In the last five years, the Florida Panthers have built a rock-solid foundation of excellent player through the draft, but from terrible luck to bad decisions, they have one of the more interesting draft records of the modern era.
Last season they selected Aaron Ekblad first overall, who was just named rookie of the year. The year before, they got 6’3 centre Sasha Barkov with the second pick, in 2012 they didn’t draft high but selected a decent defensive prospect in Mike Matheson at #23, and in 2011 they picked future super-star Jonathan Huberdeau.
Though it’s unclear how 2010 #3 overall pick Eric Gudbranson will pan out, they were able to use their second pick in that draft, #19, to get Nick Bjugstad, who seems like he’s going to be a great player, as well as using the #25 pick to get Quinten Howden.
So, in the last five years, they made seven first-round picks, including four top 3 selections. That is why the Panthers have one of the current best young teams in the NHL.
However, in their 22 year history, the Panthers have made a case against building through the draft.
The Panthers have picked high so often that it’s become a bit of a joke. For a team like the Leafs, who’ve really been no more competitive than the Panthers (Since their inception, the Panthers have been to one Final vs the Leafs two Final-Four appearances) the amount of high picks the Panthers have had seems crazy.
For instance, the Leafs have picked first overall once, back in 1985 when the selected Wendel Clark. Counting this year, the Leafs will have picked first just once in 53 drafts. The Panthers, who’ve only existed since 1993 and for whom the 2015 draft will be their 23rd draft, have picked first twice (Ed Jovanovski in 1994 and Aaron Ekblad in 2014).
Since 1993, the Leafs have picked in the top five just twice (Luke Schenn and Morgan Rielly, both #5). During that time, the Panthers have selected an INSANE nine players in the top five and an additional five players between spots six and ten.
That is 14 top-ten picks in their 22 drafts.
Now, it is quite possible that with their recent high picks, the Panthers will finally be able to say they built through the draft, but looking at the early 2000 should give pause to anyone who thinks a “proper” rebuild is the only way to build a team. Sure, you can get lucky like Pittsburgh and draft Crosby, Malkin and Staal, but the fact is, those type of players are just not available often enough to make it a viable strategy.
It simply requires too much luck to build completely through the draft. For another example, the Blackhawks picked up Keith in the second round and then got Toews and Kane in back-to-back years and it worked out rather well, obviously.
But far more often, you get what happened to the Panthers:
2001 Stephen Weiss 4th overall
2002 Jay Bouwmeester 3rd overall, Petr Taticek 9th overall
2003 Nathan Horton 3rd overall, Anthony Stewart 25th overall
2004 Rotislav Olesz 7th overall
2005 Kenndal McArdle 20th overall
2006 Michael Frolik 10th overall
2007 Keaton Ellerby 10th overall
2009 Dimitri Kulikov 14th overall
That is a nine-year period where they selected ten first round picks, three top-five picks and seven top-ten picks. By doing a complete and “proper” rebuild, the Panthers ended up in such good position that they ended up making four more top-five picks between 2010 and now.
The Panthers could very well end up being a great team for the next several years, but the fact is, they have made so many high-end picks in their history, and had such little success, that they should be a red flag to every team about the luck involved in drafting.
With all their top picks, including two first-overalls, the Panthers somehow avoided drafting any true superstar player. Now, Ekblad or Huberdeau could have Hall-of-Fame careers, but I am sure the Panthers secretly wish they were drafting first this year instead of last year because, as good as Ekblad is, he isn’t on the level of a Connor McDavid.
And that’s just the point: even if you don’t make bad picks, you can’t help but be subject to the complete random nature of the draft. For all their high picks, they weren’t on the board when Crosby, Ovechkin, Toews, Doughty, Hedman, Tavares, Stamkos or a similarly great player was available.
It goes to show you can’t rely on drafting. I mentioned the Leafs earlier and they are notorious for trading away most of their picks, and you can’t do that either. It seems that we should redefine just what a “proper” rebuild is: it clearly involves a ton of luck and a little more balance.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.