A draft pick the Panthers can’t pass up on

Defenceman Aaron Ekblad is projected to be drafted in the top three this year. (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

I put two questions about the top of the NHL Draft to a few scouts this week; one received a consensus response, the other an assortment of answers.

Question No. 1: Who will the Florida Panthers take with the first overall pick in June, their consolation prize coming out of the lottery? To a one, the scouts are working on the assumption that Florida will take Barrie defenceman Aaron Ekblad.

Question No. 2: Who is the best player available? This was somewhat all over the map. A couple said Ekblad would stand as the BPA. A couple said that they’d nominate Kingston’s Sam Bennett. Another said he’d look at Kootenay’s Sam Reinhart.

The take-away from this: The Panthers’ pick of Ekblad would be defensible by both the BPA and team need.

No one gives much thought to the lowly Panthers — out of sight, out of mind. The last time they were visible in any way in particular was a couple of years ago when they made the playoffs for the first time this century and took New Jersey, an eventual finalist, to Game 7 overtime. This is to say that if you’re not fully up to speed on the Panthers’ recent draft history, you are forgiven.

If Ekblad is the first overall pick, he will become the fifth defenceman to be selected with Florida’s first pick in the last eight seasons. The row of defencemen falling like dominoes goes like this: Keaton Ellerby with the 10th overall pick in 2007 (since departed); Dmitry Kulikov 14th in 2009, currently with the Panthers; Erik Gudbranson third in 2010, also in the Florida line-up; and Mike Matheson 21st overall in 2012, with Boston College at present.

This looks like D-heavy drafting but dig down slightly deeper and it seems even more so. In the last six seasons, the Panthers have selected defenceman in the second round a total of four times and at least a couple of these were barely out of the top 30: Colby Robak 46th overall in 2008, a journeyman splitting time between the Panthers and the AHL the last three seasons; Alex Petrovic 36th in 2010, who has played 13 games over the last two season with the big club; Rasmus Bengtsson 59th in 2011, who split time between the USHL and Sweden the last two seasons; and Ian McCoshen 31st last June, who played with Matheson at Boston College last season.

This is to say that there are a heckuva lot of defencemen in the pipeline … so, where’s the need?

Moreover, last year the sea parted and Seth Jones, clearly the top D-man in the draft pool and, in the estimation of some, the best long-run prospect in the class of 2013, was available to the Panthers with the second overall pick. You could make a case that Jones had performed even better as an underager at the world juniors than would Ekblad the following year. No matter, Florida GM Dale Tallon tapped Finnish centre Alexander Barkov. Yeah, the thinking at the time was that Barkov was more ready than the rest to step into a NHL line-up but still, it’s hard to see how this has become a crying need from one season to the next — hard but not impossible.

Florida has lost often enough and badly enough to sour talent that should be enriched by experience. The Panthers hit at least a triple when they drafted Kulikov, a kid who stepped right into the line-up at 18. But now relations between the team and Kulikov have gone sideways. He was one player whose name floated out there around the NHL Trade Deadline and his contract is expiring. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll be there in the long term.

Gudbranson’s development into an NHLer across his first three seasons didn’t keep pace with Kulikov’s. Injuries were an issue which might be more forgivable if he hadn’t done up his shoulder in a wake-boarding accident. His play disappointed enough that he was a healthy scratch on occasion last season. Even based on the rosiest projections in his draft year, some scouts — if not most — wondered if there was enough skill in Gudbranson’s stick to think that he’d by a franchise defenceman. A great No. 3, physically-punishing shut-down guy? Sure. But someone who can start offence, join a rush or look good on the point of the first power play unit? Even scouts who liked him a lot didn’t envision him evolving into that. Maybe he’ll show something with the Canadian team heading to the world championships. Might be the tonic he needs.

The progress of defencemen, even elite defencemen, is incremental, their transition from junior to the pros. I’d bank on Kulikov and Gudbranson being productive players down the line. Franchise defencemen … uh, no. Maybe there was hope that they’d make a big step up this past season and thus the Panthers could pass by Jones. This year, they have to bite on Ekblad.

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