Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has been steadily building a team geared for long-term NHL success by building through the NHL Draft, making key trades and signing stop-gap free agents to meet salary needs.
With the goaltending situation solidified for the time being with veteran netminder Roberto Luongo, a new head coach and a strong core of talented young forwards, Tallon went to the draft floor in Philadelphia with the top pick in hand and an apparent plan to use the rest of their picks for adding smart, gritty forwards who play with an edge.
When Aaron Ekblad became the second player in the history of the OHL age exemptions to receive permission to play an underage season in the league, he instantly became one of the most watched and discussed defensemen in major junior hockey. For three seasons, he was-in turn and often simultaneously-heavily scouted, monitored, scrutinized, and praised. He has handled that pressure with ease, and has improved steadily, and quickly. Last season he captained the Barrie Colts, improved his defensive play and skating, and developed into the best defensive player in his draft class.
A two-way defenseman with great size and maturity, Ekblad will go into fall training camp looking to earn a spot on the Panthers roster for next season.
“I want to jump into a young core where I can help and be leader with those guys and let them lead me and support me. I think it’s a two-way street that way, and I think that will help me out a lot next year,” Ekblad said after he was drafted.” I feel like I can step in next year and make a difference.”
Ekblad can make a difference. His poise and on-ice awareness is outstanding, and he has an exceptional work ethic both on and off the ice. He is a smart defender who rarely panics in any situation. His point totals last season (23 goals and 30 assists in 58 games) were sixth-best for OHL defensemen, and he led that group in goal scoring. Ekblad can release a booming, accurate one-timer and is especially dangerous in offensive-zone faceoff situations. His leadership qualities have been recognized at every level of hockey, and he has been named captain for teams from midgets all the way to international competitions at multiple age levels.
The downside for Ekblad is related to the accolades he has already earned, and the question of whether or not there is any additional room for development. He is NHL-ready-of that there is little doubt-but can he continue to get better, or bigger or stronger? If so, Ekblad could become an All-Star NHL defenseman.
Ekblad met with the media after going first overall to the Panthers, with some of his comments being captured in this HF video.
Hawryluk plays a fast and fiery game predicated on creating chaos all over the ice until he is in prime scoring position at the front of the net. He constantly moves his feet and is always on the attack, whether that means making play difficult for opposing players who try to enter his defensive zone or harassing and attacking them on the forecheck.
Hawryluk plays the same kind of game with the puck on his stick. Soft hands and good stick skills highlight an array of above-average offensive skills. With his quickness and strength, he is hard to contain along the boards, and he can be elusive in the corners. However, even though he has a good medium-distance shot, he does his goal scoring in close. His 40 assists last season are evidence of his good vision and he plays a type of possession game that transfers quickly to the NHL.
Hawryluk met with the media after having his name called by the Panthers, with some of his comments being captured in this HF video.
Juho Lammikko, LW, Assat Jr. (Junior A SM-liiga)
3rd round, 65th overall
Height: 6-1 Weight: 170 lbs
Lammikko is an interesting player from this draft class. He finished his Finnish junior season third overall in scoring among players under 18 years old with 42 points in 37 games. His play was strong enough to earn him 20 games in Liiga, Finland’s top league. He managed just one assist in those games, but with a limited eight minutes per game of ice time. He also played internationally for Team Finland, and scored 12 points in nine games at the Under-18 level.
Lammikko plays a smart, well-rounded game, and although his skating needs refinement, he is quick and agile for his size. His hockey sense and awareness on the ice allows him to read plays in all three zones and he often uses positioning to make up for some of his lack of acceleration. He will almost certainly play at least one more season in Finland, but his skill set is well-suited for North American play.
Joe Wegwerth, RW, USNTDP
4th round, 92th overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 210 lbs
The Panthers went for pure size in the fourth round, selecting a punishing, bottom-six right winger known more for his aggressive play in his own zone than for any offensive ability. He uses his strength and size to disrupt the opposition, and can lay down punishing hits. Destined for a checking line role in his professional career, Wegwerth will first hone his skills in the NCAA for the University of Notre Dame.
Wegwerth spoke with the media after being chosen by the Panthers, with some of his comments being included in this HF video.
Miguel Fidler, LW, Edina High (Minnesota High School)
5th round, 143rd overall
Height: 6-0 Weight: 186 lbs
In the fifth round, the Panthers selected another college-bound player, an agitator and nasty left winger from the hockey hotbed of Edina, Minnesota. Although his offensive totals showed a marked improvement last season, his most noticeable attributes are similar to those of the other Florida picks – smart, intense play with high work rate and physicality. Fidler will join the Lincoln Stars of the USHL for 2014-15 and the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2015-16.
Hugo Fagerblom, G, Frolunda (J18 Elit)
7th round, 182nd overall
Height: 6-6 Weight: 202 lbs
With their final pick of the 2014 draft, the Panthers added a relatively unknown goaltender from the Swedish junior leagues. At 6’6, Fagerblom has the size that NHL general managers have been looking for in recent years. He is a prime example of a project player, and will take several years to develop into a viable goaltending prospect.