The Florida Panthers are on the verge of an identity crisis after missing the playoffs again for the 13th time in 14 seasons. For a fanbase that has only seen the playoffs four times since the team’s inception in 1993, General Manager Dale Tallon is facing a critical turning point for the franchise.
The Panthers have stockpiled prospects and are starting to reap the rewards of their patience, and the 2015 NHL Entry Draft was a critical time as the team played host to the event. Tallon has often taken a patient approach to the draft, opting for players headed to college or junior players that may need some seasoning but he broke the mold with the 11th overall pick.
The Panthers landed power forward Lawson Crouse early in the first round, then used a pair of third round picks on intriguing goaltender Samuel Montembeault and defenseman Thomas Schmetisch. The Panthers took undersized Swiss center Denis Malgin in the fourth, then used their remaining picks on players with collegiate ties, following the Panthers traditional approach to later round selections.
Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
1st round, 11th overall
Height: 6’4” Weight: 215 lbs
From the outset, it was fairly clear that the Florida Panthers were looking for a forward with some size and offensive ability. Tallon had to be licking his chops when Lawson Crouse was available at 11th overall, and the team wasted little time in getting the behemoth winger on board.
“I knew anything could happen, when I saw the defensemen go off the board I knew my chances were getting stronger,” Crouse said about how the first ten picks played out. “It was a special feeling up on the stage and the fans were cheering, it’s something I can’t even explain.”
The Panthers went for size and ability on the blueline last season with first overall pick Aaron Ekblad, who stepped right into the lineup and went on to win the Calder Trophy. While he may be young, Ekblad is in the perfect position to guide Crouse through the process.
“He just went through it not too long ago, and I know I can take a lot away from him,” Crouse said of reaching out to the former first-overall pick. “I’m sure I’ll be on the phone with him to get some advice.”
Crouse joins the Panthers system from the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, a decidedly different team when it comes to systems. The Frontenacs play a defense-first system, where their forwards are held accountable to maintain a defensive posture, something that helped Lawson Crouse learn to play the right way.
“They provided me with everything I need to be successful, and it came down to how much I wanted it. I have to thank them for that, the coaches, people in the front office and my friends and teammates who stuck with me through everything,” Crouse said of his experience in Kingston.
It’s not decided yet if he will play in the NHL next season, but he certainly brings a lot to the table. With his size, skating ability, and NHL-ready shot, Crouse is an enticing package that will be difficult to turn away.
“I feel like I can fit in right away, but at the end of the day it comes down to what the team decides to do,” the 29 goal-scorer said. “The pressure is on as a first rounder, but that’s all part of the game, but I’ll put that aside and just do the things I do well.”
One of the things Crouse does well is play a physical game, he’s certainly not afraid to attack the net, throw a hit, or drop the gloves to protect a teammate. His true value comes in his versatility to play anywhere in the lineup, as he is suited to play on a scoring line as a valuable support player, but he can also play a simple defensive game to be a reliable bottom-six option for Head Coach Gerard Gallant.
If Crouse does get the call to stay in Florida, he’ll be ready for it.
“You can’t complain about the weather, it will be a unique experience for me. It will be a different lifestyle, but I’m ready to make the change.”
If the pressure of living up to first-round expectations gets to be too much, Crouse is ready for that, too.
“My Dad and I had a saying growing up, that whenever someone doubts you or tells you that you can’t do something, you just put a log on the fire,” Crouse said.
For the sake of those who may oppose him next season, let’s hope the fire isn’t burning.
Crouse took part in the 2015 NHL Scouting Combine held in Buffalo, NY in early June. He met with the media following his testing session, with some of his comments being captured in this Hockey’s Future video.
Samuel Montembeault, G, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (QMJHL)
3rd round, 77th overall
Height: 6’2” Weight: 173 lbs
As a young draft-eligible player, the thrill of hearing your name called can’t be topped by much else in a hockey career. That excitement is exponentially higher when team hosting the draft picks you, as the hometown fans respond in cheers and anticipatory excitement.
“I had a lot of Panthers fans sitting next to me, so it was fun when I heard my name,” Montembeault said of being drafted by the hosts. “I watched a lot of Roberto Luongo growing up, he was one of my favorite players.”
From an early age, Montembeault took a liking to both baseball and hockey. He was a catcher growing up, so the similarities between that position and goaltender in hockey drew some parallels. Like most young Canadians, the thrill of hockey eventually won out and Montembeault didn’t want to play anywhere else but in net.
“Everyone had to take turns, but I was always saying ‘Can I go?’ and fell in love with the position.”
The Florida Panthers fell in love with him too, as the team was enamored with his athletic ability and keen understanding of the position from a technical standpoint. The QMJHL is often hard on goaltenders, but Montembeault stood out this year for many reasons, most of which he was eager to point out.
“I think I have a very good glove hand, that’s one of my strengths. I’m quick for my size with good rebound control.”
If everything works out, Montembeault may eventually take his talents to Florida, and that would be okay with him.
“It’s so warm here; it’s different from Quebec where we have all the snow.”