Looking Ahead - 2014 NHL Draft

As many hockey fans prepare themselves for the final leg of the NHL season and accompanying playoffs, Florida Panther fans once again look past the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to a date in June, where, for the 2nd straight year, they will most likely have a top 5 draft pick. The number 2 overall selection last year, Aleksander Barkov, has exceeded expectations and shown he is more than capable of fulfilling the role of the team's top center. Barkov is third in the team in points, tied for 6th in goals, and is 5th in assists. As an 18 yr old, a first year rookie, without any development time in the minors or further development in juniors, Barkov is third in all rookie forwards in ice time, behind Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat of Tampa, who each have been developed in the minors for a number of years and were needed in the NHL due to injuries to Tampa's key players such as Steven Stamkos and Valteri Filpulla. Barkov also leads all rookie centers with a 48.8 face off win percentage.

Excusing a disastrous collapse, Barkov looks to be the Panthers number 1 center for years to come. Nick Bjugstad, another young gun for the Panthers, has also put up numbers that excite Panthers fans, as he is tied for second on the team in goals and sixth on the team in points. Bjugstad projects to complete the one - two center punch that is critical for success in the NHL, and depth players such as Marcel Goc, Shawn Matthias, Vincent Trochek, and Drew Shore project to compete for the third and fourth line roles, as well as for depth roles at the center position as the team looks forward.

The Panthers, at this year's draft, DO NOT... I repeat, DO NOT... Need to draft a center. The Panthers have an abundance of prospects at the center position that haven't fully developed (Trochek, Barkov, Bjugstad, Grimaldi, Shore) and have the top 2 center slots fulfilled in their lineup with Barkov and Bjugstad. Drafting a high caliber center simply adds to the backlog in the prospect wheel at that position, something that isn't desirable at it slows down the development of prospects who don't get the playing time they need at the level that they need it. Grimaldi is a high end boom or bust prospect, being by far one of the most explosive, dynamic offensive players in the system. Given he overcomes his size advantage (5'6), he could possibly compete with Bjugstad (or even Barkov) for one of the top center roles on the pro team. Stacking this much talent into one position simply makes no sense for the Panthers this year. The team has glaring holes in other positions that need to be filled, and drafting a center that will clog up the wheels of the prospect development simply makes little to no sense.

At wing, the Panthers have a number of veteran forwards (Fleischmann, Kopecky, Bergenheim, Boyes, and Upshall) who have performed enough to win them the small spattering of games that they have won. Unfortunately, all 5 will be 30-32 next season, and their stats and skill levels don't project to increase. Of the four, 2 (Fleischmann, Kopecky) showed last year that they are capable of producing 2nd line caliber stats, but have both seen a considerable drop in production this year. The others, (Boyes, Bergenheim, Upshall) have shown this year that they are capable of producing 2nd line caliber stats. This gives the Panthers a number of choices as for who they want to fill out the top 6 with Barkov and Bjugstad, at least for the next 2-3 seasons, while the rebuilding and development of prospects continues. The depth lines will consist of these veteran wingers who don't make the Top 6 forward spots, and possibly Jesse Winchester, Krys Barch, and Jimmy Hayes.

At the prospect level, the Panthers have little to no wing talent. Quinton Howden is reaching the career defining moment where he will either become NHL mainstay or perennial minor league call up. Yaroslav Kosov, John McFarland, Alexander Delnov, Chris Clapperton, and Zach Hyman are all long shots to become mainstays at the NHL level.

The holes at the wing position then, are high level scoring wings to complete the top, high level elite scoring line that every successful team needs to have. Last year's Calder Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, has had a sophomore slump, producing much less than expected of him. Hopefully for the Panthers, he will come back next year and answer to the slump that he has had this year, and produce at the high caliber level that the Panthers need from him. Given that he does produce as needed, the Panthers still lack a second high level winger to complete the top scoring line. Also, as time goes on, the 5 veteran forwards will decline in play. A winger that will contribute in a top 6 role without being an elite talent is also needed. Here is where we see some of the Panther's first gaps that they could look to fill with this year's draft.

