SUNRISE, Fla. – Three days shy of a full, 365 calendar year, the 2019-20 NHL season finally came to an end Monday when the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup.
The double bubble marathon is over.
So, sit back, relax…take a deep breath. You’ve earned it.
Now get your butt back up, because the new season is almost upon us!
The 2020 NHL Draft will be held virtually next week, now that the league is beginning to churn ahead with its expedited October offseason.
As the Florida Panthers head into the draft with a new general manager running the ship, a predictable, not-so-quiet message arises among the fans that perhaps this GM will be one that can nail the draft. You know, grabbing that mid-first round pick that can immediately contribute, or not missing on the future All-Star taken three picks after your selection in the fourth round…those totally reasonable, realistic expectations that never seem to be met, but are held up by many as a standard for success.
Okay, I’m going to start this with an obvious statement that seems to get lost in the wind among many sports fans: drafting is not easy.
There is no scientific equation to follow, or crystal ball to look into for guidance.
The best scouts in the world will tell you that a can’t miss prospect comes along maybe once or twice a decade, and most will hesitate to use that kind of phrasing.
General managers will be scrutinized beyond belief for missing on a first round selection, despite the fact that the majority of GMs also miss on those picks.
That’s why when looking out over the grand scope of 232 Florida Panthers draft choices over the past 27 years, picking out the cream of the crop was relatively easy.
Well, it was easier once the decision was made what ‘best draft pick’ would amount to in the context of this story.
This isn’t a list of the greatest Panthers draft selections that excelled on the ice for another franchise due to a trade or late blooming.
It’s also obviously not for any players that Florida acquired who were drafted elsewhere.
This is strictly a list of Panthers players that were drafted and developed by the franchise, for the franchise.
If said player eventually moved on to another club but still had a significant impact during their time with Florida, that works.
Considering how hit-or-miss the draft can be, ‘success’ isn’t necessarily going to be measured by points or wins because this is, after all, the Panthers, and if you’re reading this, you are probably well aware of the overall success, or lack thereof, that the franchise has seen over the past three decades, both in team accolades and individual achievements.
So, with an open mind, and understanding the absolute lack of actual science behind it, here’s my list of greatest Florida Panthers draft picks, with bonus commentary from a couple of well-known former players who skated a combined 1,073 games in a Panthers sweater, including several with the guys on this list, and who know this franchise better than most.
BEST OF THE BEST
Aaron Ekblad – The former first overall pick has rounded into a player that any NHL GM would love to have locked up long term. The 24-year-old has somehow already played six years in the league and has figured out how to improve and excel on the ice while leading the team in minutes and playing shutdown defense against opposing teams' top skaters.
As his defensive game has blossomed, Ekblad has been able to maintain a strong offensive presence from the blue line, but even that element is starting to reach new heights.
Despite his power play time drastically decreasing thanks to Florida utilizing a four-forward approach and playing behind Keith Yandle the past two years, Ekblad has continued to produce on the offensive end. He notched a career-high 36 assists and 41 points during the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season in which he played a career-low 67 games, and he did it while playing the fewest power play minutes of his career.
With a Hall of Fame head coach to help hone his skills and hockey IQ, we could just be scratching the surface of Ekblad’s ultimate potential.
“He’s proven his worth as a former first overall pick, and it certainly looks like the best is still to come,” said Bill Lindsay, former Panthers winger and current team radio analyst. “He’s still only 24 years old and he’s already playing at an extremely high level and has shown improvements year over year.”
Stephen Weiss – One of the oldest but still well-renowned hockey fables is the one of the hard-working, talented veteran who, at the end of a noble, distinguished career is rewarded with a run to the Stanley Cup. Stephen Weiss got the Panthers version of that.
He endured some of the toughest seasons in franchise history, whether they were a near-miss of a coveted-yet-unattainable playoff spot or a year in which a run toward the postseason was a lost cause by Christmas.
Weiss scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game on his 19th birthday while wearing No. 19 (he’d switch to No. 9 the following year), a storybook start to his 11-year NHL career that was ultimately cut short due to injury. He remains the franchise leader with 654 games played in a Panthers sweater, and the lasting memory of his Florida tenure will always be the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New Jersey Devils, and the emotion and effort put fourth during those seven games.
“He was a good two-way player that had good vision of the game and a great hockey sense,” said Panthers scoring legend Olli Jokinen, who played six seasons with Weiss in Florida and had the primary assist on his birthday debut goal. “He was a guy that could play on the power play, he could play PK and would’ve had a much longer career if injuries hadn’t played a part. When he was in his prime, he was a guy that a lot of teams would’ve taken with open arms because he could play both sides of the puck, he can move up and down in the lineup and he could score. He was a great guy and a great teammate. When I left, it was like the torch was passed to Weisser, and he was the guy here for those next few years. It was great to see that he got that opportunity to play in the playoffs in a Panthers uniform because I know that it meant a lot to him, like it would have for all of us at the time that were trying to get in to the playoffs, because we were here for a long, long time.”
Ed Jovanovski – Is there any question that Jovo should be among the best of the best? He had an immediate and profound impact on the franchise’s most successful season ever, has mind-blowingly been on more than half of the Panthers playoff teams (three out of five), including in 2012 when, as captain, he led Florida back to the promised land for the first time in 12 years.
