Outside the box: Exploring unconventional avenues of improvement for Panthers
By now, the Florida Panthers' "Blueprint" is a well-known commodity around the hockey world, at least in concept. Every bit a marketing tool as it is a realistic plan for the club's future, the team will reportedly rebuild - rather unsurprisingly - through the entry draft, shrewd trades, and targeted free agent acquisitions, all assets of which must meet exacting standards set by general manager Dale Tallon and his staff. It's the only path for success which Tallon knows, and his management history supports such a strategy (see Blackhawks, Chicago).
Obviously, most professional sports teams prescribe to a "blueprint" of their own, with certain player characterizations and roster needs jockeying for differing levels of attention from the hockey ops office. You'd be very hard pressed to find any organization uninterested in exploring these basic avenues of team building. So if everyone basically has the same plan, how does an outfit like the Panthers get a step ahead? The answer is simple: think outside of the box.
Thinking outside the Draft:
Every year, only 210 young teenaged prospects are drafted by NHL teams, despite the fact that there are many thousands of talented and eligible players from around the world. Amateur Scouting has recently witnessed an enormous step forward in its evolution - thanks largely to benefits brought forth by broadband communications - though it will never be a perfected science; as such many otherwise deserving players go undrafted, and while there are very few examples of undrafted players actually making the NHL, it's still a potentially deep well that can be used in locating and procurring top level talent, if one knows what to look for according to need.
Under Article 8.9 of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), undrafted 18-year old players can be signed after the draft up until the start of the season. Translation: if teams are willing to spend some money they can procure, in theory, as many 7th round picks as they choose. In many cases this short window of opportunity provides member clubs with the possibility of finding a diamond in the rough before they shine as a 19-year old while still elligible for the next year's draft. A great example of this is netminder Martin Jones. Despite a solid season with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen, Jones went undrafted in 2008; the Los Angeles Kings saw promise and signed him soon after to an entry level deal after a solid training camp. With Jonathan Bernier now firmly seated on the big club, Jones sits as that organization's prime goaltending prospect while leading AHL Manchester to a succesful season.
Last year's undrafted standout: Josh Shalla, captain of the Saginaw Spirit, ranks 5th in the OHL with 43 goals. The 6'2'' power forward showed great leadership abilities last season along with scoring potential, netting 65 points in 68 games and displaying a legitimate glimmer of potential. Picking up a player like Shalla would not only add to the plan of acquiring high-character, big players, but supplement the draft crop as well.
A lot of deserved emphasis is placed on the entry draft, but just because an arbitrary cap has been placed on the numbers available in the two-day event doesn't mean the talent after that mark has any less potential. The American collegiate system has been explored heavily in recent years with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, and New York Rangers all taking advantage of the structured development process of the NCAA game on supposed "late bloomers". These typically older players have been considered by some to be more "matured" - development-wise - than the average 18-year old crop of candidates fresh from the draft, making the college route an excellent resource for talent that may have a higher probability for immediate impact. Look no further than Rangers' defenseman Matt Gilroy, or Toronto center Tyler Bozak. Gilroy has been a huge success, and Bozak has been progressing in his first full NHL season.
The Panthers would be remiss to not explore the collegiate level for prospects to solidify the talent pool. With the college season ending in the coming weeks (thereby allowing eligible players to speak with NHL teams), some innovative clubs will be busy trying to sign the best of the best. Miami (Ohio)'s Carter Camper is attracting some attention, and if he wins the Hobey Baker Award, the undersized player might be this year's Bozak.
Thinking outside normal Free Agency:
Many people will be quick to note that this summer's unrestricted free agency class isn't as star-laden as in the recent past, and while the potential for first-line impact does seem limited, that should not be the case with free agency as a whole. Many smart teams are exploring the European leagues, both in terms of transfer agreements and FA status. Lately the KHL has been viewed as predatory, but it looks like the roles might be reversed now, as a number of progressive NHL clubs have been poking the tires of cars in lots they would have otherwise never thought of exploring. Once again the Rangers seem to be front and center in thinking outside the box, as we've seen in the development and progress of undersized 5'7 Norwegian-born winger Mats Zuccarello. Mats has blossomed into a very serviceable NHL'er this season playing in 33 games and amassing 19 points, while being a +5. Prorate the points per game average (.575) and it's higher than David Booth's (.515).
This year's KHL free agent to be watched is another Norwegian: former short-time NHL'er Patrick Thoresen. It seems fitting that in a summer where a big-budget production of "Thor" is set to be released in theatres that Thoresen may be garnering some attention in the NHL. When Patrick left North America he was a 3rd or 4th liner at best, but the soon-to-be 28-year old was second in KHL scoring with 65 points behind only the ever-coveted Alexander Radulov. Thoresen plays a very responsible two-way game, and while his 5'11'' stature might seem out of the realm of consideration for the evolving Panthers, a player who can pot 29 goals in the KHL is no offensive slouch, and considering his last stint in the NHL came in 2008 with the Flyers, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be signed for a very affordable price tag.
Obviously there is some serious potential outside of North America, and smart GMs are plucking up these great finds with minimal organizational competition. Perhaps that is precisely the next point that should be explored. In a globalized world, what really separates elite-level talents from both sides of the Atlantic? For years the NHL has been close-minded in this regard, and we're now seeing a definite power change and growing parity in the international game. So wouldn't it make sense to be one of the pioneers in scouting a foreign nation like say, Norway or Switzerland (or what about China?--but in all seriousness the "group a" international teams like Japan, Korea, Great Britain, and Latvia, especially in younger fields of play are starting to emerge as serious potential scouting pools, and while we joke about it now, the same jokes were passed through the NBA) in the same way the Detroit Red Wings were with Russia or Sweden?
It will be interesting to see what Dale and company do to extend their global reach into overlooked caves and corridors not yet explored. An expanded European scouting staff is already in place, so the search territory has already opened, with assets prepped to pounce. And that of course is thinking outside the established box.