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Through the past half-decade of Panthers hockey, there’s beginning to be a trend of sorts when it comes to player development. That trend of course is that no one makes it out to be what they were supposed to be. This has become the single most glaring issue with the Florida Panthers and will continue to eat them alive from inside if they don’t fix it fast.
It starts at the draft
The most efficient and cost-effective way to build talent in the NHL is through the entry draft. As you might know, the Panthers haven’t exactly been cup contenders any of the past 20 years, so you might assume they’ve had some top picks in recent drafts.
It seems like most teams have a guy on their team who’s a consensus steal they picked in the late rounds of a given draft. Looking at the Florida Panthers roster, they don’t really have that. MacKenzie Weegar takes my pick for best value on the team right now, he was a 7th round selection in 2013. Scrolling through the Cats recent drafts through 2014, it’s hard to find quality 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks. We know these guys are available, you see stories of steals all the time around the league. At first I thought the Panthers just haven’t gotten lucky on these “steal” picks, but looking at how consistent this trend is, I find it easier to blame the player development program.
The greatest gaffe in recent history for Panthers drafts has to be the 2015 NHL Draft. This year’s draft was held in our very own building, the BB&T Center, and was honestly one of the strongest first rounds in the 2010’s. The obvious stars of the show were Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel being picked 1 and 2. The Cats held the 11th selection of the first round, and they picked Kingston Frontenacs winger Lawson Crouse.
This pick was made right before a who’s who of top-tier young NHL talent was picked, including Matt Barzal at 16, Kyle Connor at 17, Thomas Chabot at 18, Brock Boeser at 23, and Sebastian Aho at 35. If you think you’ve heard of some of those names, it’s because they’ve all been named to an all-star team already, with the exception of Connor, who currently leads the Winnipeg Jets in goals (29) and points (61). This draft was a massive whiff on the part of the Florida Panthers scouting department. Lawson Crouse never set foot on the ice for Florida before being traded to Arizona for a 3rd round pick.
The second component of developing drafted players is making sure they grow and improve after you pick them. Since the Panthers have had some relatively solid picks position-wise in recent NHL drafts, you might wonder why they don’t have young talent currently on the team to represent those picks.
2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom consistently received praise and hype after the Panthers scooped him at 23rd overall. Since being picked, his name has bounced around trade rumors involving high-profile players at the trade deadline. Panthers GM Dale Tallon has stood firm on his belief that Borgstrom will be a star for the future of the Panthers, and won’t give that up for a rental trade. Borgstrom has played 58 NHL games between the past 3 seasons, where he’s collected 19 points. Borgstrom was sent back to AHL Springfield early this season after an underwhelming start. He still needs considerable size and still doesn’t look acclimated to NHL pace of play.
2017 first-rounder Owen Tippett is another Panthers prospect constantly receiving positive reviews from hockey media and scouts. He’s currently playing in his second AHL season where he leads Springfield in goals (19), assists (21), and points (40) in 46 games played. Tippett is a curious case of a guy we know has tremendous talent in his shooting ability and the way he creates offensively, but it seems the organization doesn’t trust him on the defensive end just yet.
In addition to Tippett, its hard to ignore how far fellow 2017 pick Aleksi Heponiemi has fallen from Panthers fans’ minds. Heponiemi was another highly touted pick who scouts claimed had elite talent. The 2nd round pick from Finland has only 1 goal and 10 assists all year, mostly to being forced to the bottom of Springfield’s lineup.
Overall, there is growing concern within myself and among Panther fans that the team can’t develop talent in the slightest. Failure to select elite talent in drafts and failure to develop highly-regarded prospects makes me fear that we may never see the best days of Borgstrom, Tippett, or Heponiemi.
Possible solutions lay in reevaluating the scouting and player development department as a whole. This includes coaches at the AHL level along with pro and amateur scouts. Eventually, this works its way to the top with GM Dale Tallon, who again doesn’t quite have the best draft record outside of picking consensus quality players in the top 3 picks. His job may be in jeopardy with the team failing to meet expectations anyway, but his record of developing talent in South Florida may sink him further.
Thanks for reading.
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Lawson Crouse was used as part of the trade to dump Bolland’s contract. We’ll never know what he might have done here but your point of better players drafted right after him is certainly correct.
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