“He came in with a lot of promise as a first overall pick and immediately made an impact his rookie season, which was the year we went to the Stanley Cup Final,” said Lindsay, Jovanovski’s former Panthers teammate and now broadcasting colleague. “You could see the maturation process throughout the season. He was a little green the first half of the year, but he continued to get better and when we got to the playoffs, he was just a dynamite force, a guy that was a wrecking ball that paid huge dividends in that series against Philadelphia and Eric Lindross. I think that was kind of his coming out party, where you could tell he had all the skills and all the confidence, and from there he was just able to build on it and become one of the top defensemen in the game. But that rookie year, if he doesn’t come in and explode onto the scene like that, what are the chances of us making the Stanley Cup Final? Probably not very good. That was the importance of him to our franchise and what he meant. He was an exceptional teammate with leadership qualities, someone that was always there for you.”
Jonathan Huberdeau/Sasha Barkov – They may be young, but Sasha and Huby are absolutely two of the best players to ever put on a Panthers sweater. These two All-Stars are still blossoming in the league and are going to play a big part if the franchise is going to take the next step. Whether or not that happens will decide how their Panthers stories are ultimately told.
“They’re starting to hit their prime years, so expectations are high,” Lindsay said. “Now it’s on them, and the next step is they have to be able to lead teams into the playoffs. You can bring in supporting players, but these guys have to be able to lead and produce during the regular season and get this team over the hump. The things that they’ve done so far, Huberdeau is the all-time leading scorer now and Barkov is going to be number two pretty soon, so you can’t deny the numbers they’ve been able to put up. We’ll see where these two guys finish up at the end. It’s amazing that they’re still just 25 and 27 years old and have maybe another 11-12 years left in this league, which is incredible to think about.”
SECOND TIER - NO COMPLAINTS HERE
Jay Bouwmeester – Some of Bouwmeester’s best years were spent on some very bad Panthers teams, but that doesn’t take away from just how well the big, brooding defenseman played while in Florida (his 2006-07 season in particular comes to mind).
The fact that Bouwmeester left the Panthers after six great seasons and he continued playing at a top-pairing level for another decade shows that Florida absolutely got it right by drafting him third overall in 2002, and you can’t really blame the guy for taking the opportunity to sign a big contract with Calgary (in his home province of Alberta) after some extremely tough years in Sunrise.
“You could see from day one that this guy was going to have a long career in the league,” said Jokinen, who actually played with Bouwmeester in Calgary and St. Louis after they were teammates in Florida. “His skating, his fitness, his commitment to the game was something you very rarely see from the young guys. He was like an 18-year-old kid going on 25, the way he carried himself on and off the ice. Early on, it helped that Sandis Ozolinsh was here; he helped Bo’s game a lot. He got to see the way Ozo was playing, how he prepared, how he would join the rush, stuff like that. Bo was a victim of not having enough quality players around him. He was on a level on his own with our defensemen. If he would’ve been in a bigger market at first instead of Florida, we would be talking about a Hall of Fame defensemen. He was that good.”
Rob Niedermayer – Florida’s first ever draft pick was the perfect mix of skill and grit to personify the successful early Panthers teams he played on, and it was never more on display than during the Stanley Cup Final season of 1995-96. Not only did Niedermayer post career-high numbers in goals, assists and (obviously) points, he also logged his only season with more than 100 penalty minutes. Nearly half of his 17-year career that spanned 1,153 NHL games was spent in South Florida.
“He was a guy that everything was like water off a duck’s back, whether it was media scrutiny or anything, it wasn’t going to bother him,” recalled Lindsay, who shared a house with Niedermeyer at one point during their time with the Panthers. “He’s a salt of the earth guy, you can’t really say a bad thing about him. As high as he was picked, some people maybe don’t think that he lived up to the full expectations offensively. He was derailed by injures a little bit during the course of his career, but the highlight for him was he really turned himself into an incredible two-way player once he got healthy. Then getting a chance to not only play with his brother Scott in Anaheim, but to win a Stanley Cup together, that was the ultimate for him.”
Radek Dvorak – An important rookie in the ’96 run to the Stanley Cup Final, Dvorak has been among the Panthers franchise leaders in multiple scoring categories despite playing more than half his career elsewhere. Did you know Radek has played the second-most games of any Panthers player? He’s still in the top ten in goals, points, even-strength goals and shots, and he’s the franchise leader with 16 shorthanded goals.
“By the time I played with him his second time in Florida, he’d already had a really long career,” Jokinen said. “He’s such a great skater. D-Vo’s strength is that he could play with the skill players, he had elite skill himself, good scoring touch and could play on the top two lines and all that, but he was the type of guy that every coach would want to have on their team. What made him special is that he was such a good teammate and would always put the team ahead of himself. He’s definitely one of the best Czech-born players to ever play in the National Hockey League.”
Added Lindsay: “You talk about the guys that we drafted in the early years, along with the guys we had on those teams, and it was all about character. That’s what set up that team for our early success. You get Niedermayer, a very character guy, you get Jovanovski, who’s all about winning, and then you get a European kid in Dvorak who comes over, learns English right away and really wants to learn the game and take advantage of being in North America. He was a guy that really could skate, but he could do everything. If you wanted him to play the power play, he could do that, and he was an exceptional penalty killer. He was one of the best penalty killers out there, especially later in his career. I also don’t think Radek has ever said a bad word about anyone; that’s just the kind of person he is.”
Vincent Trocheck – It wasn’t just Vinny’s impact on the ice (he’s ninth on the Panthers all-time scoring list) but he was beloved off the ice by his teammates and fans alike. Trocheck wore his heart on his sleeve and helped energize the team during a time when a spark couldn’t have been more needed.