They say sometimes good things happen to teams who have suffered long enough. After having a season in which the Panthers led the NHL in man-games lost due to injury, saw GM Bill Torrey and Coach Duane Sutter get fired and the arrival of the ultimate wildcard Mike Keenan, some would say this franchise has seen enough turmoil to last a few seasons.
But as bad things tend to happen to the Panthers, there is always something else to pile on top of the troubles. This year also saw the trade of Pavel Bure, whose indifferent attitude, lack of scoring, and his complete lack of effort in fitting into a coaches system or dressing room full of young players, led the Panthers to get whatever they can in a trade for a player making 10 Million dollars for the next two years.
So it is only fitting that with all the suffering of this year, that something positive would finally happen for the Florida Panthers, and that misery ended today with the Panthers locking up the first pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Instead of desiring a certain player and hoping he falls to where Florida is, this year the Panthers have the option to choose who they see will be the best player for the future of their franchise. But before examining this, let’s look at the Panthers first round history.
Looking Back at Florida’s 1st Round Draft Picks
1993: Robbie Niedermayer, 5th overall, Medicine Hat Tigers: Robbie made the jump to the NHL right after being drafted and he might have been rushed into the spotlight too soon. He didn’t get a chance to play much in his first season under Roger Neilson and halfway through his rookie year he suffered a separated shoulder injury that some believe set him back even further. Seemed to have arrived when the Panthers went to the Cup Finals in 96 by scoring 26 goals and 61 points, but concussion problems soon further derailed Robbie’s career as a Panther.
Robbie ended up his career in Florida by being cast mainly as a defensive center, a role where his size, speed, and mentality better suited him. Unfortunately, Florida fans always expected more from Robbie and weren’t able to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to be an offensive force. During the 2001 Entry Draft, former Panthers GM Bill Torrey shipped him and a 2nd round pick to Calgary for Jason Weimer and Valeri Bure.
1994: Ed Jovanovski, 1st Overall, Windsor Spitfires: The young and physical Jovanovski was looking to be the Panthers franchise player for years to come, with his blend of speed, solid two-way play, and his punishing checks. Florida opted to not rush Jovanovski into the NHL and let him play one more year in Windsor, but gave him a spot on the 95-96 team.
With a strong supporting cast of veteran players ahead of him, Jovanovski wasn’t relied on too heavily and was able to adjust to the game at a more suitable pace. He had a solid season in 95-96, scoring 21 points as a rookie, and the Panthers were headed to the playoffs for the first time in their short history.
The playoffs are where Jovanovksi, along with the rest of the Florida team, really hit their stride. All-together solid team play helped Jovanovski gain confidence in playing his physical game and the playoffs were highlighted by some highlight reel hits on the then physically imposing Eric Lindros. Jovo’s energetic enthusiasm and physical play was one of the key components in that improbable run to the Finals.
But as the Florida Panthers team started to show it’s age, the pressure for Jovanovski to be the team’s offensive d-man seemingly became too much for him to handle alone. Becoming prone to committing an alarming amount of turnovers and spotty physical play, yet again another high draft pick became subject to the boo-birds who were expecting the young defenseman to be the franchise player they were expecting.
Early in the 98-99 season, Eddie Jovanovski was the key component in the trade that brought Pavel Bure, Bret Hedican, and Brad Ference to Florida. (Florida also sent a 1st round pick (Nathan Smith), Kevin Weekes, Dave Gagner, and Mike Brown)
1995: Radek Dvorak, 10th Overall, Ceske Budejovice: Originally touted as a speedy defensive forward in the mold of a “Federov” type player, the young Radek Dvorak was also very much a NHL ready forward whose attention to defense helped him make the jump right away, and was a member of the Finals team.
Radek’s career as a Panther was one of promise, but he continuously teased fans and management with his inability to finish on the majority of his goal-scoring chances. Countless breakaways were denied over and over, and he was never able to get over the 19-goal mark with Florida. His speed made him valuable though in a fore-checking role and Radek spent most of his time on the third line.
Halfway through the 99-00 season, the Panthers were on their way to their still franchise best 98 point season when goalie Trevor Kidd went down with an injury. After Mikhail Shtalenkov protested that he wasn’t ready to be a #1 goalie, Florida traded Dvorak to the Sharks for goaltender Mike Vernon, and San Jose than traded Dvorak for Todd Harvey.
1996: Marcus Nilson, 20th Overall, Djurgardens IF Stockholm: If there ever was a case of not rushing a player to the NHL, Marcus Nilson is a good example of this. Marcus spent a few years playing in New Haven and Louisville, but earned a full time spot with the Panthers in 2000 on the lower lines, but ended up finishing the season on the top line with Pavel Bure and Viktor Kozlov. While Nilson’s skating remains his one weakness, he brings a lot to the Panthers with his hockey-sense, gritty play, and solid two-way game. Nilson is the kind of player that can be inserted anywhere in the lineup and be counted on to do what is asked.
1997: Mike Brown, 20th Overall, Red Deer: Never had the chance to play as a Panther, and is currently playing in the AHL or being called up to provide toughness when needed for the Canucks. Involved in the trade for Pavel Bure.
1998: No pick, traded to San Jose with Dave Lowry for Viktor Kozlov: In the beginning of the 97-98 season, the Panthers stumbled out of the gate after getting swept by the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs the previous season. Former Panthers GM Bryan Murray continued his youth movement by trading away Lowry and the 1st round pick for the then promising Center Viktor Kozlov. San Jose used their pick to acquire defenseman Brad Stuart after a trade with Tampa Bay.
