expected to step up and explain the bad as well as the good. Last night was the horrible, and Giroux wasn’t around to talk. Keeping Hakstol locked out doesn’t help relations between the former North Dakota coach and the players he’s trying to get to know. Mark Streit, Philly’s lone goal scorer, seemed dumbfounded by the club’s play and couldn’t believe how they were outskated and outworked.

But enough of the Flyers. We’ll learn more about them and their resiliency Monday in their home-opener against the Panthers.

As for the Cats, what can you say about them that the 7-1 mauling doesn’t tell? Well, some interesting things, actually.

First, I was excited about the Reilly Smith trade when it went down, but his showing has me firmly convinced GM Dale Tallon and the Panthers will come out on top – way on top – when the season ends and Smith’s numbers are put up beside Jimmy Hayes’s, whom Tallon shipped to the Boston Rebuild. That second goal alone on the power play was a slick move Hayes couldn’t dream of pulling off – puck-handling dexterity and a quick flip for a 2-0 lead.

Speaking of the power play, it was a shocking surprise, and improvement in special teams is mandatory if the Cats want to be a special team and play games after April 9. Florida was 3-for-7 in their well-structured time with the man-advantage. The spacing of players displayed a scheme that wasn’t evident last year. The passing was quick, crisp and tape-to-tape, unlike what we’ve seen most seasons.

Finally, the hard-nosed hustling of Vincent Trocheck, playing in his first season-opener with the Cats, led to a career four-point night. On Florida’s first marker of the season, he sprinted and read Jussi Jokinen’s long flip on Steve Mason better than Philly defenseman Evgeny Medvedev did, then beat Mason five-hole.

He returned the favor on the fourth goal when he hustled again and snookered Mason with a steal of a terrible pass from behind the Philly goal. Jokinen then tapped in Trocheck’s shot that caromed off the post. All I’ve seen and heard from hockey insiders is how Trocheck does the little things well – gritty, keeping pucks alive in the zone, winning battles and doing everything to come out on top. Those two goals illustrated that skill and hockey sense.

As for the aforementioned Twitter question, the answer is both. I don’t think anyone will mistake Philadelphia for a playoff team; they’ll more than likely be lumped in with Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, New Jersey and maybe Boston as clubs more interested in the NHL lottery format rather than the first-round playoff schedule.

Also, these Panthers set the bar high on Saturday – and they set it way up there with some help. They smelled blood early and rode the emotional boost of an enthusiastic crowd, which the coaches and players referenced post-game, so the Flyers were caught in a buzzsaw of sorts that they didn’t expect, and everything just got out of hand.

Frankly, it wasn’t a typical outing for either team.

If it were a heavyweight championship fight, the game would’ve been stopped on a TKO and all 19,434 fans would’ve filed out at 6:46 after Jokinen netted the fourth goal. Then we in the media wouldn’t have had to worry about deadline too much.

In the end, it’s just one game. One of 82. The only one for Florida in the first week of the NHL season. Likely the only time they’ll win by a six-goal margin.

But what a refreshing, rewarding win it was.

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

“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