Panthers 2006 draft review

By Chris Leary

On a weekend that will long be remembered for the trade that severed ties with franchise goaltender Roberto Luongo, the Florida Panthers took a gamble in the NHL Entry Draft that may eventually add another franchise player. When Panthers GM Mike Keenan rolled the dice with the tenth pick of the draft on Czech Republic wing Michael Frolik, he went against his usual inclination towards North American prospects in the first round and may have landed the biggest steal of the draft. A silky playmaker blessed with uncommon creative flair in the offensive zone, the player nicknamed “Baby Jagr” dropped on many draft boards over the past 12 months, falling out of the top five to what may be an extremely fortunate Panther franchise.

With no second round pick, Florida had to wait all the way to the 73rd selection to add the lightning-quick Brady Calla, who is already possessed of NHL-caliber speed but needs to develop offensively before the Panthers can expect a significant contribution at the NHL level. In the middle to late stages of the draft, the Panthers attempted to address significant organizational needs with the selection of three promising defensemen and a goaltender. Of these four players, overage offensive defenseman Peter Aston should be the first to appear on Florida’s radar, as the remaining three should all see significant time in the amateur ranks before the Panthers need to make a decision on their futures.

Michael Frolik, C
First Round, Tenth Overall – Kladno (Czech)
Born: 2-17-1988, Ht: 6’1, 185 lbs.>
In any draft class, there are always a number of prospects who capitalize on impressive performances in the months leading up to the draft and enjoy a meteoric rise up the board. For every feel-good story, however, there are players who, for a variety of reasons, fall out of favor and end up being selected much lower than their talent would suggest. A textbook example may very well be Czech phenom Michael Frolik. Once considered a lock for the top five of the 2006 Entry Draft after eye-opening performances at home and on the international stage, Frolik’s 2005-06 campaign with HC Rabat Kladno of the Czech Extraliga was an unmitigated disaster and most likely contributed to his fall down to Florida at the tenth slot.

After exploding into the top league in the Czech Republic as a 17-year-old, Frolik’s production regressed this past year on a poor Kladno team as only managed to find the back of the net twice in 48 games. Raw statistics, however, don’t often tell the entire story.

“You have to remember he played with men,” Florida GM Mike Keenan told Hockey’s Future when asked about Frolik’s somewhat disappointing 2005-06 season. “That (playing in the top Czech league against professionals) is the big difference in terms of him playing against his peers, and maybe next year he will. Our staff is very confident if he was playing with his own age group his numbers obviously would be more impressive than they are, but there’s a great value in the experiences he’s acquired.”

As important as playing against former NHL players in the Czech Extraliga at a young age is in Frolik’s development as a top-tier prospect, the physical attributes he brings to the table are what made many consider him the best European prospect available in this year’s draft. Nicknamed “Baby Jagr”, not only because of his striking resemblance to the dominant NHL superstar, Frolik has displayed a hockey sense and playmaking ability that has drawn comparisons to his fellow native of Kladno. Already possessing a heavy wrist shot, quick burst on his skates and a creative flair in the offensive zone, Frolik could use a bit more upper body strength to fight through traffic in the North American game, which he should experience for the first time this coming autumn with Rimouski of the QMJHL.

While the Panthers selection of Frolik does not address any glaring needs in what has developed into an active, mobile corps of forwards, the steep upside he displayed coming into this past season suggests that he may end up being the best bargain at the top of the first round. If he does make the jump over to the QMJHL this season, he will be provided every opportunity to showcase his talents in an offensively-minded atmosphere that would appear to be tailor-made for a player of his abilities. It might be a few seasons before he becomes a factor in the Florida lineup, but only a handful of players have displayed the intangibles that would draw comparison with a player of Jagr’s caliber. If Frolik can show that 2005-06 was a small bump on the path to the NHL, the Panthers may have found the future face of the franchise.

Brady Calla, RW
Third Round, 73rd Overall, Everett (WHL)
Born: 3-14-1988, Ht: 6’0, Wt: 190 lbs.

