The Florida Panthers have a young, solid nucleus around which to build a good on-ice product that includes centre (C) Jonathan Huberdeau, C Aleksander Barkov, and defenseman (D) Aaron Ekblad. These three are not UFAs until 2023, 2022, and 2025, respectively. The organization also has the cap space to keep one of their two impending unrestricted free agents (UFA) Mike Hoffman or Evgenii Dadonov. I expect Hoffman to receive a long-term contract worth around $45-50 million and Dadonov around $30-35 million.
Ekblad aside, what the team does not have is a strong NHL defense nor any quality defense prospects. The Point Share metric measures a player’s value to his team by taking into account the number points in the standings that a player’s offense and defense contributed. Table 1 shows where the Panthers rank among the top 275 players this season on Offense, Defense, and Total PS.
Table 1. Panthers OPS, DPS, PS Rank among top 275 players during 2019-20 season
|OPS Value (League Rank)||DPS Value (League Rank)||PS Value (League Rank)|
|26.7 (15 of 31)||10.4 (25 of 31)||44.0 (22 of 31)|
The Panthers need defensive help. Their DPS value is only from skaters, so this does not include the poor performance from goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky this season. Fortunately, the 2020 NHL Entry Draft has several players who project as top four NHL defenders with solid two-way games.
Panthers Drafts: Past and Present
The Hockey Writers’ 2019-20 midseason NHL farm system rankings have the Panthers at 9th but they didn’t list one defenseman in the team’s top five prospects. Of the team’s top 30 prospects, only three defensemen show NHL potential. John Ludvig had a breakout year for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL this season, and could make the organization’s top prospects list for next season. He could also make the big-league club by 2021-22.
Second round 2019 Draft pick D Ilya Kolyachonok is likely three seasons away from an NHL call-up, and D Max Gildon signed with the Panthers in early March 2020 to forego his senior year at the University of New Hampshire.
I expect the Panthers to draft the best defenseman available in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Table 2 shows the NHL Central Scouting ranking of players that may be available when the Panthers select in the 1st-round at pick No. 14 (if the season ended today).
Table 2. List of Expected Available Defensemen at Pick No. 14 Overall
|NCS RANK||THW RANK||EP RANK||PLAYER NAME||HEIGHT||WEIGHT||LEAGUE|
|4||9||12||SANDERSON, JAKE||6′ 2″||185||NTDP|
|8||24||20||GUHLE, KAIDEN||6′ 2″||186||WHL|
|9||25||46||SCHNEIDER, BRADEN||6′ 2″||202||WHL|
|6 Euro||34||21||GRANS, HELGE||6′ 2″||206||SWEDEN-JR.|
|14 Euro||27||25||WALLINDER, WILLIAM||6′ 4″||191||SWEDEN-JR.|
NCS = Final NHL Central Scouting
THW = The Hockey Writers’ Top 400
EP = Elite Prospects
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has selected six defensemen in the first two rounds of the NHL draft since he was hired in May 2010. They’ve all stood at least 6-foot-1 and weighed between 185-220 lbs. In a draft short on defensemen, these are the five prospects from which I think the Panthers’ 2020 1st-round pick will come. Florida fans should hope that Jake Sanderson falls to them, but any of the five offers NHL talent as at least a future top-four defenseman.
According to The Hockey Writers’ Andrew Forbes, Sanderson will be the first American player drafted. The son of Hartford Whaler great Geoff Sanderson, Jake has the highest ceiling of any defenseman in this season’s draft.
I recommend Forbes’ in-depth write-up on Sanderson. He’s a future top-two NHL defender and would provide the Panthers with one of the league-best pairings alongside Ekblad.
The top-scoring defenseman on his WHL team this season, the 18-year old Guhle projects as a top-four NHL blueliner. The common thread through his scouting reports is that he’s a gifted two-way player who uses his size well in his own zone and can man the point on an NHL team’s second power-play unit.
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His natural instincts would serve the Panthers well in the defensive third, which is where they need help. He needs to improve his consistency, but he compares to Colton Parayko in his playing style. Parayko’s 3.6 DPS would have led the Panthers in 2019-20. Guhle is a safe 1st-round choice, a real rarity.
A minutes-eater, Schneider is a hybrid of the traditional stay-at-home defenseman who can initiate outlet passes and trail transition plays. Even if he spends the next two seasons refining only his defensive abilities, he still projects as an NHL top-four defender who would complement a scoring defenseman.
Comparisons range from Brent Seabrook down to the throwback-style of Marc Staal. He and Mike Matheson (UFA in 2027) would have time together to develop a solid lockdown game.
Grans is probably the least safe of the players on this list, but like Wallinder (see below), he is only 17-years old, so his attractive qualities have time to coalesce into a refined player. Grans is a long, rangy defender with more offensive talent than Schneider but less creativity than Wallinder. He can carry the puck well through the neutral zone and has a big spot from the point, so he’s an asset on the power play. He has an innate skill for body positioning and clogging passing lanes, but he needs to cut down on mistakes with and without the puck.
William Wallinder is playing his first full season in the top adult Swedish league in 2020-21. He’s a puck-moving defenseman with plus size who was the third-highest under-18 scoring d-man in the Swedish Elite Under 20 League (U-20 SuperElit) in 2019-20 (21 points in 25 games). He’s a strong 1st-round talent in a weak defenseman class with a good shot at making the NHL. His NHL ceiling is capped at a middle-tier defender, but he has a good chance of making the big-league club.
The Panthers are on the cusp of perennially challenging for the NHL postseason. Their nucleus is studded with stars and their top-ten farm system includes underrated prospects like John Ludvig who are on the rise. However, they have a dearth of defensive talent through all levels of their organization that needs to be addressed.
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Fortunately, they can improve this glaring weakness in this season’s NHL Entry Draft. Though not a deep class of defenders, there are several players available when the Panthers draft with the 14th-overall pick who will develop into strong NHL blue-liners. Selecting Sanderson is the Panthers’ best option, but it’s possible to pair any the remaining four prospects with current assets to shore up its defense. Soon, Miami will have consistent hockey in May and even June.