Panthers focused on offense, skill at 2016 NHL Draft

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2

It’s June and that means the NHL Draft is right around the corner. General managers, scouts, hockey operations staff, and countless of representatives from each of the 30 teams will descend upon the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York to select young, talented players from around the world in hopes of bettering their team now and in the future. Read on for a look at some of the players that the Panthers should and will likely consider with their top draft choices. 

Heading into this year’s draft, the Panthers have themselves in an interesting situation. Over the past few weeks and months, they’ve overhauled their hockey ops department by letting go of several scouts and other staff members that have been with the team for years including Scott Luce, head amateur scout Erin Ginnell, amateur scout Paul Gallagher, amateur scout Craig Demetrick, pro scout Jim McKenzie, and European scout Kent Nilsson. However, they’ve also hired some replacements including Richard Pollock and Toby O’Brien while promoting Jason Bukala to Co-Director of Amateur Scouting and Josh Weissbock to Prospect Consulting Specialist.

Weissbock was hired by the Panthers alongside Cam Lawrence (known online as “Money Puck”) in December and the knowledge and skills they bring to the organization is what makes this year’s draft – as well as ones in the future – very exciting. The two worked together to create a statistical model known by the name “Prospect Cohort Success” which they describe in their own words:

“The underlying theory behind this system is that if you assemble a cohort of the closest comparable peers to any given player, using the variables we know to be statistically significant for draft age players in the Canadian Hockey League (age, height, points per game), that cohort peer group can be inform what type of career we can expect that prospect to achieve. For example, a 6’0, 17 year-old forward who scores at a 1 point per game rate in the WHL, has almost 600 close peers, of which 22% went on to play over 200 games in the NHL. The PCS for this player would be 22%.”

Of course, just because one player makes it to the NHL and plays X number of games, it doesn’t mean every single player that is just like him will do the exact same thing, however there are trends that are visible when looking at large samples of data, and that’s something that can be of use to teams when deciding on who they may want to take at a certain draft spot. It’s important to note that Weissbock and Lawrence don’t sit in front of a computer all day plugging in numbers in the hopes of finding good prospects. Don’t let their analytical backgrounds fool you, however, as they scout players and watch them actually play just as much as they run their numbers. The Panthers are merely interested in incorporating some new techniques into their current process rather than letting the numbers take over.

In the end, the Panthers have two more highly-knowledgable people who can give input on prospects and pro players from an analytical standpoint as well as an observational standpoint, and this bodes well for team’s overall draft performance, among other things. The two did a lot of prospect analysis work for Canucks Army before joining the Panthers, and a quick Google search will bring up some articles which you can read through to get an idea not only of their knowledge level, but also their passion for the game and how thorough they are in the work that they do.

When it comes to Friday’s draft, during a conference call on Monday for the acquisition of Keith Yandle’s rights, Panthers GM Tom Rowe specifically stated that the team would not be drafting a goaltender. Rowe said that the focus would be on drafting the best available players when it’s time to make a selection and that they want players with “offensive flare and high skill,” which is in sharp contrast to the mantra of previous years where the team prioritized size, physicality, and grit, especially with their early picks.

As a result, the Panthers have often missed out on more skilled players who have been selected around them, and now is the time for them to start finding more diamonds in the rough which is something that many teams around the league have been able to do. The list of players who were late-round draft picks that have had significant impacts on their team – especially in the post-season – is long and includes names like Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bonino, Ondrej Palat, and Andrew Shaw, among others.

That being said, this is somewhat of a pivotal draft for the Panthers as they look to build off what appears – by early accounts – to have been a decent draft last season. With many players that were once prospects (see: Matheson, Trocheck, Petrovic, Crouse, Brickley, and others) moving into NHL roles – or remaining on the borderline –  the Panthers must continue restocking their prospect pool with quality players and doing so means not picking and choosing with regards to skill sets.

For the sake of time, we’ll focus on the Panthers’ top 2 picks in this draft: their own which is the 23rd overall pick and Vancouver’s pick at 33rd overall which they acquired as part of the Gudbranson-McCann trade last month. These two picks give the Panthers a really good chance at getting at least one solid player, although of course, they could opt to move up or down in the draft or trade the picks all together and get a variety of different returns.

With the Panthers not drafting a goaltender, I’ve selected 7 players that are likely to be within reach of them when they pick at both draft positions. All of them possess high skill as well as high offensive abilities while playing a variety of positions and possess similar play styles for the most part.

