Since Dale Tallon took over as Florida Panthers GM in 2010, there has been a strong emphasis on stockpiling draft picks and young talent.
In that stretch, Florida has rebuilt its farm system with 36 picks in five years, including six first-rounders and 12 picks in the second- through third-round range.
With the Panthers transitioning from the more veteran squad built by Tallon during the offseason in 2011, fans are only starting to get a look at these highly coveted prospects — and there is still a pipeline of talent yet to transition to the pros.
Florida, historically, drafted players with high upside who never quite met expectations. Stephen Weiss was described as the next Steve Yzerman. Nathan Horton was projected to be a 50-goal scorer. Jay Bouwmeester, a future Norris Trophy candidate.
Under Tallon, though, the upside of prospects is not just talk. In several cases, Florida’s blue-chip talent has exceeded early developmental projections.
The Panthers’ top picks from the past five years are no older than 23 and most are already filling in top roles. As with all young players, there still room to growth or decline. But in the short time these prospects have skated for Florida, it looks like Tallon has hit significant bullseyes in building through the draft.
2013: C Aleksander Barkov, second overall (A): Overshadowed by North American prospects Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones in his draft year, the Finn ended up being the most well-rounded, NHL-ready prospect of the bunch. It took Barkov about six weeks to adjust to the North American style of play, but once he did, the 18-year-old showed incredible maturity at both ends of the ice. By December, Barkov found himself centering Florida’s top line. He steadily climbed among rookie scoring leaders and earned an invite to play for Team Finland at the 2014 Winter Olympics. In Sochi, he centered the top line of the eventual bronze medalists, but a knee injury ended his tournament — and season. Teammates compared the rookie’s level of skill to John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron — and again, Barkov is only 18. As Tallon said in his year-end, state-of-the-team conference, he knew the pivot was good, but didn’t realize exactly how good. Having a healthy Barkov next season should truly reveal what he is capable of and how much additional upside the youngster has.
2012: D Michael Matheson, 23rd overall (I): Matheson has yet to sign with Florida, though his rights are protected because he is an NCAA athlete. Despite rumors Matheson was set to join Florida this spring, the Boston College defenseman chose to return for his junior season. That’s just fine with Florida, which has shown no desire to rush its prospects, especially defensemen or those playing at the collegiate level. In Matheson’s two seasons with the Eagles, Matheson has registered 11 goals and 35 assists in 74 games. In his sophomore campaign, he earned Hockey East and AHCA East First-Team All-American honors. He is often paired with Eagles teammate — and Florida’s 2013 second-round pick Ian McCoshen — which has to please the Panthers. The strong-skating blueliner will captain Boston College during his junior season.
2011: W Jonathan Huberdeau, third overall (A): The first Calder Trophy winner in franchise history, Huberdeau faced incredible adversity during his sophomore campaign. From a coaching change to a shift in roles and the occasional injury, the winger felt at times not much was going his way. But he still managed 28 points — just three off his rookie-year total of 31. Huberdeau learned to become more accountable in his own end and dropped his plus-minus rating from a minus-15 to a minus-5. And despite being one of the smaller players on Florida’s roster, he increased his physicality, even registering his first NHL fight. Call Huberdeau’s second year exactly what it was: a sophomore slump. But he’s still an elite talent and has shown the fortitude to work through struggles.
2010: D Erik Gudbranson, third overall (B): Tallon, a former NHL defenseman, says it takes a blueliner about 300 games to really understand and develop his craft. Gudbranson is a little more than halfway there, and has shown the ups and downs as expected. Gudbranson set the bar incredibly high in Florida’s 2012 playoff appearance, logging top pairing minutes while displaying an elite level of play as a rookie. An injury-shortened campaign during the lockout set him back, and even the start of last season seemed difficult for Gudbranson. During the last two weeks of the season, something clicked. He earned at least 20 minutes of ice time in five of his last seven games and finished with two points and a plus-3 rating. Numbers aside, its his locker room presence and work ethic that have set the tone among his young peers. He’s a 22-year-old who holds himself to the standard of a long-time veteran, and teammates have acknowledged this. Exactly what kind of defenseman — offensive, workhorse, shutdown — Gudbranson develops into at the NHL level remains to be seen. But leadership-wise, he will eventually assume the role as Florida’s captain.
