After Panthers’ Early Postseason Exit, What’s Next?

The 2020 NHL Draft will likely be one that is remembered for a long time to come. Nevermind the fact that COVID-19 completely changed the formatting of the playoffs, the lottery couldn’t just be pushed to the background. It had to up the ante.

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When Gary Bettman announced during Phase 1 of the NHL Draft Lottery that one of the teams eliminated during the play-in would receive the first-overall pick, it certainly generated some discussion. A lot of that centered on questionable tactics by the NHL, but hey, it got people talking.

The Draft Lottery and the Panthers

The announcement was that the eight teams eliminated during the play-in phase would all have a 12.5% chance to land the first-overall pick. This also meant landing consensus first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, a superstar in the making.

Alexis Lafrenière Rimouski Oceanic
Alexis Lafrenière of the Rimouski Oceanic (Photo by Vincent Ethier/CHL)

The Panthers were easily dispatched of in the play-ins despite having an on-paper roster that should compete with anyone. Despite that, here they are. They didn’t win the lottery – that distinction went to the New York Rangers – and the Panthers now find themselves in the same position as just about any other team.

What’s Wrong with the Panthers?

It’s getting harder and harder to tell why this team underperforms. On paper, they have a dynamic top line featuring Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle anchor an unheralded defensive group. And Sergei Bobrovsky’s signing brought in a Vezina Trophy winner to hold things down between the pipes.

Well, Bobrovsky didn’t look anything like himself and the Panthers are a top-heavy club. Still, there is no reason that they should consistently find themselves on the outside of the bubble looking in.

Sergei Bobrovsky Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one thing of note is that Florida hasn’t had solid goaltending in some time. Bobrovsky’s addition was meant to shore that up and it just became an expensive stopgap that didn’t really solve anything. Goaltending is looking a lot like the running back position in the NFL these days: cheaper options found later in the draft and tandems galore.

Prospects in the Pipeline

While looking forward to the future is great, hockey is different in that it can take some time for those prospects to develop. The Panthers have a couple of names in the pipeline that bear watching and could play a substantial role in the future.

Owen Tippett

Tippet is perhaps one of the most polarizing prospects not only in the Panthers’ system, but of any prospect in hockey. Some think he’s got major potential as a power forward. Others think he’s just the next Panthers bust.

Owen Tippett Florida Panthers
Owen Tippett, Florida Panthers Oct. 17, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At 20 years old, Tippett still has his future ahead of him. Whether he ends up being more Owen Nolan or Brad Isbister bears watching. If Tippett can make the leap this year and start logging top-six minutes, he could be a major contributor for years to come.

Grigori Denisenko

A 2018 first-round pick, the 19-year-old Denisenko has been called the best player not in the NHL. He’s earned lofty comparisons, too – Artemi Panarin, Nikita Kucherov, and even some comparisons to Alex Ovechkin.

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When his contract with the KHL is up, there is no doubt he will go straight to Florida. He has franchise-level talent and could be a major impact player for years to come. But it will take some time before he’s seen on South Beach.

So, What Are the Choices?

The Panthers didn’t win the lottery, so Lafreniere will not be coming in to instantly alter the franchise. Instead, the Cats will pick 12th overall. There are quality prospects to be had, but anything outside of the top couple is a crapshoot.

That said, there are a few names that stand out as major possibilities, especially given the fact that the Panthers have recently chosen a goaltender (Spencer Knight, who has been compared to Carey Price).

Kaiden Guhle, D, Prince Albert Raiders

The name that comes up the most is that of defenseman Kaiden Guhle. Past Yandle and Ekblad, there is dearth of offense on the Panthers’ blue line. There are tough, solid types but the only true top-four defensemen play on the top pairing.

Kaiden Guhle Prince Albert Raiders
Kaiden Guhle of the Prince Albert Raiders. (Lucas Chudleigh/Apollo Multimedia)

Guhle has the kind of skating that today’s NHL dictates. He can be up-tempo, play a physical and grinding game, and his offensive abilities have really started to take shape over the past year. He may not be an elite-level defenseman, but he’s got all the tools to be a very good top four.

Jack Quinn, RW, Ottawa 67’s

This is a name that is getting a lot more attention as the draft gets closer. He’s diminutive in size at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, but he has that aggressive nose for the net that teams love. With guys like Cam Atkinson proving that smaller guys can light the lamp, Quinn could be a dark horse pick.

After Huberdeau, Barkov, and Matt Hoffman, the forward scoring falls off a cliff. The team needs better top-six scoring and Quinn has the potential to fill the net in bunches. There are some concerns about whether his production is tied to Marco Rossi, but he has a huge one-timer.

Dawson Mercer, C, Chicoutimi Sagueneens

Mercer is one of those players that jumps out because he can do everything well. His versatility is a big selling point as he can line up at center or slide into a wing spot with Barkov and Huberdeau.

Mercer doesn’t have the exciting upside that a Quinn or Guhle has, but he is one of those solid performers that anchors a second line for years to come. The Panthers are missing that top-six depth and Mercer could be a name to fill that role in the near future.

The Pick

On draft day, the Panthers should go with best player available. There are several options available that can fit their current and future needs, though there likely isn’t an NHL-ready player at the 12th spot. Forcing a pick for need would not be the right move.