After two consecutive years with a combined 23 selections, the Florida Panthers took a deep breath, sat back in their chairs, and relaxed a bit at the 2012 NHL Draft. With the top-rated group of prospects in the league, the Panthers looked to add the best value pieces with their five picks, and opted to exercise their option to relinquish their 2012 second-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers instead of next year's second-rounder (a legacy from the Kris Versteeg trade in 2011). The Panthers managed to select some intriguing players, including first-rounder Michael Matheson, and added a lot of blistering speed to their already overflowing pool of talented prospects.
Having the top-rated organization in the league allows a GM a lot of freedom to take some risks on players that are believed to have outstanding talents yet have some weakness in their game. The Panthers selected just such a player with their first-round pick. Michael Matheson-once considered talented enough to be the consensus first-overall pick for the QMJHL draft but who decided instead to take the USHL and NCAA route-ranks among the best skaters in the entire 2012 draft class. Matheson possesses the kind of quickness, agility and overall speed that makes coaches drool and opponents quiver. He uses his speed to make up for any defensive deficiencies or mistakes in his own end (though his play in that regard has improved), and he is quick enough to get back to the blue line after rushes up ice. Offensively, he has a crisp first pass and will push the play up ice and join the attack when he can. Last year, just one season removed from Quebec Midget AAA hockey, Matheson posted 27 points in 53 games for Dubuque and racked up 84 penalty minutes.
Matheson's biggest weakness comes from his size, or lack of size to be more accurate. At 6'0, he has adequate albeit below-average height, but his frame is still thin and he needs to improve his strength before he will be ready to battle with professionals. Matheson will head off to Boston College for the upcoming season, where he will have the opportunity to gain strength, play in one of the collegiate game's top programs, and earn valuable experience before making the transition to professional hockey.
With their second pick of the draft, the Panthers took another player with outstanding attributes and some work to be done. Hodges is a tremendous skater with excellent acceleration and speed. He possesses remarkable hockey sense and offensive instincts and has the puck skills and shot to make him a dangerous weapon on the attack. His stats may not seem impressive at first glance (21 goals and 25 assists in 72 games), but considering that he played on the team that had the worst goals against record in the WHL and was among the worst in goals scored, it is easy to see that Hodges and his teammates fought an uphill battle all season.
Like many young players, Hodges needs to get stronger and add muscle to his slight build. His speed will help him to get back on defense, but he will need to work hard to refine the defensive aspect of his game and mature into the mindset of a player that gives everything on each shift. Again, the Panthers have the time and patience to let Hodges develop slowly in junior hockey.
Alexander Delnov, LW – Mytischi Atlanti (MHL)
4th round, 114th overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 187 lbs
Some teams go off the board to make their picks, the Panthers went way off the board in selecting Delnov. So far, in fact, Delnov had to be added to the league's draft registry in order for the Panthers to select him. So, how does a player like Delnov, a skilled forward from a town just northeast of Moscow, make the radar of an NHL team while no one else seems to notice? He plays for the club local to the home of an NHL scout, in this case, Vadim Podrezov.
Delnov stood out at the Under-18 World Championships with his speed and solid physical play. He has stated his desire to come to North America to play junior hockey in the upcoming season and was recently selected eighth overall by Seattle in the CHL import draft.
Francis Beauvillier, C – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
6th round, 174th overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 176 lbs
The Panthers looked to another speedy, smooth-skating center with their selection in the sixth round. Beauvillier plays a good two-way game, and has picked up his physical play over the last year after joining Rimouski as a part of the Lewiston dispersal draft. Beauvillier is not just a fast skater. He is extremely fast, and he put his speed on display at the CHL prospects game by winning the fastest skater competition. Beauvillier scored five goals in 21 playoff games this past season, an unremarkable total except that two of those goals were shorthanded. During the regular season, Beauvillier scored two shorthanded goals for Rimouski, using his speed to generate chances while playing on the penalty kill unit. He also spent time on the powerplay for the Oceanic (scoring five goals with the man advantage), and plays aggressively all over the ice. As with most players selected in the sixth round, Beauvillier is a project player, but he does have NHL potential.
Jonatan Nielsen, D – Linkoping Juniors (SuperElit)
7th round, 194th overall
Height: 6'3 Weight: 183 lbs
The Panthers went back to defense to bookend their 2012 draft, this time selecting a tall, Swedish defender with good mobility and two-way sensibilities. The son of a long-time coach in the Swedish leagues, Nielsen is well-schooled in positional defense and uses his hockey intelligence as an effective tool for disrupting opponent play in his zone. Although he has a good shot and will push the play up ice, Nielsen plays more of a solid, mistake-free kind of game that could make him a decent middle-pair defenseman once he adds some pounds to his 6'3 frame.