At the end of the 2010 Entry draft the whole hockey world was praising Dale Tallon and his scouting staff for the job they had done on the floor over a two day span in Los Angeles. In fact the entire process had many "experts" and fans alike thinking, "the future looks bright in Florida".
Fast forward 7 months, just days after the conclusion of the IIHF World U20 Championships held in Buffalo, New York and we're starting to get a good first impression of what the Florida Panthers actually have from this draft. It should be noted that the World Junior tournament is a small sample size of hockey but the degree of competition provides a valid source of analysis and a stage like no other.
This years tournament featured five Panthers prospects, four of which were of the 2010 draft class. In a tournament of this size, the Panthers were well represented in terms of sheer volume and once again Dale Tallon should be praised, but how did Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, and Joonas Donskoi fare from an analytical perspective? Does the future still look bright in Florida?
Erik Gudbranson (7GP, 3G, 2A, 5PTS, 4 PIM, +8): Florida's top prospect at the tournament sadly continued his troubling play from the OHL season showing moments of dominance but more often than not lackluster defensive play on the third Canadian pairing (including being responsible for the GWG by Russia), and besides a 3 point performance against the now relegated Norwegians the Panthers defensive prospect was very quiet offensively. Despite wanting to be in the spotlight (See: Nike Boom), and the fact that Gudbranson was the highest NHL draft pick playing in the tournament with Hall and Seguin playing for their NHL clubs, the Kingston standout Dman just couldn't find the game he was thought to have at the draft. The mean goliath we saw last year was not the player we saw in Red and White that was on the ice for Russia's gold medal winning goal at this years tournament. There seems to have been a major regression in Erik's game, and this isn't based just on the World Juniors. The Frontenac defender has tallied only 3 goals in 21 games, played mediocre defense and found himself constantly taking bad penalties-- it isn't even a stretch to say he's not even the best defender on the team as 6'8 Taylor Doherty has carried the blueline all season long. With so much depended upon with last years draft, it's unfortunate to see Florida's top prospect from 2010 struggling, especially when this was thought to be a coming out party for the 19 year old (Happy Birthday Erik!).
Nick Bjugstad (6 GP, 2G, 2A, 4 PTS, 0 PIM, +2): If you just paid attention to the highlights of the tournament, especially early on in the round robin, you might have assumed that Nick had a successful tournament and the mid-first selection in last seasons entry draft was a force to be reckoned with. That couldn't be farther from the truth. The Panthers were looking to get big with their first round selections and while on paper all three are huge compared to the IIHF competition, Nick Bjugstad standing 6'5 played very small for most of the tournament. The college game is hard to translate to the this type of tourny, and many collegiate players struggle in this format, but that being said, Nick could hardly be seen on the ice--even for a college player. He was playing a big role in the United States top 6 (unlike countryman and fellow KiddyCat, Drew Shore) and tallied the 3rd most shots by the Americans with19, but he played slow, and besides a goals against the Swedes and Fins, he showed very little skill with his hands. Drafting out of the Minnesota High School system has always been a huge risk, but it was thought that Bjugstad had the skill to be a legitimate top 6 centerman in the Florida Panthers future, unfortunately he played less of a dominating role and more of a role you'd expect from Byron Bitz. Lets look on the brightside though, Nick had a beautiful game winning overtime goal against a strong Finnish team, but he couldn't translate his big size into physical play--on and off the puck he struggled outside of the 5 foot area of the oppositions goal--which isn't a bad thing considering the Panthers' struggles in this area this season. Nick's game desperately needs to evolve, because what worked for him in High school did not translate to the faster-paced international game.
Quinton Howden (7GP, 2G, 3A, 5PTS, 4PIM, +6): The offensive numbers just weren't there (Unlike Kuznetsov who was drafted 1 pick after Howden) which is a bit unfortunate given the oppurtunity Quinton was givie early on in the tournament with many of the thought to be Canadian stars sidelined with injury or suspension. However there were chances on Quinton's end (his stick is going to have to be glued to the ice as he missed 2 wide nets) and he was playing a solid 2 way game. In fact, comparisons were drawn early on during training camp between St. Louis Blues defensive stalwart (and former Team Canada U20 Representitive) Jay McClement because of Howden's exceptional play in his own end. Given his role on the team, not a lot of bad things can be said about the way he played. Howden looked by far the most NHL ready of all the 2010 Florida Prospects and proved to be very coachable. After the Swiss game Coach Cameron was praising the forward for his hockey I.Q. and considered Quinton a big reason for the win. So while he didn't tear up the tournament he played a significant role in Canada's silver medal performance, and for a team starved for a winning culture, this is a player Florida should be looking forward to having on its roster. This could actually be said for all 4 prospects as while long term over the tournament there was nothing to write home about, all played a key role in at least one of their country's wins.
Joonas Donskoi (6GP, 3G, 3A, 2PIM, +5): Easily the surprise prospect at the tournament, Donskoi, a 4th round selection from Raahe Finland, was one of the leaders on the Finnish squad, tallying the 3rd most points on the team. But more than the fact that his offensive numbers were the best of all Panthers prospects, Donskoi showed an impressively active stick on both sides of the ice and NHL level puck moving ability. Unfortunately pattern presented itself, as Donskoi's physicality has to be questioned during this tournament. Against the Americans and Russians Donskoi was a shell of himself, and it seemed like as soon as he was checked his game drastically changed. It could be nerves, but the young Finnish prospect is going to have to address these issues moving forward, and unlike the other prospects, Donskoi doesn't look to have an "NHL body" quite yet. His frame stands at 6' 180lbs, but for the type of game he's playing at an international level he's going to have to bulk up considerably, but that comes with time and he's still only 18 years old and there will be plenty of time for development.
That being said, it's early in the developmental process of these four prospects and the door shouldn't be closed on the futures of these young players. But from an intial viewpoint just months after being drafted, the fact remains that there doesn't seem to be a star in the mix-- and while good teams are built from top to bottom with good players, they have horses, and they ride them. This is an organization that has gone years without a bonafide top of the league talent (Pavel Bure was perhaps the last skater of note) and in a market saturated with starpower, the 2010 draft really needed to produce a game changer. Only time will tell if the 2010 draft class (and remember, there could be someone we haven't seen in the tournament that evolves their game considerably) was a success but one thing can be said for certain, in Buffalo, the Kiddy Cats left a lot to be desired especially in terms of star power, and at least from the scope of this under-20 tournament, the future looks cloudy with some sun.