Julien Gauthier, RW

Julien Gauthier has the potential to be intriguing option for the Panthers and might be the one that they naturally gravitate towards when it’s their turn to make a selection. Gauthier possesses a solid combination of size (measuring in at 6’3″, 230 pounds), work ethic, and goal-scoring ability. The Quebec-native scored 41 goals in 54 games this season, which was good for the Val-d’Or Foreurs team lead and 6th in QMJHL scoring, although he did play in 9 fewer games than the leader who tallied 48 goals. Gauthier’s skating ability is something to behold and he has a really good set of hands considering his size. He plays a really strong power forward game which is evidenced by his willingness to drive hard to the net, get physical all over the ice, and ability to blow a puck right by a goaltender. Gauthier comes from a family of body-builders, and he certainly has the size and strength to become an impact player in the NHL sooner rather than later.

While scouts love his size and strength, they’ve been left to wonder about his stat-line which features a high goal total and a low assist total, especially this past season when he tallied just 16 assists to go along with the 41 goals. While the goal numbers suggest he’s not shy when it comes to shooting the puck, the assists may have scouts thinking that he doesn’t use his linemates as much as other players do. There’s no doubt, however, that if paired with a playmaking center like that of Aleksander Barkov or Vincent Trocheck, Gauthier could do some serious damage with his lethal and incredibly accurate shot.

When it comes to where he’ll be drafted, he truly could be go almost anywhere in the first round. TSN’s Bob McKenzie has him ranked 17th while many other scouting services have him ranked in the early- to late-20’s, so he certainly could be in reach of the Panthers. Plus, if they decide he’s someone they really want to pick, they could decide to move up if they feel he’s about to be selected by another team. In the end, Gauthier could be the Panthers best option if he’s still available. Aside from Patrik Laine, he has one of the best shots in the league, and his overall package would be really tough for the Panthers to pass up.

Alex DeBrincat, C/RW

If the Panthers are looking to go with a player that is high-reward but also carries a risk, DeBrincat is their guy. He measures in at 5’7″, 165 pounds but is one of the best pure goal-scoring prospects in the 2016 Draft. Many have been quick to attribute his production to Connor McDavid, who was his line-mate last year when he scored 51 goals in 68 games, but he managed to reach the same mark again this season in 8 fewer games while playing with Dylan Strome and Taylor Raddysh.

The Panthers already have had some smaller players in the system over the years like Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau, both of which went the tougher NCAA route. Rau showed flashes in his first and only NHL stint this season while Grimaldi was traded today to the Avalanche, so perhaps there’s room for another skilled, smaller-sized forward in the pipeline like we saw last year with the selection of Denis Malgin. DeBrincat is highly-skilled, gritty for his size, and has shown that he won’t shy away from traffic areas, whether it be in the slot or around the net. He always seems to find a way to sneak behind the defense or be in the right place at the right time, but other times, he just unleashes a strong wrist shot or a big one-timer that usually ends up in the back of the net.

Before signing WHL-standout Dryden Hunt in February, the Panthers lacked a player in the system with natural goal-scoring abilities pretty much since the franchise’s inception, and it’s clear that DeBrincat fits the player mould that GM Tom Rowe stated the team would be looking for. For the most part, the Panthers have shied away from smaller players, so it will be interesting to see if they select DeBrincat – who has struggled with the puck at times against larger opponents – and take a chance on his dynamic offensive abilities. Draft rankings and mocks put the Michigan-native late in the 1st round and early in the 2nd round, so it’s very likely that he’ll be there when the Panthers make their first pick if not their second as well.

Vitali Abramov, LW/RW

Vitali Abramov is another player likely being – or should be – considered by the Panthers with the 23rd pick. He’s slightly taller than DeBrincat at 5’9″, but he’s somewhat of a similar offensive talent as well. Abramov led all rookies in the QMJHL this season by 26 points by finishing with 38 goals, 55 assists, and 93 points in 63 games which was just short of the 39 goals and 64 assists put up by Claude Giroux as a 17-year old with the same team.

Like DeBrincat and Gauthier, he has a really, really good shot and a willingness to work around the net and in dirty areas which makes him a threat from pretty much anywhere in the offensive zone. His consistency from shift to shift as well as his effort in the defensive zone leave a bit to be desired, but that’s usually the case with most young forwards out of juniors, especially the QMJHL. Not only did he lead his team in scoring, but he also ranked 19th in the league with 222 shots and has 171 dangerous shots which put him 4th in the league and 1st among rookies.

Scouts really like Abramov’s offensive ability, some even more-so than DeBrincat and Gauthier, and many think he’d be a top-10 talent in the draft were it not for his smaller frame. Most rankings and mock drafts have him slated to go late in the 1st round or in the early- to mid- 2nd round, however with the offensive talent he possesses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Panthers or another team pick him up in the mid- to late-1st round. For more on Abramov, check out this article by Pension Plan Puppets which features a great write-up on the dynamic Russian talent.