At defense, the Panthers have a significant number of choices and prospects. At the pro level, young talents such as Dylan Olsen, Erik Gudbranson, and Dmitry Kulikov (ages 22-23) continue to develop into the Top 4 talents that they can be. Gudbranson and Kulikov average 17:50 and 20:49 minutes a game, respectively, and Gudbranson has seen his time cut recently due to an injury that forced him to wear a restrictive cage mask that decreased his overall vision and play. Both are highly negative when it comes to +/-, (-8,-12,) but this was to be expected due to the Panthers total team differential (-44). Dylan Olsen has been a bright spot, playing and producing consistently (16:26 TOI and 10 pts, +1 in 21 games) since being acquired from Chicago in the Versteeg trade. Brian Campbell continues to show that he can play a Top 2, productive role for the Panthers. This season, he is second in the NHL in ice time per game, (27:41) and is third on the team in points with 25. He is also only -3 on the season, which, considering he plays on a team with a total goal differential of -44, is not a negative statistic. Campbell, however, unfortunately, is 34, and his time as a high caliber NHL defenseman is running out. For the next 2-5 seasons, it is possible that Campbell will continue to produce for the Panthers as a Top 2 defenseman, but it's more likely his play will drop slightly and he will be more of a Top 2/Top 4. Campbell's partner for most of the season, Tom Gilbert, has been a pleasant surprise after signing a one year deal with the team. Gilbert, (21:09 TOI, 25 pts, -5 in 58 games) has played a Top 2/Top 4 role with the Panthers, receiving the second most average ice time a game, but with an average of almost 7 minutes less than Campbell. Gilbert, age 31, will hopefully resign with the Panthers, and stay on for another 2-5 seasons with the team, staying in the same role that he currently has with the team. This leaves veterans Ed Jovanoski and Mike Weaver to fill in any holes in the Top 6, and hopefully complete the rotation of the defenseman. The two have been consistent this year, averaging 15:48 and 18:47 minutes a game this year. Both, however, are nearing retirement, and will have to be depended on less and less in the next 2-5 of seasons. In those seasons, the Panthers will be more of a balanced defense corps, without a clear first and second pairing, that can roll it's defensemen as an effective wholesome unit.

At the prospect level, Ian McCoshen and Mike Matheson will continue to develop at Boston College, with each of them projecting to be to Top 2/Top 4 defenseman when they develop (McCoshen more of a two way and Matheson more of an offensive talent.). In the minors, Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak are nearing the times where they will be ready to make the jump to the NHL level.

The Panthers have a plethora of options to fill in 5 of the 6 main defensive roles that the team needs. As veterans such as Campbell, Jovanoski, and Weaver decline, prospects such Petrovic, Robak, Matheson, and McCoshen hopefully will rise to replace them in the depth chart. Brian Campbell, as good as he has been for the Panther's, is not as elite as a defenseman as the Panthers could have, and when he leaves the team, it is possible that there will be a gaping hole in the defense that needs to be filled. The role that is needed here, then, is a defining number 1 defenseman. A Drew Doughty, Ryan Suter, Erik Karlsson type of defenseman who can play significant minutes and contribute on the scoresheet consistently. This then, is the next hole that the Panthers may look to fill in the upcoming draft.

At goalie, the Panthers have veterans Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen, neither of whom have been impressive enough to show the elite level talent necessary to have a successful team. Thomas has provided some consistency in net, enough to win the limited amount of games that the Panthers have, but, at age 39, he is rapidly approaching retirement and will most likely not remain with the Panthers past next season. Clemmensen is a tad younger than Thomas, being 36 years old, but does not have the skill level to be a consistent starter at the NHL level.

At the prospect level, all that exists is 24 year old Jacob Markstrom, who hasn't been able to translate his high level ceiling into success at the NHL level. Markstrom, with his monstrous 6'6 frame, and lightning quick reflexes, projects to be an elite level NHL goalie. His stats in the NHL, however, indicate otherwise. This year, in 9 starts, Markstrom is 1-6-3, with a GAA of 3.52 and a SV% of .874. The average age for an NHL prospect to assume the role of a team's starter is 26, giving Markstrom 2 years to finally begin playing at the level dreamt of when he was drafted.

The Panthers have glaring issues at goaltender, especially if Markstrom doesn't develop as expected. With the loss of Clemmensen, Markstrom, and Thomas, the Panthers would be left with nothing in terms of a starting NHL goalie. Even if Markstrom does develop, the Panthers will want a sturdy backup to win games and provide Markstrom with breaks down the stretch. This is the fourth and final hole that the Panthers would want to fill going into the NHL draft this year.

The four holes that the Panthers have then, are of a high end offensive winger, a consistent top 6 caliber two way winger, a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman, and either an elite or a backup goaltender. Looking to draft in the top 5 gives the Panthers 1 pick in selections 1-5, one in 31-35, and one in 61-65. Looking at several draft rankings (ISS, NHL Central Scouting, etc), a number of possible picks arise for each of the needed criteria.

