Lady luck finally shone her lovely light on the Panthers as the franchise saw its 2014 draft lottery win reverse last season's lottery misfortune. The Panthers were able to bump last place Buffalo (recap and videos here) to take the number one pick in this summer's draft in the same way Colorado bumped Florida in 2013. So maybe what goes around really does come around. But after the post lottery victory exuberance wears off, what exactly are we left with? Quite a few more questions is the correct answer Or maybe this was a trick question and there are really two correct answers: maybe this just allows the team to have stress free certainty to pick the player they want?. Questions abound for the fans: Do the Cats use the pick, or trade the pick, and if using it, do the they take defense or offense, and if a forward, do they stick to the scouts number one or go off the chart for someone that they feel fits better with what the Panthers need? Do the Cats trade the pick for other picks, or an established player? And if trading, what is the market for the first overall pick in this year's draft? Do you need an aspirin? This is going to get stressful folks.
The first step to answering these questions is to take a look at organizational needs. To listen to Dale Tallon's post-season presser, he is looking to add 4-5 veteran players to this team, two of whom will be defensemen. This means the Panthers will be looking to add 2-3 veteran forwards as well. There is no question that the team is very pleased with top centers Bjugstad, Barkov, and Trochek. In fact, Tallon stated that the Cats are so stocked at center, they are going to have to move some of the young centers to the wing. It is safe to say that center is not a team need. It would therefore be surprising to see the Panthers seek to acquire a center via free agency or via trade. We can probably safely scratch this from the list of likely trades or free agent acquisitions the team may make. This is equally likely to have an impact on the draft as well, as it makes it less likely the team drafts a pure center with this pick.
On the other hand, the Cats were weak at defense this season. Management appears to recognize this, with Tallon stating that the team intends to acquire 2 free agent defensemen. Here things get complicated very quickly. Do they intend to re-sign Kulikov? What do they intend with Jovanovski? Tallon's comments hint that a conversation is upcoming with the team captain, and what exactly will that conversation entail? Do the Cats intend to encourage his retirement? Will they explore a buyout? Or are they content to let him play out his final year? What are the team's intentions with RFA Dylan Olsen? There is no question they will seek to re-sign Gudbranson, but will there be 1, 2, or 3 holes to fill next season at this position, and who are they going to chase in free agency? These questions would seem to indicate that the Panthers will draft Ekblad, the consensus number one defensive pick in this draft. But, as Lee Corso would say: "not so fast my friend."
Tallon also expressed that the team is exceptionally pleased with Mackenzie Weegar of the Halifax Moosehads as the future power play quarterback of the team, a spot most folks thought Michael Matheson was destined for when he leaves Boston College. Add that Ekblad is especially known for his big, heavy shot, which is also an attribute the team possesses in Ian McCoshen, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak and Michael Downing and a person can really start scratching their head: maybe Ekblad is a slightly more ready version of a player the Panthers already possess in quantity? If the team re-signs Kulikov, Tom Gilbert and Olsen will we have space for another defenseman? On the other hand, Ekblad would give the team options at the blue line, another franchise blue-liner with size (6'3" 216 lbs), a big shot, and a sometimes nasty disposition. With Campbell signed for another two years, the team could emerge with him, ErikGudbranson, Ekblad, Matheson, Olsen, and Petrovic or Robak, with Weegar, Downing, Wittchow, and Racine all waiting for their chance. But before we make this all too easy, Ekblad shoots right. On the Panthers' present NHL roster (that finished the season) only Gudbranson shoots right-handed (after Weaver was traded and Gilbert hurt). Weegar and Petrovic are both right-handed shots as well. This seems to be an area of need that Ekblad can fill.
Maybe its easier to just look at wings. The Panthers scoring woes are well documented, and if there is one place that the team lacks in both the professional and amateur ranks, it is at this position. Sam Bennett is a player listed as a center-wing, and he is a big enough player at 6'0 178 lbs for a team whose top amateur wing prospects are probably a pair of undersized center-wings in NCAA hockey: Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau. The fact that the Cats top two amateur wings are under 6'0 is likely to mean the team will not draft another undersized forward. How many undersized forwards do successful teams field on their rosters? One, maybe two at most. With Trochek already coming in at 5'10" and the aforementioned Rau and Grimaldi (if they end up making it to the NHL roster) at equal or less than that, it is more unlikely that the team will consider the likes of the fastest player in the draft, Nikolaj Ehlers (who is 5'10"). Tallon has always made no apologies for preferring big players to smaller, while willing to make exceptions for extreme talent such as Patrick Kane, or the forenamed Rau and Grimaldi.
