The Florida Panthers announced the signing of their first 2013 draft pick, Aleksander Barkov, to an entry-level three-year contract. This was not exactly a surprise but it was a clear indicator that Florida general manager Dale Tallon is departing from his usual policy of not rushing draft picks to the NHL.
Clearly, his Panthers need all the help they can get and young Barkov may be a perfect fit at a bargain price as compared to the free-agent market.
When Tallon approached the podium at the draft in Newark, the hockey observers at the Prudential Center expected to hear Seth Jones’ name called. Jones was rated No. 1 or No. 2 by most scouting services, alternating with Nathan MacKinnon, who had already been selected by Colorado with the No. 1 pick.
It was no secret that Tallon coveted MacKinnon and thought he would be able to land him with his No. 2 pick. The Denver-raised Jones, a defenseman, seemed a natural fit for the Avs until their scouts dropped hints that they preferred a forward.
There were collective gasps in Newark when Tallon not only let Jones pass, but also skipped the No.3-rated player Jonathan Drouin and announced the selection of Barkov.
The Florida scouting staff studied this one carefully and was high on Barkov, who is not yet 18 and played in the top Finnish pro league last year, averaging almost a point per game as a two-way forward. NHL Central Scouting rated Barkov the No. 1 European skater. Tallon made a point of saying he wanted someone who can have an immediate impact with the Panthers.
Tallon explained that his choice of Barkov over both Jones and Drouin was a tough decision after a lot of intense scouting and interviewing. Barkov does not turn 18 until this September, yet the Florida brass thinks he can play in the NHL now.
”He played against men as a 16 and 17-year-old.” Tallon went on to call Barkov “a big centerman with skill that plays both ends of the ice,” a skill which “fits in with what we have in our system.”
As for passing on Jones, Tallon did not have to say it but young defensemen have been known to take longer to develop. He did, however, cite the large number of young, NHL-caliber defenders in the Cats' system. The acquisition of Jones would mean moving personnel or a loss of ice time for some.
Drouin, who was selected fourth by the rival Tampa Bay Lightning, could have been a Panther but the Cats’ scouting staff preferred Barkov’s 6’3”and 205-pound physique to Droiun’s 5’11,” 176-pound frame. The general manager discounted Barkov’s season-ending shoulder surgery as a mere blip.
“Guys come back stronger after surgery,” Tallon reasoned. “He’ll fit right in with us. We had 10 surgeries this year,” in an obvious reference to the Panthers’ injury-laden past season.
Lost in all of this is the reality that the Panthers are now top-heavy in centers, which might have been the reason Tallon was unwilling to negotiate an acceptable contract with mainstay Stephen Weiss, allowing him to sign with Detroit.
Last year’s Rookie of the Year, center Jonathan Huberdeau, is a potential superstar despite being somewhat slight of build. Other mid-ice men include big Shawn Matthias, who had a breakout season and was rewarded with a new contract. This leaves veteran Marcel Goc, second-year man Drew Shore and Nick Bjugstad, who had a taste of the NHL last year, competing with Barkov for the final two center slots. Also in the mix is highly-rated prospect Quinton Howden as well as Vincent Trocheck, last season’s Ontario Hockey League MVP, who impressed in the recent development camp. Peter Mueller, who had a commendable comeback year with the Cats last season, has thus far not been offered a new contract, although Tallon has not ruled out a return.
This logjam at center ice creates a healthy competition. There is very little room for error when you are auditioning for a job in the NHL.
Barkov is still rehabbing from his shoulder surgery, so he was unable to do more than light skating at the recent development camp. When camp ended, Tallon reaffirmed his faith in his draft pick. “He wants to be here,” Tallon said. “He’s way beyond his years as far as maturity. I’m anxious to get him playing.”
Alan Greenberg is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.