Possible selections for high caliber wing.

Michael Dal Colle - Ht/Wt: 6' 2"/179 lbs - Position: C/LW - Team: Oshawa (OHL)

2013-2014 Stats: Oshawa Generals GP 60 G 35 A 52 P 87 +/- (14) PIM 32

Comments: "Nobody would be surprised if we said five years down the road that Dal Colle would be the best player," [Director of Central Scouting Dan] Marr said." (In reference to the 2014 draft class)

Analysis: Dal Colle is a power forward with above average size and good skating skills. He is balanced on his feet, and uses his size and speed to play a 200 foot game. He has quick hands for a player his size, and uses them to his advantage to get himself into position to make plays in the corner and in front of the net. Above all, Dal Colle is aggressive and a battler, and is not afraid to fight ferociously for the puck in all three ends of the ice.

NHL Comparison: Patrick Marleau

Notes: Dal Colle fits the bid of a top level elite forward who can both put up points and be responsible in his own end. Though he may lack an elite scoring touch, his aggressive play and defensive responsibility help make him one of the most enticing forwards in this year's draft. If taken, he will most likely need another year in Juniors to develop and put on weight before competing at the NHL level.

2) Leon Draisaitl - Ht/Wt: 6' 1"/208 lbs - Position: C/LW - Team: Prince Albert (WHL)

2013-2014 Stats: GP 54 G 28 A 56 P 84 +/- (-5) PIM 22

Comments: "What really sets him apart from the field is his vision and passing. Draisaitl, even at full speed or heavily pressured, consistently finds open linemates and makes accurate passes with perfect weight." - Brain Fogarty, Hockey's Future.

Analysis: Draisaitl is a combination of playmaker and power forward. He has good hands that can maneuver the puck in tight areas, and an above average shot. He has above average skating and size, and is determined when carrying the puck up the ice. Above all, Draisaitl has world class vision with the puck, and world class passing abilities. If a teammate is open in the zone for Draisaitl, the puck will most likely find it's way to that teammate's stick.

NHL Comparison: Dubbed "The German Gretzky", Draisaitl's playmaking skills and vision are world class. Though the comparisons to Gretzky are preposterous, it's understandable as to why he has been given this nickname.

Notes: Draisaitl creates offense for other players, to put it simply. His speed and size draw defenders to him, and his vision and playmaking skills let others set up the chances. His scoring ability and defensive awareness may not be as elite as his playmaking, but they can be worked on at the pro level. Draisaitl is one of the most dynamic offensive players in this year's draft. If drafted, he will most likely stay on the Panther's roster for the season, as he has the size necessary to make the jump to the NHL as a first year player.

After these two there are wingers such as Nick Ritchie, Jake Virtanen, Kasperi Kapanen, Brandon Perlini, and William Nylander who can fulfill the Top 6 forward role. Currently, however, Dal Colle and Draisaitl have put up more significant and noteworthy numbers in their respective leagues. While points in juniors don't necessarily translate to points in the NHL, both Dal Colle and Draisaitl play styles of games that should translate (along with their production) to the NHL level.

If both are available when the Panthers are drafting, I see Draisaitl going over Dal Colle, simply because Dale Tallon prefers NHL ready prospects over those that take time to develop (Barkov over Jones and Drouin).

Possible selections at Top 6 winger

For this, there are a large multitude of options, as, based on which rankings are looked at (ISS vs. NHL Central vs. TSN etc.) there are 15+ separate wingers that fall into being available come the 31-35 picks. Therefore, they will simply be listed below, in supposed order of rank and draft stock.

Alex Tuch - Power Forward. Can compliment more skilled players with his size, speed, shot, and hands. Does the dirty work on a top line

Projected- 20-35

2) Nikita Scherbak - Skilled winger with above average shot,skating, and vision. Needs work at defense.

Projected - 20-35

3) Nikolay Goldobin - Skilled Russian winger. Natural goal scorer. Needs to develop other parts of his game.

Projected - 15-35

4) Oskar Lindblom - High offensive ceiling, coupled with good size. Needs work to develop all around and North American style game.

Projected - 25-35

5) Connor Chatham - Hard two way player. Fights in the corners for pucks, makes the right plays. Similar to David Backes.

