The Florida Panthers head into the 2014 NHL Draft with the first overall pick. While Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is noncommittal about trading the pick, he will listen to offers that are presented.
Top 10 Prospects:
The Florida Panthers are a team in transition from their rebuilding stage to a young and talented team looking to make an impact in the NHL. Tallon seemingly filled the team's long-standing need for quality goaltending when he traded for Roberto Luongo, and if past is any prologue, he will also be shopping for a scoring right winger this summer, whether by trade or free agency.
As has been the case since Tallon began his intensive rebuilding of the Panthers organization, the pipeline is full of solid, big players at forward and defense. Last year's first-round pick Aleksander Barkov has shown that he is a top-notch talent at the NHL level before a knee injury at the Olympics ended his season.
There is speed and two-way skill throughout the forward ranks, most noticeably in players like Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri, and Quinton Howden. Trocheck made his NHL debut last season with moderate success and plenty of ice time, and Pirri joined the team last in the season and proceeded to score 14 points in 21 games for the Panthers.
On defense, the system holds two burgeoning young talents playing at Boston College. Mike Matheson and Ian McCoshen both have tremendous skating abilities and offensive skills. Matheson has soft hands and tremendous footwork, while McCoshen has better size and more defensive potential. The Panthers also have Alex Petrovic, a big, hard-hitting blueliner who appears ready to make the leap to the NHL.
Goaltending depth has always been a weak spot in the Panthers organization, but after moving top prospect Jacob Markstrom to Vancouver in the trade that brought Luongo back to south Florida, the organization now lacks a true blue chip prospect in net. Sam Brittain turned around his flagging career last season by posting numbers that put him near the top of most collegiate statistical categories, and former OHL Goaltender of the Year Michael Houser has continued to progress in the minor professional leagues.
The organization also lacks offensive firepower. Although Barkov looks to be a tremendous talent and producer at the game's highest levels, there are no true goal scorers at any level of the Panthers system. Nick Bjugstad's record last season as the lowest-scoring NHL player ever to lead his team in scoring highlights the point. Many players in the system have two-way talent and will be able to score in the NHL, but none of the bunch look to be able to become 30-goal scorers in the future.
The system looks well balanced on the blue line, but this area, too, lacks a pure, All-Star caliber talent. Matheson, McCoshen, Petrovic and, to a lesser degree, Colby Robak all have NHL futures and will likely make up a good part of the future back end for Florida, but none of those four look capable of taking on the number one role along the Panthers blue line.
Tallon has a proven draft-day track record with the Panthers, now, after four years and three dozen picks. The Panthers like to take advantage of the additional development time that the NCAA allows, and more than one-third of Florida's 36 draft picks have been used on college players since Tallon took over the GM duties in 2010.
There is another significant trend that continued through last summer: avoiding goaltenders. In fact, despite a clear weakness in netminder depth in the system, Tallon has drafted only two goaltenders during his tenure, and neither of those picks came in the first three rounds.
The Panthers under Tallon have also shown a tendency to stay at home in North America at the top of the draft, preferring Canadian and American players over Europeans in the first three rounds by a 16-to-2 margin.
Although he tends to be conservative in the early rounds, Tallon will take risks with his picks later in the draft. Last year he chose little-known defender Mackenzie Weegar late in the draft (making a trade to grab one of the last few picks in the draft), and he has also shown a willingness to select overage players, as well.
1. Aaron Ekblad, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)
As much as the Panthers still have a need for help up front, it is hard to pass on a potential cornerstone piece for their big, young group of defensemen. They have plenty of size and toughness with Erik Gudbranson and Petrovic, and offensive skill in Dmitry Kulikov and eventually Matheson, but Ekblad gives them that one piece who can tie it all together. He is a big, physical defenseman who can play in all situations and provides a strong offensive presence from the back end.
And with a draft class that has good – though not elite – offensive talent in the second round, the Panthers should still find a quality forward later in the draft.