A quick, explosive skater, right wing Brady Calla has been one of the flashier players on an Everett team that may eventually graduate a number of prospects into the NHL ranks, including eighth overall selection Peter Mueller (PHO). A blazingly-fast wing whose contributions on the ice are not easily quantifiable on the scoring sheet, the Kelowna, B.C. native has displayed a maturity and intensity that belies his age. A striking example was his performance with the gold-medal Canadian U-18 side at the last World Junior Championships, were Calla was tabbed as an alternate captain and saw significant ice time in all situations.

With a lightning-quick first step and a fifth gear that few players possess, Calla projects to be the type of player who can flourish in the wide-open NHL. That top-end speed and determination shown by the young winger has already drawn attention to his potential. In addition to his selection as the alternate captain on the U-18 Canadian side (where he played on a line with Jordan Staal), Calla was named given the Silvertips’ Ironman Award following an impressive rookie campaign in the WHL in 2004-05, and was invited to participate in the 2006 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. Playing for Team Cherry, Calla recorded the top time in the fastest skater competition for his side, an impressive accomplishment considering the number of top-flight forwards who participated.

For all of his intangibles, however, the intense winger’s hands need to catch up to his feet. In 137 games for Everett, Calla has only managed to pot 19 goals (eight of which came this past season) and 35 assists, totals which dramatically illustrate the primary area for development in his hockey game. While he has continued to progress as a top-end forechecker and defensive forward, Calla needs to add significantly to his offensive prowess if he is to fashion an NHL career. As he already has the requisite speed and drive to create space and opportunities in the offensive zone, developing a more effective scoring touch and playmaking sense are the two key areas for Calla to work on as he prepares to close out his amateur career.

Most likely headed back to Everett this coming winter, Calla will be given plenty more ice time to further his development as an NHL-caliber two-way forward. In much the same way that size cannot necessarily be taught, Calla’s speed is such an asset that he will be hard to overlook when he finally does make the jump to the professional circuit (most likely with an extended internship in the AHL).

Michael Caruso, D
Fourth Round, 103rd Overall, Guelph (OHL)
Born: 5-7-1988, Ht: 6’2, Wt: 191 lbs.

Apart from the pressing need to find a suitable replacement for Luongo in the nets, the most tangible necessity in the Florida system is defense-first prospects along the blue line. While the Panthers waited until the fourth round to address their defensive needs, their selection of Mississauga rearguard Michael Caruso may eventually go a long way to finding solutions in the defensive zone.

Possessed of strong tactical sense and a large frame, Caruso has developed into a dependable defenseman this past season with Guelph, his second in the OHL. While he may never be considered a strong candidate to quarterback a power play (as his lone goal and 18 assists in 122 games with Guelph will attest to), the well-built youngster is strong on the puck and is far from a liability in the offensive zone. Ultimately, though, Caruso drew attention from NHL scouts because of his defensive acumen, physicality and size, all of which were considered to be above-average amongst the defensemen eligible for the draft.

Most likely headed back to Guelph this autumn to continue his matriculation within the OHL, Caruso will need to continue to improve his skating and add more muscle to his already imposing frame. Barring a dramatic regression in his abilities, it seems likely that he will eventually earn a shot in the system after he graduates out of the amateur ranks in a few years’ time.

Derrick Lapoint, D
Fourth Round, 116th Overall, Eau Claire North High School (USHSW)
Born: 5-13-1988, Ht: 6’3, Wt: 175 lbs.

The youngest of the three defensemen taken by the Panthers in the 2006 draft, Wisconsin native Derrick Lapoint was so attractive to Florida that they traded into the bottom of the fourth round to grab him. An enticing package of offensive flash and defensive acumen, Lapoint shot up draft boards this past season during an impressive senior year. Selected as an all-state first team defenseman for the second straight season, Lapoint showed enough ability on the ice and character off it to be named the 2006 Wisconsin High School Player of the Year.

