Team Report – Florida Panthers
2012 Record: 38-26-18, 94 points, Southeast Division Champions
General Manager: Dale Tallon (Hired May 2010)
Draft Needs: 1. Scoring Talent 2. True Offensive Defenseman 3. Skill Players at Right Wing
Recent Team/GM Draft-History: A distinct demarcation exists in the Florida draft history that separates the franchise into pre-Tallon drafts, and post-Tallon drafts. The pre-Tallon drafts have been stained with disappointments, poor decisions, and unfulfilled promise. The post-Tallon era, though still in its infancy, has been a bountiful success.
In the three years prior to the 2010 draft, Florida team management chose defensemen with their two first-round draft picks: Keaton Ellerby in 2007, and Dmitri Kulikov in 2009. Ellerby struggled this year to find minutes in the bottom pairing for the Panthers, while Kulikov has been a solid, middle-pair puck mover on the Panthers blue line. In 2008, the Panthers used their first pick of the draft (31st overall) to select Jacob Markstrom, a Swedish goaltender poised to become the cornerstone franchise netminder.
In the later rounds, the Panthers tended toward forwards, selecting 11 front line players over three drafts, including the 2009 class in which six forwards joined the organization. The highlights have been forwards selected in the second round–Michal Repik (2007) and Drew Shore (2009)–as well as defensemen Colby Robak (2nd round, 2008) and 5th-round pick Corban Knight, a center from the University of North Dakota (2009). Of the 13 players selected in the 2007 and 2008 drafts, only five players are still affiliated with the Florida organization.
In the two years since Dale Tallon became the Florida GM, the draft has become not a tool, but a weapon in the Florida rebuild arsenal. Twenty three selections, accumulated through a series of trades in which Tallon moved veteran players, prospects from the previous administrations that did not fit his plans and other picks, have given the Panthers arguably the deepest and best prospect pool in the NHL. The talent, variety, and scope of the picks are stunning. In 2010 alone, Tallon had three first-round picks at his disposal: 3rd overall was used on stalwart defensemen Eric Gudbranson who played 72 games for Florida this season; 19th overall went to Nick Bjugstad, the big, smooth-skating top-line forward who finished among the NCAA leaders in goal scoring in 2011-12, and 25th overall was used on Quinton Howden, the speedy scorer from the WHL who nearly made the Panthers NHL squad last fall. Jonathan Huberdeau—selected 3rd overall in 2011—dominated the QMJHL in 2011-12, scoring at a remarkable 1.88 points-per-game pace. The remaining picks in those two drafts were used on a wide variety of players, from the high-risk, high-reward offensive dynamo Rocco Grimaldi with last year’s 33rd overall pick, to the steady goaltender for the University of Denver, Sam Brittain, taken with the 92nd overall pick in 2010.
Prospect/Youth Assessment: The forwards within the Florida organization start with true stability and depth down the middle. In two draft classes, Dale Tallon has selected six centermen, all of whom would appear to have legitimate chances of becoming NHL forwards. Players like Huberdeau and Bjugstad, Drew Shore and Vincent Trocheck (2011), give the Florida system size, grit, scoring ability, and speed up the middle. Rocco Grimaldi (2011) and Kyle Rau (2011) were both drafted as centers, but will likely shift to the wings for their professional careers, which only serves to increase the depth and potential at wing. On the left-wing side, Quinton Howden (2010) looks like a solid second-line contributor with first-line upside, and there is a good chance that Huberdeau will shift to that wing, as well. Right wing lacks any true standout offensive prospects, but players like Joonas Donskoi (Finnish national selected 99th in 2010) and 2007 pick Michal Repik give them some scoring punch while and Logan Shaw (2011) gives the pipeline size and skating ability on the right side. Grade: A
The embarrassment of riches continues on defense. Kulikov and Gudbranson have solidified their places in the NHL, and Ellerby is still working on doing the same. In the pipeline, the Panthers have two more stellar prospects in Alex Petrovic (2010), one of the top defensemen in the WHL, and Colby Robak (2008), an AHL All-Star in 2011-12. Both are big, solid defenders with good offensive upside, but the pool as a whole lacks a true offensive defenseman. Grade: B+
If having such a deep and talented pool of prospects at forward and defense is not enough, how about adding what many consider to be the best goaltender prospect in the world into the mix? Jacob Markstrom commands the crease. He stands 6’6 now, a full two inches taller than when he was drafted in 2008. His technical skills are superb, and his lateral movement and quickness are excellent, especially for a man his size. Perhaps more importantly, Markstrom seems to have no lingering effects from recent knee surgeries. Behind Markstrom, Sam Brittain (2010) looks like he could one day crack an NHL lineup, and Brian Foster (2005) could be a decent emergency backup. However, the Panthers get a bit thin after Brittain, and will probably look to add a young goaltender to the system. Grade: A
Organizational Assessment: The Panthers made a big splash during the free-agency period in the summer of 2011, signing multiple veteran players to weighty contracts in order to first meet the salary floor constraints, and second, provide the team with short-term talent and playoff potential. The signings were derided by many at the time as questionable at best (irresponsible at worst), but like many decisions Tallon has made over the years, the free agents have done all that was expected of them. The Panthers made the playoffs this season for the first time in 11 seasons, and for only the second time since 1996-97.
Tallon has stated on multiple occasions that prospects will no longer be rushed into the NHL, and his moves during the offseason went a long way toward verifying those statements. However, as Gudbranson proved this season, the team is willing to bring young players to the NHL if they have proved that they are truly ready for the pace and physicality of the world’s top hockey league.
The Panthers are led up front by center Stephen Weiss. The ten-year veteran and former 4th overall pick scored 20 goals this year with 37 helpers. Free agent acquisitions Tomas Fleischmann (61 points) and Kris Versteeg (54 points) helped Weiss carry the bulk of the scoring. Versteeg will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, while Weiss (2013) and Fleischmann (2015) are locked up for a couple of more years. Still, many contracts expire this season for forwards currently manning the second, third and fourth lines, which could open up spots for young players if they can prove they are ready.
The organization has a similar feel on defense. Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski were signed in the offseason, and Campbell especially performed at a high level for the Panthers. Both are signed through at least the 2014-2015 season (Campbell through 2015-16) but at 35 years of age, Jovanovski may not play out his entire contract. With Gudbranson and Kulikov already penciled into the lineup, at least four spots appear to be locked up for next year’s squad. Jason Garrison will be an unrestricted free agent, and Keaton Ellerby’s contract is also set to expire, making room for decent roster battles this fall.
In goal, current starter Jose Theodore is signed through the 2012-13 season, but backup Scott Clemmensen will become a free agent this summer, opening the door for Jacob Markstrom to finally become a permanent NHLer.
2012 Picks – Four (plus one conditional)
First Round: One (FLA)
Second Round: + (Discretional FLA)
Third Round: One (FLA)
Fourth Round: One (FLA)
Fifth Round: None
Sixth Round: One (FLA)
Seventh Round: None
This Article was written by Brian Fogarty. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Fogarty