1999: Denis Shvidki, 12th Overall, Barrie Colts: The selection of Denis Shvidki with the 12th pick is still looking positive for the Florida Panthers. After having 100+ points in juniors after being selected and being named as an OHL All-Star, Denis went to the Panthers the next season looking to earn a spot. In the 2000-2001 season, Denis was named as the AHL All-Star MVP and ended the season on a high note with the Florida Panthers by scoring 5 points in his last 5 games. In the rest of that season with the Panthers, Shvidki went 6-10-16 in 43 games and led the team in +/- with +6.
The 2001-2002 season for Shvidki is one that he would probably like to forget. In a pre-season game against the Bruins, Shvidki received a grade 3 concussion (the same that Darcy Tucker “had” this year and came back from right away) and missed the first half of the season. He got clearance to play in the NHL and played in 8 games with the Panthers before being sent down to Utah to get back to speed, where he also was able to play in 8 games before spraining his ankle. Shvidki spent the rest of the time in Florida rehabbing his ankle and will be back to compete next year.
2000: No pick, traded to Vancouver in Pavel Bure deal:
2001: Stephen Weiss, 4th Overall, Plymouth Whalers: The Panthers went into the draft with the 4th overall, and remained in that spot when Atlanta won the lottery and moved up to 1st overall. Florida was keen on the two North American centers from the OHL, and when Weiss was available at #4, Florida didn’t hesitate to grab their much needed future top center.
Weiss competed for a roster position in training camp, and was one of the last cuts. He had another strong season with Plymouth, but injuries there and in the WJC held him back from excelling even more. In the first round of the OHL playoffs this year, another disappointment was handed to Weiss as the London Knights and their top prospect Rick Nash upset his much favored Whalers.
Stephen Weiss signed a five game contract (extended two games later) when the Whalers season ended and scored his first NHL goal on his 19th birthday. A few games later, Stephen picked up his first assist on a Sandis Ozolinsh goal and ended the season with two points in 7 games. Unfortunately in the last game of the season against Tampa Bay, Weiss was a victim of a knee-on-knee hit from Nikita Alexeev and sprained his MCL. While this injury won’t affect him long-term, it will require about 6 weeks of rehab.
Lukas Krajicek, 24th Overall, Peterborough Petes: Another first round pick from the 2001 draft, Lukas also was in competition to earn a roster spot on the Florida Panthers, but was sent down before camp ended. With Peterborough, Krajicek started off somewhat slow, which may have been the result of the disappointment of not making the Panthers or trying to develop other parts of his game. All in all, Krajicek still had personal best numbers through 6 less games. He ended up the season by signing a 5 game tryout with the Panthers, and was help pointless while seeing around 10-15 minutes a game.
2002: 1st Pick Overall: The big question that will be on the minds of the Panthers will be between selecting Rick Nash or Jay Bouwmeester, quite a desirable position to be in! Rick Nash is the close second in desirability among NHL teams, and his selection would make sense for Florida as well. They don’t have a young forward in the system that combines the grit found in 3rd and 4th line players, with the scoring ability and finesse of a top liner.
But with that being said, the overall package of mobility, offensive presence, size, and potential, Jay Bouwmeester will become the first overall pick of the Florida Panthers in this years Entry Draft. He is clearly the best player in this years draft and this makes him the obvious choice to select.
“He’s 6-4, skates as well as any player in the draft, passes as well as any player in the draft,” Fletcher said when asked about Bouwmeester. “Both offensively and defensively, he has a complete game in both areas.
Before the Panthers came to the 2001 Entry Draft in their hometown of Sunrise, Florida had an alarming lack of top-end of offensive defenseman in the system. Forward to this year, and Florida’s stable includes Lukas Krajicek, Filip Novak and the soon to be arriving Jay Bouwmeester. Combined with Sandis Ozolinsh in the NHL, and Florida went from a glaring weakness to organizational strength in one year.
10th Pick Overall Acquired from the Rangers in the Bure trade, this pick at one point could have been as high as #13 until the Rangers went into a tailspin after the Bure trade, and could have been #9 if Calgary had won their last game of the season.
While it is still too early to guess what players will rise and fall in the rankings, the possibility exists that Florida will have the opportunity to draft players like Ryan Whitney, Vladislav Evseev, Joffrey Lupul, Petr Taticek, and even possibly Steve Eminger (whose stock is rising). Another possibility is that this pick will be made available for something Florida desperately needs, which is veteran leadership.
But with a collection of young players like Kristian Huselius, Marcus Nilson, Stephen Weiss, Lukas Krajicek, Niklas Hagman, Roberto Luongo, Ivan Noveseltsev, Denis Shvidki, Brad Ference, Filip Novak, and others, the future of Florida’s franchise looks to be one of much promise.
Leaving this thought at the press conference, Chuck Fletcher said “To end up with the first pick in the Entry Draft this year after a 60-point, disappointing season is a great way to start our off-season plans going into next year and our future. We’re going to get a chance to get an impact player for our franchise that has a chance at playing as early as next year, and will have a tremendous impact on our franchise for the next 15 years.”””
The remaining picks for the 2002 Draft Lottery are as follows:
#4 Tampa Bay
#10 Florida (from NY Rangers)