The Florida Panthers best “under the radar” prospect
A little-known defensive prospect should be getting more praise as he continues to build a path towards the NHL
It’s rare to hit on late-round draft picks.
Ask hockey professionals or even the statisticians.
Once you arrive at the 4th or 5th round, it’s proven that a heavy element of randomness comes into play. The odds that a 4th or 5th rounder plays at least 50 NHL games are virtually the same as a 6th or 7th rounder.
On the flip side, prospects taken in the first three rounds of the draft have much higher odds of having NHL careers, and therefore more time is spent scouting them, learning about them, writing about them, talking about them, providing resources to them, marketing them.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that late round draft picks can’t blossom into serviceable NHL players. Some even pave their way to super-stardom. Pavel Datsyuk, Jamie Benn, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Ericsson, and John Klingberg come to mind - and that’s not including some of the gems from generations prior like Luc Robitaille or Doug Gilmour.
Thankfully, the Panthers have the right to take some pride in their scouting too, as they’ve found great value in players like Vincent Trocheck (3rd Round), Dennis Malgin (4th Round), and MacKenzie Weegar (7th Round) in recent drafts. All are poised to have long NHL careers.
But Panthers brass and fans seemed to recognize and follow these players soon after being drafted, and expectations for them continued to grow in the years following.
With all of that said, there seems to be one Panthers prospect that nobody seems to be talking about. Heck, few probably know his name or are aware that he’s in the Panthers pipeline.
He, too, is a 7th round pick defenseman, a la MacKenzie Weegar.
He was just recently pampered with top-player accolades.
He will be playing college hockey at Boston College along with fellow Panthers prospect Logan Hutsko.
His name is Benjamin Finkelstein.
Benjamin Finkelstein. The Florida Panthers’ 7th round draft choice in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Given his draft position, it makes sense that Finkelstein would be low on the the prospect depth chart. It even makes sense that there would be a less-than-plentiful amount of material that illustrates his style of play and potential. It’s basically impossible to find video of him.
The thing is, Finkelstein has been producing at a pretty remarkable level recently.
Yet, few are taking notice.
To crack the enigma that is Benjamin Finkelstein, it’s important to understand where he comes from, and how he has gotten to where he is.
Benjamin was one of the oldest players at the 2016 NHL Draft. An October 1st birthday, he only made the cutoff by about two weeks. His draft-eligible season had him playing his hockey at Kimball Union Academy, a prep high school in New Hampshire not noted for producing much NHL talent. Though he produced 70 points in 35 games as a 5’9”, 180 lb defenseman for KUA that season, it was his first real breakout campaign - and some would argue that it was against lackluster competition.
To put this in perspective: Brady Tkachuk, the 4th overall pick in this most recent NHL draft, was also the oldest player available (he was born on the cutoff day).
But Brady was already playing in the NCAA for Boston University at that same age, and was one of the top players at that level.
So it’s easy to see why everyone passed up on Benjamin in his draft year.
Thankfully, the Panthers saw something in Finkelstein that others around him saw, too. “His skillset is scary good,” Benjamin’s KUA Head Coach Tim Whitehead said.
“And it’s not just his skills - he can skate all day, he’s an effortless skater. He’s got great poise with the puck, plays with his head up. I’ve coached a lot of NHL picks, NHL players, and Ben is right there with his skills and his skating.”
After the draft, Finkelstein journeyed to play NCAA hockey for St. Lawrence University, and he put up a very respectable 23 points in 37 games for a team that was middling. He showed up for Panthers Development camp in the summer of 2017, and then returned to St. Lawrence for his sophomore season.
After putting up 12 points in his first 20 games for an absolutely dismal team (they placed last in their conference), Finkelstein actually left the program to play in the United States Hockey League.
“Ben is a skilled defenseman that played big minutes for us and we’re disappointed he has decided to leave the program.” Needless to say, Finkelstein’s departure likely exacerbated the problematic lack of talent on the St. Lawrence squad.
Once making the transfer, Finkelstein ended up being a major player for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL. As a 20-year-old, he put up 34 points in 23 games and was the catalyst that sparked the team’s run for best record in the league. That production level was good enough for 6th in team scoring, with all the players ahead of him having played between 56-60 games.
His point per game production, however, was miles ahead of anyone else on the team. As a matter of fact, Finkelstein placed 5th in the entire league in points per game, falling only behind four forwards: Joel Farabee, Jake Wise, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Jack Hughes. That’s two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and a future undisputed first-overall pick - a franchise talent.
“It’s not very often that a player can change his team’s season, but I think everybody knows he’s a very special player, and in a lot of ways, he’s a special kid, too” Black Hawks Head Coach and General Manager P.K. O’Handley said regarding his game-changing defenseman.
You can see the impact in a play like the one below. Finkelstein is defending in his own zone and stays back responsibly as his forwards drive the puck up through the neutral zone. At first, it looks like a meaningless play as there are three opposing players back playing defense versus Waterloo’s two forwards, and they’re abruptly held from entering the offensive zone. Suddenly, Finkelstein bursts forward, acknowledging an opportunity to join the rush. He collects the puck and makes a slick move to the backhand, protecting the puck, and sets up shop on the end boards. After absorbing a hit and with multiple defenders hawking around him, he makes a heady kick pass directly into the slot, and his teammate easily tickles the twine.
Ben Finkelstein with a sweet setup to Jack Drury to give @BlckHawksHockey a quick lead in Game 3! #ClarkCup pic.twitter.com/eNlbSZSYXs— USHL (@USHL) April 26, 2018
With his outstanding offensive production, Finkelstein took home Defenseman of the Week honors on five different occasions in the USHL this year.
After the season ended, he collected USHL Defenseman of the Year honors, along with an All-USHL First Team selection.
#FlaPanthers Ben Finkelstein scored his 1st goal of the USHL playoffs on Friday for @BlckHawksHockey: pic.twitter.com/QgFtJQ24VJ— Panthers Prospects (@fla_prospects) May 8, 2018
2nd goal of the USHL playoffs on Saturday for #FlaPanthers Ben Finkelstein @BlckHawksHockey ... point shot during a 5-on-3 power play: pic.twitter.com/ETT3AarWWe— Panthers Prospects (@fla_prospects) May 8, 2018
Once the summer started, he declared that he’d be taking his talents to the Boston College Eagles for the 2018-2019 season.
Which brings us to the here and now.
Finkelstein has spent the summer preparing for his Boston College debut, though he unfortunately was not a participant in 2018 Development Camp. Ultimately, BC is fortunate to be bringing Finkelstein into the fold. Being a team that lacked offensive production from the back end in 2017-2018, Benjamin will bring his fluid skating, vision, and offensive instincts to a well-respected program - a program that will allow the hockey world to take notice if he lives up to expectations.
Had Finkelstein been passed over entirely in the 2016 draft, where would he have been drafted as an over-ager in 2017 after his successful rookie campaign for St. Lawrence?
He fits the mold for today’s NHL defenseman.
He’s continued to get better year after year.
He may actually be the Florida Panthers best defensive prospect.
Not a crazy conclusion when you consider all the data at hand.
It’s time for people to get to know Benjamin Finkelstein.