The Florida Panthers entered the 2009 NHL Draft with a new general manager in Randy Sexton, a cornerstone defenseman about to leave the team via free agency in Jay Bouwmeester, and a desperate need for an infusion of offensive skill.
Sexton managed to move the rights to negotiate with Bouwmeester to the Calgary Flames in return for a third-round pick and the rights to Jordan Leopold. Sexton would also make a lessor draft-pick trade, receiving two 2009 picks (107th and 138th overall) for Florida's 2010 third-round pick. The moves gave Sexton and the Panthers scouts a total of seven picks for the 2009 draft, including the 14th overall selection.
For Florida, a team with a long history of disappointing and sub-par draft selections, the 2009 draft would be an unqualified success that garnered a top-four defenseman and at least two forward prospects with bright NHL futures.
Coming into the draft, the Panthers had identified Kulikov as a defenseman that could help fill the gaps in the blue line. When the puck-moving defenseman was still available at the 14th pick, the Panthers chose to draft him. Three months later, Kulikov pulled on a Panthers sweater and has been on the roster ever since. In a draft class with several high-end defenseman, Kulikov has had a mostly unheralded career thus far, but has steadily become a valuable member of the Florida defensive corps and has consistently averaged more than 20 minutes per game for most of his five-year career.
Kulikov has been a fixture in Florida's defensive zone when healthy, but he has suffered several injuries that have cost him ice time. He missed nearly half of the 2011-12 season after undergoing knee surgery, and missed another 10 games the following season with a wrist injury. Perhaps due in part to the lost time, Kulikov has not yet developed into an offensive force, but his play in his own zone has improved with each season and he has been a capable possession player. As the Panthers continue to build their team, Kulikov has taken on more and more responsibility, and is quietly becoming the cornerstone defenseman the team was looking for when they drafted him.
Drew Shore, C, USNTDP – 2nd round, 44th overall
NHL Game Played: 60
Shore became the first of six forwards that filled out the rest of Sexton's 2009 draft class. Shore had just come off of solid year with Team USA's development program team, which included a gold medal at the U18 WJCs. The 6'2 center gave the Panthers a potential two-way skilled forward with scoring presence and plenty of time to develop at the University of Denver.
In three years with the Pioneers, Shore scored 60 goals with 68 assists and had been named team captain. At the end of his junior season, Shore signed an NHL contract and joined the Panthers AHL affiliate in San Antonio, where he made the AHL All-Star team in his rookie season. Shore also played an extended run in the NHL originally as an injury call-up, but his play and early chemistry with fellow rookie Jonathan Huberdeau earned him 43 games with the Panthers.
Now in his second professional season, Shore has become the first-line center for the Rampage, and has seen another 17 games in the NHL. Although his scoring has not yet developed to a consistent level in the NHL, he does a lot of things well and plays the full length of the ice. Shore kills penalties and runs the powerplay in San Antonio and is terrific at finding teammates when he has the puck below the goal line. He appears to be well on his way to a steady middle-six role in the NHL.
The Panthers selected another American, college-bound forward with the third-round pick they received in the Bouwmeester deal. Birkholz was drafted as an offensive winger with good speed and scoring ability. He joined the Minnesota Golden Gophers the following year, where he struggled to find ice time on a veteran team. After his freshman season, Birkholz left the University of Minnesota for the WHL and the Everett Silvertips. Over the next two seasons (including an overage year) with Everett, Birkholz would score just 47 goals in 138 games, a disappointing tally for a goal-scoring prospect. The Panthers decided not to sign Birkholz to an NHL contract at the end of his major junior years, but the Rampage signed him to a minor-league contract to monitor his progress and development.
Birkholz is in his second professional season and he has played all but four of his 79 minor league games at the ECHL level. With his speed, he can be effective at both ends of the ice, but can go long stretches of time without making an impact.
Wilson is a hard-working player who has been methodically working his way up the ladder towards a successful hockey career. He plays the game hard and is willing to fill whatever role is asked of him by the coaches. At 6'2 and just over 200 pounds, Wilson has a solid frame that he uses to check attackers or bowl over defenders, and will attack, defend or fight when necessary.
Wilson found it difficult to stay in the AHL for the first two years of his professional career, and spent the majority of those seasons in the ECHL. He made the most of his time there, however, and helped lead the Cyclones to deep playoff runs. This year, he has secured a full-time spot with San Antonio where he has tallied 19 points in 45 games and has earned increased ice time. Although he may never become more than a bottom-six role player at the NHL level, he has the tools and the drive to make it to that level.
Corban Knight, C, Okotoks Oilers (AJHL) – 5th round, 135th overall
NHL Game Played: 0
Florida selected another centerman and future collegian in the fifth round, this time turning to the Alberta league for Corbin Knight. After his draft season, Knight joined the University of North Dakota where he became an integral part of one of the most successful programs in the NCAA. In four season with North Dakota, Knight registered 52 goals and 94 assists, won three WCHA titles, and was a Hobey Baker finalist in his senior year. Unfortunately, given Florida's depth at center and Knight's desire to have a less-obstructed route to the NHL, the team and player were unable to reach a contractual agreement, and Knight was traded to the Calgary Flames at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Knight signed with the Flames, and is currently in the midst of a successful rookie AHL season. He has scored 36 points in 51 games with the Abbotsford Heat and is fourth overall on his team in scoring. Knight has a bright NHL career in front of him, and could soon find ice time with the Flames.
Wade Megan, C, South Kent School (Connecticut Prep) – 5th round, 138th overall
NHL Game Played: 0
Megan became the fourth college-bound player drafted by the Panthers in 2009. A skilled center who had scored nearly two points per game for South Kent, Megan was committed to Boston University for the 2009-10 season. He eventually captained the Terriers as a senior and when the program lost several key players, Megan stepped up to fill the void. Even though he had shown himself to be a good leader and a solid contributor at every level, the Panthers decided not to sign him to an NHL contract. Megan has remained within the shadow of the Panthers organization however, and like Birkholz, has been playing professional hockey with the Florida affiliates in the AHL and ECHL levels.
Scott Timmins, C, Windsor Spitfires (OHL) – 6th round, 165th overall
NHL Game Played: 24
Timmins entered the Panthers organization having already won two OHL championships and a Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers, and he won each title again the following year with the Windsor Spitfires. A steady role-player and two-way grinder, Timmins has always played the game with passion and hard work. He has managed a couple of brief stints at the NHL level but never in an offensive role. He is a prototypical energy player who likely will play out a long career at the AHL level.
Timmins was traded to the New Jersey Devils in September of 2013.