In today’s NHL it is widely believed that in order to have a successful franchise, you must build through the draft. The league is ripe with perfect examples as to why that model works. We’ve all see the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and now the New York Islanders enjoy the fruits of their labour, with the former having won four of the last five Stanley Cups. The Blackhawks have built around names like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, while the Kings have developed Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty as their cornerstones.
Unfortunately, this model of “building through the draft” does not work out for every team that chooses to go down said path. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers, or if you’d like to go back even further, ask the fans of the Florida Panthers just how far drafting got them in the early to mid-2000’s. Over the course of six drafts the Panthers had five picks in the top-10. None of those players turned out to be the “cornerstone”
that teams look to build around. It’s easy for people to say that building through the draft is the key to long-term success in the league, but without those drafted players panning out and meeting their pre-draft expectations, a team is left with their hands tied and not a particularly high number in the “wins” column. At times last year and earlier this season, it appeared that the most recent crop of Panthers prospects were poised to follow the same route as Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester before them, turning into quality NHL players but not quite reaching the level that they were expected to. In recent months however, the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have hit their stride, proving that their high draft ranking was not a mistake, instilling hope within the Panthers organization and their fans that they are the right players to build around.
The player who faced perhaps the most scrutiny last season and had the most questions about him going into this season was Jonathan Huberdeau. After a successful rookie campaign (31 points in 48 games) that snagged him the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, “Hubey” stumbled to just 28 points in 69 games last season.This season the former 3rd-overall selection struggled out of the gate, accumulating just 2 points in his first 11 contests. Just around the tail end of 2014 is when he really started to turn on the offense again. Since the Panthers’ game on December 28th against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Huberdeau has put up 20 points in 27 games, a pace that is good for a season north of 60 points. His play has noticeably improved as he’s been shooting the puck more, avoiding the “cute” passes that plagued him in his sophomore season and has developed a nose for the net, often finding goals off of loose pucks in the crease.
Aleksander Barkov was selected 2nd overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He made the jump from the Finnish Elite League straight to the NHL at the ripe old age of 18. In his first year he showed glimpses of greatness but a knee injury suffered during the Sochi Winter Olympics
sidelined the young center for the remainder of the season. Much like the aforementioned Huberdeau, Barkov started the 2014-15 season at a snail’s pace, notching only 4 points in his first 22 games. Since then, he has also enjoyed successful run, putting up 15 points in his last 23 games played and surpassing his goal total from last year (8) already. The expectations for Barkov early in his career are a little more skewed than those for Huberdeau considering the age of the young center.
The recent of success for the Panthers’ early draft picks has been a bright spot for the team. Finally the expectations of drafting early for so many years are coming to fruition. Players like Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ekblad only further compliment the likes of Huberdeau and Barkov. Whether or not this young core will grow into a perennial contender remains to be seen. The pieces are in place, it’s up to the players to make it happen.