NEWARK, N.J. — The 2013 NHL Draft has the makings of a Hollywood story.
The Colorado Avalanche beat the odds-on favorite Florida Panthers in the draft lottery to secure the top pick. Defenseman Seth Jones, the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s top-rated prospect, grew up in Denver. Then-Avs captain and newly named general manager Joe Sakic, who will be making the team’s selection on Sunday, guided Jones in starting his hockey career.
There’s also the duo of Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, dynamic forwards who ranked second and third, respectively, among North American prospects. Paired together during their tenure with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the linemates could find themselves as intrastate rivals if drafted by Florida and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But MacKinnon’s MVP effort during Halifax’s Memorial Cup victory in May has changed the script. What seemed like the most predictable, fitting scenario since Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins landed Sidney Crosby in 2005 has turned into unscripted reality show.
Both Sakic and new head coach Patrick Roy have been making the media rounds, noting if the draft were held today, MacKinnon would be their selection.
That sets up an interesting situation for Florida and Tampa Bay, whose needs are obvious, but have to wait out Colorado’s decision.
On paper, the Avalanche are not in desperate need of offense, with former Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny in the lineup. Colorado’s defense is aging, though, and former first-overall pick Erik Johnson is the lone blueliner under contract beyond 2015.
Sakic’s public crush on MacKinnon could, of course, be as deceptive as the wrist shot the Hall of Famer wielded as a player. Do the Avalanche really want MacKinnon? Or are they trying to lure trade offers which might bring a plethora of NHL-ready youth or veteran experience which Colorado so desperately needs?
As the Panthers know from their own history, dealing the top pick to a team slotted in the top three can net more than just a blue-chip prospect.
In 2002, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded the third overall pick to Florida, along with the option of swapping top picks the following year just to land Rick Nash. A year later, Pittsburgh did the same, sending a package of the third and 55th picks, along with Mikael Samuelsson, to the Panthers so they could select goalie Marc-Andre Fleury first overall.
Florida still ended up with the two choices it wanted — Jay Bouwmeester in 2002 and Nathan Horton in 2003 — but it positioned itself to gain from the shift.
Tampa Bay could get into the mix as well, but the Bolts seem content with letting the drama play itself out.
“The Lightning, at three, is in a good spot,” Darryl Plandowski, the Lightning’s head amateur scout, told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re going to get a good player whatever happens.”
So will the Avalanche and the Panthers.
But what actually gets greenlighted on Sunday remains to be seen.
Needs: Although its defense ranked last in the NHL last season, Florida needs to add NHL-ready offensive talent to complement the playmaking skills of Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau. Since a player of that caliber may be difficult to acquire through free agency or trade without giving up blue-chip prospects — which GM Dale Tallon refuses to do — Florida’s only option is to build through the draft. Tallon’s track record on draft day speaks for itself, though. During his tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cats GM selected Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who are now two-time Stanley Cup champions.
The Panthers are still in the process of developing young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, while Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic are in the Cats’ pipeline. Jones, without a doubt, would bolster the team’s blueline, but defensemen take time to develop, and Florida needs results more than another project at this point.
The perfect scenario: Florida gets MacKinnon. The center is a perfect on-ice companion for Huberdeau. Where as the Calder Trophy winner is more of a playmaker, MacKinnon is more advanced in the all-around game. Huberdeau commented on the center’s skating, saying MacKinnon’s speed an acceleration is something he is still trying to develop. The Panthers pride themselves on being strong up the middle and MacKinnon’s two-way mentality fits in perfectly with coach Kevin Dineen’s system.
Filling the need for a first- or second-line center is high on Florida’s to-do list as it appears the Panthers are going to allow Stephen Weiss to test the free agent market in July. MacKinnon would bring a number of Weiss’ skills to the Panthers’ lineup, but with a much greater offensive upside.
Second-best choice: Drouin. Scoring is always a question mark for the Panthers. If Tallon is unable to land MacKinnon, there is certainly no shame in drafting a player who scored 41 goals and 105 points in an injury-limited 49 games last season. Drouin is a pure offensive forward, and although his numbers suggest he is more of a playmaker, he has the talent to be a dynamic scoring threat. Coupled with any of Florida’s blue-chip youngsters — Huberdeau, Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad — Drouin could become the type of threat Florida has lacked since the days of Pavel Bure.
Sleeper pick: Aleksander Barkov, C. Like MacKinnon, Barkov is strong up the middle, with great puckhandling abilities and vision. As a 17-year-old, he ranked among the top 10 scorers in Finland’s SM-Liiga, with 48 points in 53 games. He’s extremely versatile and adapts well to new linemates, as was evidenced by his performance at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Tallon has never been one to look to Europe when it comes to making his first pick, though. During his time with Chicago and Florida, Tallon GM has always selected a North American player in the first round.
Needs: Defense has been an Achilles’ Heel for Tampa Bay since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003. Finding stability in its own end — especially in net — has been a challenge, despite an overhaul through free agency and trades. The Bolts boasted the NHL’s third-best offense in 2013, with an average of 3.06 goals per game. But they gave up just as many, washing out the efforts of one of the league’s most dynamic offenses.
Although age is becoming a factor up front, the Bolts are stocked with offensive talent at the minor-league level. For the second straight year, Tampa Bay produced the AHL’s Most Valuable Player in Tyler Johnson. (Cory Conacher, now with the Ottawa Senators, won the award in 2012.) Former third-rounder Alex Killorn showed promise during a 38-game stint in Tampa Bay, while Brett Connolly showed growth at the AHL level in his second pro season.
So while this year’s draft is stocked with offensive talent from both North America and Europe, Tampa Bay needs to look past the best-available-player mentality and start to fill the gaping hole in its own end.
The perfect scenario: Tampa bay gets Jones. It may be a stretch for the defenseman to fall to No. 3, but Jones is the type of player who could change the defensive dynamic in Tampa Bay. At 18, he’s already got the size of an NHLer (6-foot-4, 208-pounds). He has the mobility, smarts and poise which make him invaluable in his own end, but also boasts offensive upside that would fit in with Tampa Bay’s high-octane system.
Defenseman are notorious for taking time to develop, but Jones’ skill set could fast track him for success. And with the Bolts having a farm system that can feed its needs elsewhere, Tampa Bay can afford the time it might take for Jones to blossom into the all-star he’s capable of becoming.
Second-best choice: Drouin. At 38, Martin St. Louis keeps racking up scoring titles, but the Lightning have to be cognizant the winger is not going to be part of the team’s long-term plans. Drouin may be the closest player in this draft to a St. Louis clone, from stature to playmaking skills to scoring abilities. The Bolts also have an opening for a top-six forward following the buyout of Vincent Lecavalier.
Many scouts suggested MacKinnon thrived this year because of Drouin’s play. Consider the possibilities of what the Bolts might get out of its younger talent — even two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos — if Drouin ends up in blue and white.
Sleeper pick: Darnell Nurse, D. Like Jones, Nurse has an athletic pedigree — his father, Richard, played with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger Cats and his uncle (via marriage) is former NHL All-Pro quarterback Donovan McNabb. The only characteristic separating Nurse from Jones is 25 pounds. Still, Nurse is a dependable defenseman who likes the physical game. If the Lightning are not in a rush to get Nurse into the lineup, he could develop into the true defensive cornerstone the Bolts have longed for.