2010: C Nick Bjugstad, 19th overall (A): If one were to describe Bjugstad’s rookie season, exhausting might be an apt word. Yet despite playing close to double the games in his transition from the college ranks to the NHL, Bjugstad excelled. Like Barkov, Bjugstad surpassed Tallon’s expectations. The 6-foot-6, 218-pound pivot led Florida in scoring with 38 points and tied for second in goals with 16. He missed training camp with a concussion and was expected to start the season in San Antonio (AHL). Solid play upon his return made Bjugstad a lock as the team’s second line center. He eventually shifted to the top line after Barkov went down with an injury. Bjugstad never went more than five games without a point — something he did just once during his rookie campaign. Prior to the Olympic break, Bjugstad produced consistently, picking up single points. After the break, he registered four multi-point games, but contributed less frequently. Now prepared with a better understanding of how to survive the NHL grind, Bjugstad has all the tools and drive to combine his consistent and prolific play.
2010: W Quinton Howden, 25th overall (C): After two years in the pros, Howden’s offensive production appears to have stagnated. He failed to build on his respectable rookie campaign with San Antonio, posting three fewer goals in two more games. But when given a chance at the NHL level, Howden produced four goals and two assists in 16 games despite not taking on more than a third-line role in Florida. He boasts blazing speed and a solid two-way mentality. It is difficult to say how much more upside Howden might have. Right now, what the Panthers see is what they get.
2009: D Dmitry Kulikov, 14th overall (D): During his first two seasons in the NHL, the replacement for Bouwmeester appeared to be trending upward as an offensive defenseman despite being on some bad Florida teams. After those years, Kulikov might have earned a B. But in the seasons since inking a two-year deal with the Panthers, Kulikov’s production has dropped off and he has become a greater liability in his own end. The Russian led Florida with 47 giveaways last season and posted a team-worst minus-26 rating. It isn’t that Kulikov lacks skill. He has a booming shot that Florida so desperately needs at the point and good puck moving skills — when he hits the right target. Drafted by former Cats GM Randy Sexton, Kulikov did not exactly receive a vote of confidence from Tallon at the end of last season. Kulikov has reached Tallon’s 300-game plateau, and the defenseman’s body of work is more frustrating than promising. A restricted free agent this summer, Kulikov’s tenure with the Panthers may soon come to an end, especially with a long line of defensive prospects working to crack Florida’s roster.
W Josh Birkholz, 2009, third round, 67th overall: Shifting to the next level has always seemed difficult for Birkholz, maybe because he’s done it so often. The winger went from the USHL to NCAA to the WHL before signing a pro deal with the Panthers in a span of five seasons. In the two years since, he’s spent most of that with Cincinnati (ECHL), with last season being his best (14 goals, 15 assists in 52 games). Finding gems past the second round can be hit or miss, and until Birkholz spends more time at the AHL level, it is hard to categorize this pick as a good one.
W John McFarland, 2010 second round, 33rd overall: The winger earned recognition as a top prospect before initial rankings were released in 2010, and since then, his stature has declined. He was compared to Brenden Morrow prior to the draft and Benoit Pouliot a little bit after. Both comparisons seem exceedingly optimistic at this point given that the former Team Canada standout has split time between San Antonio and Cincinnati. McFarland registered 24 points in 45 games with the Rampage, so maybe his development has progressed. But with later-round picks such as Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli (47th overall) and Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher (147th overall) having blossomed already, McFarland’s stock appears to have been overrated.
C Vincent Trocheck, 2011, third round, 64th overall: When Tallon drafted Trochek in 2011, the center had posted average season with Saginaw (OHL), posting 26 goals and 36 assists in 68 games — respectable numbers for a mid-round pick out of major junior. Those numbers jumped to 85 points in his first post-draft season, then skyrocketed to 50 goals and 109 points in the campaign following. Trocheck also excelled at the international level that season, with six points in seven games for Team USA at the World Junior Championship. His pro debut was equally successful, with 42 points in 55 games with San Antonio. A late-season call up in 2014, Trocheck found himself logging an average of just under 19 minutes per contest and on the ice in all situations, from special teams to crucial defensive-zone draws in a 20-game stint. Florida likes Trocheck’s well-rounded style of play, but if the center can come anywhere close to his numbers in juniors, this pick will be regarded as an absolute steal.
D MacKenzie Weegar, 2013 seventh round, 206th overall: Signed by Florida in late May, Weegar is expected to make his professional debut next season. He ended up on scouts radars thanks to the play of Halifax (QMJHL) stars MacKinnon and Drouin. But were his 44 points in 2012-13 a fluke? Apparently not. With only Drouin, Weegar emerged as the Moosehead’s top defenseman, posting 59 points and plus-56 rating. He added another 22 points in the postseason. Will Weegar develop into the next, say, Brian Campbell? It is too early to say, but consider only four seventh-rounders have made it to the NHL since 2009. The fact Weegar is making the jump to the pros at 19 suggests this selection, right now, cannot be considered throw away pick.
The breakdown of the past five drafts and how many players remain with the Panthers is as follows:
2013: 8 players drafted/1 on current roster/2 under contract