Panthers Have the Big Pick in Toronto

By Mark Fischel

To hear all the pundits, league scouts, and team front office executives talk about the 2002 draft, the common thought is that it is shaping up to be one of the shallowest drafts since 1996.

“We really believe that the league falls of a bit, maybe a little bit more in the past.” Panther Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Murray said, “But the top end guys in each league are very good players. So if it is a weaker draft, it certainly isn’t in the top end.”

“We isolated three guys who are at the top end,” Murray explains, “We feel that all 3 of them will be at least impact players in the league.” The three players he is discussing can be assumed to be Medicine Hat’s defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, London Knight’s Rick Nash, and Jokerit’s goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

Than it was a lucky day for the Panthers a few months back, because the bounce of the ping-pong balls gave them the winning combination to move up 3 spots from 4th to 1st overall, and earning the Panthers the top draft position for the second time in franchise history.

So whom do the Panthers select on June 22nd?

Essentially ranked 1st through 3rd by Hockey’s Future and the CSS, is the top choice at each of the three positions, and the Panthers need immediate and long-term help at forward and defense, thereby making the pick between Rick Nash or Jay Bouwmeester, but is there another?

Hailing from Edmonton, Jay Bouwmeester has been in the hockey spotlight since he was a young boy. “I played against him since novice (12 years old), we always went head to head,” Panther’s prospect Greg Watson recalls, “Ever since novice, he has always been head and shoulders above the rest.”

Possessing some of the best skating skills since Paul Coffey, Bouwmeester’s game relies heavily on mobility where he can beat fore-checkers and spark the transition game with precise first passes out of the zone.

“He is a special skater, he is probably the best skating defenseman any of us have ever seen.” Murray stated when asked of Bouwmeester’s main strength, “It is so rare that a guy that size is so agile and has such great speed.”

In addition, he is very effective in running the power play and taking risks by pinching in at the first sign of an opportunity, a tendency that keeps opposing teams always vigilant.

“The biggest part of his game is jumping into the play when they are in our zone and he is going to into the back door.” Watson explains, “That is where he is the biggest threat.”
He ended his thought by laughing, “If Bouwmeester is my defensive man, I got my head on a swivel”

While defensemen of Bouwmeester’s size and skill level is a highly sought after commodity, he is not the only prospect causing debate in the many meetings that the Panther scouts endlessly have.

Coming out of the London Knights is the budding power forward Rick Nash, a blend of grit, excellent puck-handling skills, and top-notch offensive talent. This makes him a threat to score whenever he has the puck, as Dudley pointed out, “If he has the puck across the blue-line, good things happen.”

Playing Left Wing, Rick Nash led his team past the heavily favored Plymouth Whalers for the first round upset, and helped to solidify his position on some draft boards as the top ranked prospect. “For London, he carried his hockey team, maybe through two hockey rounds,” Dudley said, “He was the best player game in and game out.”

It is when you get comparing Nash and Bouwmeester off the ice, that you see the differences in how they go about handling themselves. “Nash presents himself well to the media.” Keenan described, “He’s got an effervescent personality, there’s no question about that. He exudes that kind of energy on the ice.”

“Bouwmeester is very quiet.” Murray explained, “Where he is comfortable, he is fine. I don’t think he is comfortable in this environment (dealing with the media). He doesn’t want to draw attention to him self, he is the consummate team guy.”

But on the ice, the Panthers see both players as leaders with different, but equally effective methods. Where Bouwmeester leads by letting his play do the talking, Nash, according to Dudley “exudes a little bit more” by playing at a top speed all the time and throwing his body around.

While the selection of the top pick will probably go down to the wire, will it be a simple decision to go with the best player available, a practice almost all the teams live by?

The trouble is, there is a matter of a goalie who just might be that guy. “We are having a very difficult time with Lehtonen,” Dudley commented, “Because he might be the best in the draft.”

The Panthers are seemingly set in goal for years to come with Roberto Luongo, and if they pass on Lehtonen with the #1 pick, would this be a case of eschewing the theory of taking the best player available by taking the player to fill the biggest team need?

If Rick Nash were to be selected, he would be put into a system full of skilled forwards who have the potential to be top 2-line players, but who lack the physical play and power game that Nash brings to the table. Nash would be the only forward who combines the two together in one tough, skilled package.

The Panthers have several offensive d-man prospects in the system, such as Lukas Krajicek and Filip Novak, but neither of them have the large frame necessary to become a physical player. On the flip side, the Panthers have several tough and physical defensive prospects in Rossiter, McNeill, and Sapozhnikov, but these prospects don’t have the skating ability and speed that Bouwmeester possesses. Bouwmeester simply has the potential to bridge the two styles of play into one high-end package.

In comparing two players of equal skills and talent on a level playing field, but at different positions, the tendency is for the majority of teams to value the defensive prospect over the offensive prospect.

It is with this value system that after agonizing scrutiny and countless debates, that the Panthers will go with Jay Bouwmeester as the first overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

But by no means will it be an easy decision to make….Heck, it might even be traded away after all is said and done.

Dudley left with that thought, “The friends you get is almost mind boggling as you get closer to the draft.”

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