The first overall pick just got a little bit warmer.
The Florida Panthers won the NHL Draft Lottery in Toronto on Tuesday night, securing the right to pick first at the NHL Entry Draft on June 27-28 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Going in, the Panthers had the second-best odds of getting the top pick, eclipsed only by the Buffalo Sabres. It’s the third straight year the team with the second-best odds prior to the lottery has earned the top pick, and just last year, the Colorado Avalanche swiped the top pick from the Panthers, selecting likely Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon.
Florida hasn’t picked first since 1994, when they took Ed Jovanovski. However, they had the top pick going into both the 2002 and 2003 drafts before then-general manager Rick Dudley traded the picks away, leading to Columbus taking Rick Nash in ’02 (The Panthers took Jay Bouwmeester third), and Pittsburgh selecting Marc-Andre Fleury the following year (Florida took Nathan Horton third.)
Since 2001, the Panthers have had 10 picks in the top-10, yielding the aforementioned Bouwmeester and Horton, along with Stephen Weiss (fourth, 2001), Petr Taticek (ninth, 2002), Rostislav Olesz (seventh, 2004), Michael Frolik (10th, 2006), Keaton Ellerby (10th, 2007), Erik Gudbranson (third, 2010), Jonathan Huberdeau (third, 2011), and Aleksander Barkov (second, 2013).
While there isn’t an immediate franchise player available in this year’s draft, there are certainly strong players available in the draft.
For those looking for a defensive stud, as the Panthers may well be, then Barrie Colts captain Aaron Ekblad is head and shoulders above the rest. The six-foot-four, 216-pound blueliner from Belle River, Ont., has had hype surrounding him since getting exceptional player status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old, and he lived up to it by playing a complete game at both ends of the ice throughout his time as a Colt.
He can punish forwards with his body, and he can punish pucks with a heavy shot that seems to have a way of getting through to the net more often than not, as he put up 23 goals from the point this season. Ekblad was a top-pairing defenceman for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, often playing against the other team’s top players. He showed he was up to the challenge, so he’s somebody who could jump in right away.
Of course, the top pick could also follow a family bloodline in the form of Kootenay Ice captain Sam Reinhart. The younger brother of New York Islanders prospect Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall, 2012), Calgary Flames forward Max Reinhart, and the son of former NHLer Paul Reinhart, the North Vancouver native had a very good season in Cranbrook, posting 105 points in 60 games.
Scouts love his vision on the ice, as well as his leadership qualities. As an underage player for Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships, Reinhart put up five points in seven games to further increase his presence playing against players who were two or three years older.
Meanwhile, Kingston Frontenacs forward Sam Bennett may be the forgotten man here, despite being the top-ranked skater in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, some scouts view the Richmond Hill, Ont., native as the most complete player in the draft. Therefore, it may not be such a coincidence that Bennett wears the number 93, originally made famous by Doug Gilmour, the man who drafted him in Kingston.
Despite being a slightly smaller player at six feet, 178 pounds, he’s a tenacious player who doesn’t mind mixing it up and initiating contact. He’s also the kind of guy who will compete until he can’t anymore, and even then, he’ll find a way to compete. An energetic player who can put up points while playing responsibly? Yeah, that’s a guy I wouldn’t mind having.
Other potential wild card selections include Prince Albert Raiders forward Leon Draisaitl, Kasperi Kapanen (son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen), and Oshawa Generals forward Michael Dal Colle, who came fifth in Bob McKenzie’s pre-lottery scouting survey after Ekblad, Reinhart, Bennett, and Draisaitl.
If I were Dale Tallon, I’d be taking Ekblad with the top pick. If you look at Florida’s roster, Gudbranson is the only one really worth talking about as a long-term piece. Dmitry Kulikov has long been the subject of trade discussions, and they’re not getting any younger, with three defencemen (Tom Gilbert, Brian Campbell, and captain Ed Jovanovski) in their 30s, with Campbell being 35 and Jovanovski turning 38 when this draft rolls around.
While Huberdeau and Barkov are among the few young bright spots up front, the Panthers really need someone to fill the void defensively, especially if Jovanovski were to retire this offseason, and Ekblad is the guy who can do it, as he could be a Shea Weber-type player once he fully matures.
OFFICIAL NHL DRAFT LOTTERY RESULTS
- Florida Panthers
- Buffalo Sabres
- Edmonton Oilers
- Calgary Flames
- New York Islanders
- Vancouver Canucks
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Winnipeg Jets
- Anaheim Ducks, via Ottawa Senators
- Nashville Predators
- Phoenix Coyotes
- Washington Capitals
The New Jersey Devils had a 2.1 per cent shot at the first pick, but because of the salary cap circumvention penalties levied due to the Ilya Kovalchuk contract. As a result, New Jersey will pick 30th.
Meanwhile, the Islanders could potentially give Buffalo the fifth pick in this year’s draft to fulfill the requirements of the Thomas Vanek-Matt Moulson trade. If they don’t do it this year, they have to do it this year, a potential risk given Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are going to be available.