SUNRISE, Fla. – Friday night was the opening round of the 2021 NHL Draft, and over the course of the evening, the Florida Panthers took steps toward not only improving the team’s long-term outlook, but its immediate future as well.
Holding the 24th overall selection (thanks to Florida’s impressive regular season in which they finished with the fourth-most points in the entire NHL) the Panthers didn’t get to make their pick until late in the evening.
It started as a relatively quiet night at the Lauderdale Yacht Club, where the team hosted around 100 VIPs for a draft party, in addition to General Manager Bill Zito and his front office staff and, of course, the media.
Things began picking up around 10:45 p.m. when the Panthers were finally on the clock.
Director of Amateur Scouting Shane Churla, who basically ran Florida’s draft, walked out of the team’s war room and onto a balcony at the yacht club, where he stood in front of a picturesque South Florida background of expensive houses, large boats, and well-lit palm trees, and announced that with the 24th pick in the draft, the Panthers selected 18-year-old USHL winger Mackie Samoskevich.
Boom. Florida had made its pick, nearly three hours after the draft had begun.
As the post-selection hustle began, the media work room received a sudden jolt of energy.
It didn’t come from a late-night coffee delivery (which really would’ve been clutch, but I digress), but rather in the form of a tweet.
BUF and FLA are working hard on a Sam Reinhart deal— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) July 24, 2021
Per the report, Florida was on the brink of acquiring a young and extremely talented forward in Sam Reinhart.
While the trade wouldn’t be made official until Saturday afternoon, Local 10 News confirmed shortly after midnight that Reinhart had been informed of the deal, and he was excited to be joining the Panthers.
Over 12 hours later, when the trade was finally made official, we learned Florida sent its 2022 first-round pick and goaltending prospect Devon Levi to Buffalo in exchange for Reinhart.
According to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, the first-round selection is lottery protected, meaning if the pick ends up being in the 10 top of next year’s draft order, it stays with Florida. If that happens, the Panthers’ 2023 first-round pick would then go to Buffalo.
In Reinhart, Florida is getting an elite scoring forward and relentless two-way skater that takes pride in coming to work and putting in maximum effort every single day.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because several of Bill Zito’s additions over the past year (Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Wennberg, for example) fit that hard hat, lunch pail, outwork everyone else mold.
“Sam has established himself as one of the best playmaking scorers in the league, and we are thrilled to be able to add him to our Panthers lineup,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “His competitiveness and hunger to succeed will fit seamlessly with the culture we are building here in South Florida.”
Reinhart joins Bennett and Aaron Ekblad on the Panthers roster, giving Florida three of the top four picks from the 2014 NHL Draft (Ekblad went No. 1, Reinhart went No. 2 and Bennett went No. 4).
During his career, which was spent entirely with Buffalo, Reinhart amassed 295 points (134-161-295) in 454 games, logging at least 20 goals in all but one of his six years in the NHL.
Last season Reinhart tied a career-high with 25 goals despite playing in a career-low 54 games during the pandemic shortened season.
One thing he’s surely looking forward to with the Panthers is getting his first taste of playoff hockey, as Buffalo failed to qualify for the postseason every year since drafting Reinhart (they actually haven’t made the playoffs since 2010-11).
Florida was one of the best teams in the NHL last season, finishing with 37 wins and 79 points in 56 games, so simply making the playoffs, which would be huge for Reinhart, should be something expected of the extremely talented Panthers roster that Zito is constructing.
“I’m thrilled about having that opportunity, with a group that is expecting to win on any given night,” Reinhart said Saturday. “I’m very happy to be able to showcase what I can do in some meaningful games and contribute in any way that I can.”
Reinhart, who turns 26 in November, is also currently a restricted free agent, meaning he still needs to sign a new contract before he can take the ice in a Panthers uniform.
Zito obviously wouldn’t have made a deal of this magnitude if he wasn’t confident that Reinhart would sign a new contract with Florida, something that is expected to happen in the coming weeks.
“Nothing is finalized,” Reinhart said when asked if Zito and his agent had begun discussing a contract yet. “That’s all going to get announced and worked on in due time. I feel comfortable that we’re both excited about the future. I don’t see any issues moving forward.”
MORE ON MACKIE SAMOSKEVICH
The Newton, Connecticut native and USA Hockey alum has high-end skill, excellent hands, and a reputation as a creative playmaker.
Scouts have pointed out that Samoskevich, who measures in at 5-foot-11, 190 lbs., often makes his linemates better and plays well off his teammates, signs of maturity that are always great to see in a player his age.
“He’s a big, skilled player who plays with an edge and has a big shot,” Zito said. “He can provide offense and grit and is that sort of dynamic winger that all teams covet, and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Speaking to the media on Saturday, Samoskevich said he expected to be picked “in the 20-to-33 range” and that he was enthused about being selected by Florida after a pleasant interview process.
“They have a ton of great people in their organization, and I’m really excited they were able to pick me,” he said.
An element of Samoskevich’s game that separates him from the majority of his peers is speed.
As good of a playmaker as he is, Samoskevich can do just about anything in his bag of tricks while moving at top speed. It’s incredibly difficult and a trait not often attributed to young draft prospects.
Whether it’s gaining zone entries on the rush or creating space in the offensive zone, the combination of skill, speed and hockey IQ is a big reason why Zito was so thrilled with selecting Samoskevich.
“He was a player that we targeted for quite some time,” Zito said. “Our scouts were really, really bullish on Mackie, both as a player and as a person. We spent a lot of time really doing a deep dive into him as a player. We were really excited as he ticked down the board and we were thrilled when he fell into our lap.”
Samoskevich spent the past two seasons with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. He logged 34 points (13-21-34) in 47 games during the 2019-20 season as a rookie before coming back last year, earning an ‘A’ on his jersey as an alternate captain and averaging over a point per game, putting up 37 points in 36 contests before adding another 10 points in eight postseason games as Chicago rolled through the playoffs and captured the Clark Cup as the USHL’s champion.
He’s committed to the University of Michigan, where he’ll skate with the Wolverines as a freshman this fall on what is expected to be one of the top teams in Division One.
“I’m excited to get out there and get things going,” he said. “It should be a special year.”
At the national level, Samoskevich played with the U.S. National U18 Team at the 2019-20 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and he’s been invited to participate in 2021 USA World Junior Hockey Summer Showcase next month in Plymouth, Michigan.
In addition to eventually reaching the NHL after having a successful NCAA career, you can also add ‘make Team USA’s U20 team’ to Samoskevich’s list of post-draft aspirations.
“Going into this week, you’re just trying to show the coaching staff you’re a guy that should be on the team,” he said. “That’s one goal coming out of this week for sure.”
Having success with Team USA’s U20 team is something Samoskevich hopes to someday have in common with Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight. Earlier this year, Knight backstopped the US to a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championship.
Being that Samoskevich saw a fair amount of Panthers games last season, in addition to his involvement with USA Hockey, its likely he’s got a pretty good idea of the kind of skill that’s manifesting in Sunrise.
“Florida is such a great spot, I watched them a ton during the year,” he said. “It’s a fun team to watch and definitely a team I’m looking forward to playing for.”