Because Bennett is the top ranked forward in this draft (depending on who you read it is either he or Sam Reinhart), and can reportedly play both center or wing, and has size (that he uses to good and sometimes nasty advantage) there is not too much need to look deeper than him if the Panthers intend to use the first overall pick on a forward. While Sam Reinhart is considered possibly an equal to Bennett at forward and also a bit bigger (at 6'1" 185 lbs), Reinhart is not listed as a player who has played at the wing, as Bennett has, which perhaps makes him, despite his high hockey I.Q. and vision, less useful to the Panthers. Bennett is described by Dobber Prospects as having a compete level that is simply off the charts to go along with deceptive speed and quickness. In the Florida market, a high compete level would go a long way to changing the culture of this franchise. Bennett may be a very valuable player the Cats can't pass up.
Keeping the first overall pick makes things somewhat easier for the team: if defense, its Ekblad. If offense, likely Bennett and his big size, compete level and skill set at the wing. With Boyes and Huberdeau looking like, or projecting to be (in Huberdeau's case) top-6 wings, the team has needs at this position. Those needs are not presently being met at the AHL level, where Bobby Butler led the Rampage in points. There are simply no other wings on that team who look to have top-6 potential at this point. The same is true of the Cat's wings in the CHL or European ranks. In the NCAA it is still a big question mark whether Rau and Grimaldi can be top-6, with a lot of factors all related to size working against them. After Boyes and Huberdeau the team will need another big season from Upshall and Bergenheim, both of whom performed well this season, and continued success from Pirri (if he is indeed moved to the wing). But there is no doubt the team is in need of top-6 talent at the wing.
There is much talk about whether the Panthers could trade their way into top-6 wing talent. Maybe this pick is that thing that would allow such a move. But things become decidedly more complicated and interesting when we look at the team possibly trading the pick. To start, we must find top-6 wing talent out there that another team is willing to move. Going through team rosters the first thing that strikes you is the lack of truly top notch wings in the NHL. Few teams are going to be willing to move top 2 wings for much of anything because they are darned near impossible to find. After those top 2 or 3 on most teams question marks start to pop up: a lot of 3-5 wings (2nd line and good 3rd line wings that is) are a bit older, or a bit more on the fringe. Are they doing so well due to the system they play? One could say this is likely true on a team like Boston. Are they doing better than they otherwise would due to line mates? Big questions if you are going to move a big draft pick for them. The names out there that are sometimes mentioned as movable at that position include Jordan Eberle, Evander Kane, and more recently, Joffrey Lupul. Are any of the three worth a first overall pick? Likely not.
On the other hand, there is a smattering of top forward talent in the free agent market. Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Ales Hemsky, Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek. But do the Panthers, even with money to spend, have a shot at any of these players? If so, all but Gionta would do much to alleviate the desperate need for a wing in this draft. That may throw the ball back in Ekblad's court.
The other option the Panthers have is to trade the pick, for picks. Presently there are two teams with multiple first rounds picks, or in the case of Buffalo, the possibility of two first round picks (should the Islanders choose to give their to the Sabres this season rather than next). The other team is Anaheim. Could the Panthers trade the first overall to one of these two teams for an extra first round pick? Or, would the team trade the 1st overall for another top 10-pick as well as that team's 2nd round pick, as that would also be a top 40 player as well. If the Panthers could find a dance partner for this strategy, it is conceivable that they could address a need at both wing and defense in the same draft, with both picks being top-40 prospects. There is high end talent in this draft in the 5-8 projected positions, and later, but this is not considered to be a particularly great draft class. After lottery picks, the likelihood of getting an impact NHL player becomes far more of a crap shoot. This strategy would be very dependent on how low the Panthers would have to go to find a partner. Lower than 5 or 6 in this draft and they face the possibility of losing out on game breaking players to pick up a high 2nd round prospect that they may hit on, or lose on.
Winning the draft lottery has opened a lot of possibilities for the Panthers and put them in the driver's seat. It's nice to control our own fate for once, but with that control comes a danger of making the wrong choice and (at least) temporarily derailing your team's fortunes. The franchise is still loaded with players who have potential. As Dale said in his post-season presser: it takes 300 games for defensemen to hit their NHL stride. That's almost four seasons worth of games. Do the Panthers want to wait that long for Ekblad? Before you answer consider this: do the Panthers want to wait that long for Ekblad while also waiting that long for the likes of Weegar, Matheson, Petrovic, McCoshen, Racine, and Downing? This franchise is very weak at wing, without much coming in the pipeline to address that need. There does not appear to be much in the way of surefire wing talent to be had in the trade market. We must hope that the lure of money secures us one or two top end free agent wings, but your draft and farm system provide the safety net if you can't. I suspect the Panthers keep the pick and take the safe option in Bennett.