Riley Tufte, LW

Riley Tufte is an interesting prospect and for many reasons, he’s probably not on the Panthers’ main radar of players. For the most part, he’s a mirror image of Nick Bjugstad. Tufte possesses a highly-sought after combination of size – measuring in a 6’5″, and a shade over 200 pounds – and skill which is somewhat evidenced by his 47 goals in 25 games for Blaine High School, the same one that Bjugstad potted 29 goals for during his draft year. Tufte, like Bjugstad, won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award as the most outstanding senior high school hockey player in the state, so clearly he’s a talented player. After finishing his high school season, Tufte went to play for the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League where he netted 10 goals in 27 games.

Although he did essentially dominate high school hockey, scouts have almost the same concern with Tufte as they did with Bjugstad, and that is the question of whether he can thrive against a higher level of competition or not. Tufte is still very raw when it comes to where he’s at with his development, but the tools are there – like they were with Bjugstad – for him to be a big-bodied, physical threat in a team’s top-6. The Panthers already have players in Lawson Crouse and Bjugstad that fit that same description, so it remains to be seen whether or not they’d take a chance on yet another big forward out of high school without a larger sample size of more difficult competition.

Most projections have Tufte going in the early 20s, and that seems about right. While he is raw, he already has a pro frame and a great shot, so it’s about whether or not he’ll be able to put everything together when facing smarter and more skilled players.

Pascal Laberge C/RW

Laberge is the first of 3 players – among others – that the Panthers could see value in when they make a selection with either the 23rd pick or the 33rd overall pick. He’s a bit different when compared to DeBrincat, Gauthier, Abramov, and Tufte in that he doesn’t possess the same natural goal-scoring abilities and instead plays more of a 2-way game. Laberge lacks a bit in size and strength at 6’1″, 170 pounds, but he makes up for it with his quick shot, skating, creativity, and ability to make plays in tight and in traffic. The Quebec-native tallied 23 goals and 45 assists to lead the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigers with 68 points, so the offensive ability is there, but he has the potential to become more of a threat once he grows into his frame while becoming more committed in the defensive zone.

Tage Thompson, C/RW

Tage Thompson is another solid talent that could be available at either of the Panthers’ two draft positions. Thompson’s 6’5″ frame allows him to be a net-front presence or power a shot right by the goaltender, and the fact that he’s already playing college hockey at 18 – and excelling – is a great sign for whoever has the chance to select him. Of his 14 goals on the season, an NCAA-leading 13 came on the power play while 6 of his 18 assists also came with the man-advantage, and that’s incredibly impressive considering he was only a freshman.

In total, he recorded 32 points in 36 games which was good for 2nd on his team, and he has points in 14 of the final 18 games of the season, including each of the last 5. He has the ability to score goals, but also plays strong in the defensive zone and had a big role on the penalty-kill for the UConn Huskies. His skating is really impressive for his size and he has no qualms about going to the dirty areas; in fact, he noted that it was something he worked on doing more of this season with the Huskies. His skill set makes him a really intriguing option for the Panthers with the 23rd pick, especially since he could be gone by the time their 2nd round pick comes along.

Kale Clague, D

With NHL teams beginning to favor puck-moving defensemen over strong, stay-at-home blue-liners, Kale Clague will likely be highly sought after come the 2nd round. Being that he played for the Brandon Wheat Kings this season – the same team as Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk – I had the opportunity to see him play on many occasions, and he would certainly fit in with what the Panthers are trying to do.

Clague isn’t a prolific point producer, but just the fact that he sees the ice so well and is able to carry the puck in and out of all 3 zones with ease is really impressive. He has a good command of the point when in the offensive zone and his ability to skate smoothly and make quick tape-to-tape passes allows him to create offense both on the rush and in the cycle game. At 6’0″, 183 pounds, he’s not undersized nor is he a huge threat physically, but he will get physical along the boards and even drop the gloves from time to time. His shot is fairly average, but he’s good at getting it on net, and sometimes that’s all it takes to create havoc in the crease.

It’s fairly likely he’ll be available when the Panthers make their 2nd-round selection, although his rankings range from late in the 1st round to early in the 3rd round, so it’ll be interesting to see where exactly he goes. The Panthers have had several defensemen graduate from their prospect pool over the past several years so they’ll surely be looking to add some more to the system.

If they don’t select Clague, another puck-moving defenseman by the name Dennis Cholowski could also be an option as he’s slated to go around the same area of the draft. He’s slightly taller than Clague at 6’1″, but his frame isn’t as filled out and he opted for the Junior A route before attending St. Cloud University in the coming months. Some scouts have gone as far as to say that Cholowski is one of the best puck-movers in the draft and even rivals many current NHL defensemen. Either way, the two feature very similar skill sets offensively and considering they’re both left-handed shots, it could come down to which they think more highly of.

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