Heavily recruited in his senior season by a number of big hockey programs in the NCAA, Lapoint decided on North Dakota of the WCHA, where his brother is the equipment manager. As he will not be joining the Fighting Sioux until 2007, Lapoint plans on suiting up for Green Bay of the USHL this fall.

The transition to Division I hockey next year will be instrumental in determining how high the ceiling is for Lapoint, who is still something of an unknown quantity given that he has only played, albeit excellently, at the high school level. Blessed with good hockey sense and deft on the puck, Lapoint will need to add significant upper body strength onto his lanky frame at the college level. The Panthers obviously think that Lapoint should be capable of taking the next step down the path towards a future in the NHL.

Peter Aston, D
Sixth Round, 155th Overall, Windsor (OHL)
Born: 2-24-1986, Ht: 6’1, Wt: 205 lbs.

Widely-acknowledged as one of the better offensive defensemen in the OHL this past season, Peter Aston was a key contributor as an overage player for the Windsor Spitfires in 2005-06. After two successful years with Petersborough, the Toronto native was dealt to Windsor 16 games into the season. Assuming a major role with his new team, Aston made the most of his significant ice time to far eclipse his career totals with a 16-goal, 36-assist effort in 65 games, totals which placed him amongst the league leaders on defense for the season.

While Aston was not considered much of an NHL prospect prior to this season, his coming-out party for Petersborough and Windsor in 2005-06 was profound. In addition to posting the best totals of his OHL career, Aston earned a spot in the OHL All-Star Classic alongside players like Bobby Sanguinetti (the first round draft pick of the New York Rangers), and was honored as the first OHL Defenseman of the Month in 2005-06. Virtually coming out of nowhere, the 20-year-old displayed a scoring touch and comfort in the offensive zone that was not evident in his first two years in the OHL (posting a 17-point and 16-point effort with Petersborough).

With a strong 2005-06 campaign under his belt, it could have been seen as a surprise that Aston fell all the way to the second pick of the sixth round. The fact is, however, that the strides made by Aston this past season were seen in some quarters as the result of his development above the level of the teenage-dominated OHL. If Aston had been able to show this much progress in his offensive capabilities as a teen, he would have undoubtedly been selected in the early-to-mid rounds of the draft. Even taking that into account, however, the mobile rearguard did demonstrate a profound improvement across the board in 2005-06, which is eye-opening regardless of age. Transferred to the Oshawa Generals for a second round draft pick after the end of the season, Aston should be given a chance to earn a spot in the AHL or ECHL at some point over the next 16 months.

Marc Cheverie, G
Seventh Round, 193rd Overall, Nanaimo (BCHL)
Born: 2-22-1987, Ht: 6’3 Wt: 183 lbs.

The next-to-last goaltender taken in the 2006 Entry Draft, 19-year-old Marc Cheverie draws the unenviable distinction of being the netminder selected by the Panthers the day after they dealt franchise backstop Roberto Luongo. If Cheverie is to be the eventual inheritor of the starting mantle in the Florida net, his signing of a Letter of Intent to play hockey for the University of Denver in the WCHA starting this autumn pushes back his arrival date in the professional ranks several years.

A tall, lanky goaltender who fills the net but still has room to add upper-body strength, Cheverie opened eyes as a rookie netminder for Nanaimo of the BCHL this past season. Coming off an impressive run in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League (where he was named league MVP for the 2004-05 season), Cheverie split time in the Nanaimo net and earned a spot in the inaugural CJAHL Prospects Game. The Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native continued his excellent play over the course of the Clippers season, posting a 23-9 record with a 2.54 goals against average (good for fifth in the league) and a .903 save percentage.

Headed south of the border to embark on his collegiate career, Cheverie will get every opportunity in the WCHA to continue along his current development track towards an eventual shot at an NHL job. Possessing impressive size and technically sound, Cheverie will need to show that he can handle a full college season. If he can display the same progress at the college level that he did in his step up into the BCHA this past season, Cheverie may very well be a factor in the Florida nets come 2011.

Kevin Forbes, Dustin Nielson and Glen Jackson contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.