The Florida Panthers seem to be an organization that reaches a crossroads every few years. Making the playoffs in 2011-12 should have signified a club turning the corner and creating some forward momentum, but consecutive seasons near the league basement proved that success was short lived. Now the Panthers look fairly far away from true competitiveness despite a core of young players that should bring optimism if nothing else.
That makes this offseason so important for a team that now has a legitimate No. 1 goaltender in Roberto Luongo and the aforementioned promising youth at their remaining positions. They also have the first overall pick in this year's NHL Draft, which suggests the Panthers could take some steps toward putting a team on the ice next season that is a fair bit better than the one that amassed 66 points in 2013-14 and cost two coaches their jobs.
That No. 1 pick, more than anything else, gives general manager Dale Tallon options. He can use the pick, nabbing an NHL-ready player that could help contribute as soon as next season, even if at a fairly minimal level. The other choice and one that Tallon himself has been vocal about exploring is to trade the No. 1 pick for a package that would absolutely have to include a solid roster player and perhaps a bit more.
Reports suggest that if the Panthers are going to keep the pick, they will select the top defenseman available in Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. The 18-year-old comes in at 6-feet-4, 214 pounds and two years ago was granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 15. He was the first defenseman to be granted such a designation that had previously belonged to John Tavares alone. With that status has come a lot of hype for Ekblad, who has had to play under the microscope over the past three seasons in the OHL and has more than risen to the occasion.
According to Darren Dreger of TSN, at least eight teams have shown interest in acquiring the top selection. With the Panthers reportedly taking Ekblad if they hold onto the pick, Dreger's report gives a pretty good idea that there are a lot of teams that want to get this particular player into the fold. Teams looking for a top defenseman or one that wants to guarantee nabbing one of the top forwards among Sam Bennett or Sam Reinhart would have to front a fairly high price to get this pick from the Panthers.
What the Panthers have to decide now is how much they can get back in a trade against the possibility of Ekblad becoming a cornerstone defenseman around which they could continue to build their team. It's not necessarily an easy choice.
The first thing Panthers brass and the scouting staff have to determine is whether or not they believe Ekblad is a future No. 1 defenseman and a guy that will be a top player in the league for a long time. How often do you hear good defensemen are hard to find during free agency and near the trading deadline? It's one of the most frequently uttered phrases out there.
However, one of the most frequently uttered phrases when it comes to the draft is that defense prospects tend to take longer to develop and therefore have a higher risk factor when looking at the top of the draft. That's probably why Ekblad is not the consensus No. 1 pick. In fact, really no player is.
According to NHL Central Scouting services, Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs is the No. 1-ranked skater for the upcoming draft. International Scouting Services has Sam Reinhart as the No. 1 player. Both have Ekblad at No. 2. McKeen's Hockey also had Reinhart at No. 1 in May, with Ekblad third. Craig Button, a former Calgary Flames GM and current draft analyst for TSN, has Reinhart at No. 1 as well, while the Hockey News has Bennett as the top pick. The only major draft analyst that has Ekblad at No. 1 is ESPN's Corey Pronman, but the well-connected analyst says most teams he has talked to also have Ekblad at the top.
It seems that everyone is scared of the No. 1 defenseman. That's why over the past decade, only one defenseman has been taken with the top pick. That was the St. Louis Blues selecting Erik Johnson first overall in 2006. He was the first blueliner taken with the top pick in a decade (Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators, 1996). The Blues ended up trading Johnson away a few years later as he never reached the lofty expectations a top pick automatically has put on him, though injuries may have been at fault for derailing that career rise.
Forwards tend to bring more value as they produce points and are a little safer to project. There are more of them on a team, obviously, and the learning curve does not appear as steep. But in this draft year, one that is widely considered far weaker than its 2013 counterpart, this might be the year that the defenseman at No. 1 is the best bet.
Ekblad put up 53 points last season in Barrie, including 23 goals. He has improved his point total in each of his three years in the OHL. As he told the Buffalo Sabres in a combine meeting filmed by NHL.com, he believes he can play in the league next season and that seems to be the general belief among scouts as well.
The major knock on Ekblad is that he doesn't have a very high ceiling, as in he may not be much better than he is right now over the course of his career. Though Ekblad disputed that claim in the Sabres interview, it is a valid concern as he is physically a man playing against less-developed peers in junior.
So there's more of a risk factor there, but unlike in last year's draft, when Seth Jones fell to the Predators at No. 4, the forwards aren't blowing anyone away like Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov did. In terms of long-term impact, Ekblad appears to be the best prospect by default as there remains a chance he becomes a franchise-leading defenseman.
The Panthers actually have a fairly robust cabinet of strong prospects at forward as well, including roster players from last season in Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Vince Trocheck, Drew Shore and Brandon Pirri. You can never have enough top forwards in the mix, but that's another reason the risk of selecting Ekblad is slightly cushioned.
That youth on the Panthers' everyday roster, however, doesn't help in terms of putting together a competitive lineup in the short term. They have solid veteran players like Luongo and defenseman Brian Campbell (who may or may not want out of town), but they lack high-end veteran forwards and they could probably use one, particularly a winger with scoring ability.
The reason Tallon may be tempted at moving the pick is that Ekblad gets the team no closer to competitiveness in the short term and there's no guarantee he would in the long term, either. There are no guarantees with draft picks in general. Finding some proven players that can contribute immediately, supplement the young talent and maybe even getting another pick out of the deal could help in both the short term and long term.
This may be one of those situations in which the Panthers can't go wrong. Keep the pick, take Ekblad and he may turn out to a franchise star. Trade the pick for a valuable roster player and another pick or some variation of that package and you're filling an immediate need. That is of course as long as Tallon can get the right value for the pick, which should remain high even in what is considered a weaker draft year.
There are many scenarios left to play out this week, but as the NHL Entry Draft looms, this is going to be one of the bigger storylines in the coming days.