Projected - 25-45

Possible selections at Defense

Aaron Ekblad - Ht/Wt: 6' 3"/216 lbs - Position: D - Team: Barrie (OHL)

2013-2014 Stats: GP 48 G 21 A 24 P 45 +/- (2) PIM 79

Comments: "Aaron is the proverbial 'workhorse' defenceman. Capable of playing significant minutes, he has a seemingly ability to get better the more he plays and he seems to thrive on these types of demands. Smart and capable of playing in all situations, he is also capable of dominating opponents. Defensively, offensively, skill game or physical game, Aaron can excel in all types of games. Top 2 type defenceman."

TSNs Director of Scouting Craig Button

Analysis: Ekblad is a high caliber defenseman who can and most likely will play tremendous minutes and produce night in and night out at the NHL level. Playing a well rounded 2 way game, Ekblad can dominate in his own defensive end and will be able to get the puck out to his forwards, while jumping up into the rush when necessary and unleashing a cannon of a shot from the point. Ekblad has the tools necessary to easily quarterback a powerplay, and to single handedly run a penalty kill. Above all, Ekblad simply takes care of what he needs to and contributes when his team needs him to.

NHL Comparison: Shea Weber.

Notes: Ekblad is the Norris Trophy caliber defenseman that could complete the Panther's defensive corps and turn them into some of the best in the league. He already possesses NHL caliber skill sets and would most likely be able to jump right into a productive role with the team come next season.

After Ekblad, the highest level defenseman is Hadyn Fleury, who doesn't project to be as high caliber as Ekblad. Not only is Ekblad the best defenseman available, he is also the Panther's best selection possible if he is available when the Panthers are drafting. Though Dal Colle and Draisaitl will be high end NHL talent, Ekblad projects to be an award winning talent that will take over games on a nightly basis. That type of talent is simply too enticing to pass over.

Possible selections at Goalie:

Goalies are hard to gauge in a draft, as teams will usually only pick a goalie if they need one. Thus, the first goalie in a draft can go in one the Top 5 selections, or not until late in the second round. Here then, are shortened profiles of the top 3 (top 2 North American and top European) goaltenders available in the draft.

Ville Husso - 6'2", 185 lbs - G - HIFK, SM-Liga

Husso was ranked the 6th overall European goaltender for the 2013 NHL draft, as his physical skills project him to be a talented starting goalie in the NHL. There were questions about his mental determination, however, which appear to have been answered by his play in Finland's top league this year. Husso will be a bit of a project or experiment for whichever team drafts him, as he will need to continue developing, both physically and mentally, in order to translate his success in the SM-Liga to the NHL.

2013-14 Season Stats: GS 35 GAA 2.10 SV% .922

Edwin Minney- 6'4, 203 lbs - G - USNDTP, USHL

Minney is a big body with athletic abilities that allow him to make the first save consistently. His lateral movement and rebound control are much better than that of others his age. Minney will need years of development before he is NHL ready, and should get that at Michigan State, where he has already committed.

2013-2014 Season Stats- GS 30 GAA 2.64 SV% .906 16-8-1

Thatcher Demko - 6'3 192 lbs - G - Boston College, NCAA

The best prospect in the draft, Demko has good size and a high level butterfly that, coupled with a his athleticism, allow him to cover the lower portion of the net exceptionally well, shutting down both the first shot and rebound chances. His lateral coverage is also high end, and he is good at making himself look big in the net. Demko will take continued time to develop, but projects to be an elite level NHL goalie.

2013-2014 Season Stats: GS 17 GAA 1.74 SV% .937 13-1-3

Ideally, the Panthers would be able to take Demko in the second round, after Ekblad, Dal Colle, or Draisaitl, but it is possible that he will end up going in the first round. This leads to the hope that either Minney or Husso will be available either in the third round, giving the Panthers a second round pick to take a player with high risk high reward type of potential, or a surefire consistent contributor at the pro level.

Regardless of who is picked, at all three positions, the Panthers do find themselves fortunate, as they should be able to draft out of need this year, instead of being stuck having to take the best available to avoid compromising on talent. With the loss of Barkov and Kopecky for the next couple of weeks, expect the Panthers to slide in the standings, and solidify their Top 5 draft pick in the summer.

For the Panthers, their ideal draft picks in the first three rounds of the 2014 NHL draft, based off of availability at the time of selection, would be

1st - Aaron Ekblad, Leon Draisaitl, Michael Dal Colle

2nd - Thatcher Demko, Alex Tuch, Nikita Scherbak, Oskar Lindblom, Connor Chatham, Nikolay Goldobin

3rd - Villle Husso, Edwin Minney, Nicolas Aube Kuebel

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