Former draft picks sent packing as Panthers carve new path forward

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

This past off-season was a busy one for the Panthers. Sure, they added a slew of new players through trades and signings like Keith Yandle and Jonathan Marchessault, but what’s being overlooked are the players and staff that quietly became casualties of the team’s new approach to identifying young talent as well as those that have taken their places.

After missing the playoffs for the 9th straight season, the Panthers named Dale Tallon the team’s General Manager on May 17th, 2010. Just over a month later, the astute, well-known hockey mind began executing a blue print for success and selected Erik Gudbranson with the 3rd-overall pick at the 2010 NHL Draft. The physically-imposing blue-liner joined a crop of prospects which, at the time, was thought to contain some of the highest levels of potential and talent in the entire league.

Even though players like Kenndal McArdle, Keaton Ellerby, Evgeny Dadanov, Michal Repik, Dmitry Kulikov, and Michael Frolik – along with Gudbranson, and the list goes on – were supposed to help take the Panthers to the next level, they never did. In fact, despite the fact that 5 of them were 1st-round picks of the Panthers, 3 of them remain in the NHL, and none of them are with the organization.

This expectation of draft picks developing into players that would be able to move the stangant – and sometimes fading – franchise forward was nothing new, and for the longest time, it’s been nothing more than just that, an expectation and a hope.

But why?

Under the watch of Scott Luce, who was the Panthers’ Director of Amateur Scouting from 2002 to 2010 – before being promoted to Director of Scouting thereafter – the organization struggled to succeed in the draft and find quality players year after year.

A quick run through of the Panthers’ draft picks dating back to Luce’s arrival shows several things including completely failed drafts, players chosen that never showed an ability to, at the very least, produce at the junior or amateur level, hitting and missing on high-percentage picks, a preference for big players with below-average to average skill levels, and picking players that lack a defining skill or characteristic.

Looking at some numbers really highlights how poorly the Panthers have drafted since 2003. Between 2003 and 2011, the Panthers drafted a total of 65 players outside of the 1st round and only 6 (9.23%) of them have gone on to play at least 100 NHL games, which is a generous benchmark considering that’s way below the number someone who’s in the lineup somewhat consistently would have. The above percentage is a mark that is the 2nd-worst in the NHL, and things don’t look any better when you drill down further.

During the same time period, the Panthers drafted 11 players in the 2nd-round alone (not including goaltenders), and those picks averaged just 34 points in the NHL with Kamil Kreps (60 points) and David Booth (231 points) being the only ones to record more than 26.

In 2005, the Panthers chose Kenndal McArdle with their 1st-round pick and to this day, he remains one of the organization’s biggest draft busts. Going by stats alone, McArdle was barely a point-per-game player at the junior level and averaged almost 2 penalty minutes per game. They then made 2 picks in the 4th round, the first being Olivier Legault and the second being Matt Duffy.

Legault was selected out of the QMJHL where he tallied a total of 1 goal, 5 assists, and 331 penalty minutes in 136 games over 3 seasons before the Panthers drafted him; how a 4th-round pick gets wasted on a player who has proven to be nothing more than an enforcer at the junior level is anybody’s guess. Duffy was picked 11 slots later, a spot which fell a few before Keith Yandle and Niklas Hjalmarsson and right in between a total of 7 players that played at least 200 NHL games.

Not only that, but Duffy, who along with Legault is no longer playing hockey at any level, was chosen from the EJHL, a league that literally has a player taken from it once every blue moon. The Panthers managed to take two players from the EJHL in Duffy and goaltender Brian Foster, another failed pick, out of 5 total players drafted from it that year and none of them ever went on to play in the NHL. In total, the 2005 Draft netted the Panthers just 43 NHL games: 42 from McArdle and 1 from Foster.

In 2006, the Panthers got just 2 NHL games in total from their 5 picks after the 1st round with both of those games coming from one player, Michael Caruso. Their luck with goalies wasn’t any better as ones that struggled in juniors leagues were chosen even though they had no business trying to make it through the ranks (see: Tyler Plante, David Shantz, Marc Cheverie, Sergey Gayduchenko).

In the 3rd round, the Panthers have been pretty bad as well. Among the 10 total picks by the Panthers from 2003 through 2011, 5 of them have 0 NHL games (3 of those are retired from hockey), 1 has just 1 NHL game, 3 have 53 or fewer games in the NHL, and just 1 player (Vincent Trocheck) has at least 100 games. Just two of them are still with the Panthers (Trocheck and Kyle Rau) while Joe Basaraba is playing college hockey at Notre Dame.

It’s not surprising they hit on the early- to mid-round selections like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad because these are picks with the best chances of success, ones teams can’t afford to mess up, and ones you are pretty much expected to succeed at. Not only that, but these are really good players and ones that would stand out to average fans and others not involved in making decisions for a team.

The scouting department isn’t supposed to shine in the 1st round; the later rounds are where the magic should be happening.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Panthers’ ownership and management team saw it necessary to re-evaluate and revamp the scouting department over the past 11 to 12 months. It can be argued that the Panthers’ poor drafting performance, especially from 2003 to 2009, set the franchise back considerably maybe not as much now, but certainly in the past.

In December of last year, the Panthers made two high-profile hires when they added Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock as Prospect Consultant Specialists. The two did tons of independent analytical work related to prospects and hockey in general for a website called Canucks Army and even worked together to develop a model which compares players with each other (their production, height, weight, and age, among other things) in an attempt to predict how successful they’ll be in the future.

Lawrence and Weissbock describe the process as such: “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%.”

Weissbock also ran a site known as CHL Stats which he used to display player data, like shot attempts, production rates, and other advanced stats, acquired through scraping the websites of the CHL junior leagues and AHL. Since joining the Panthers, the site was made private, can only be accessed by those within the organization, and is surely being used as one of the many ways of analyzing potential draft choices, free-agents, trade acquisitions, and internal players.

The duo’s first major influence on the team came when 20-year old Dryden Hunt signed as a free-agent out of the WHL in February. When they ran everything through their proprietary model, they found that Hunt has roughly the same chance of making the NHL as a 2nd-round draft pick, and since it would come at virtually no cost (aside from an entry-level contract) and at a low risk, it was a no-brainer.

Towards the end of May, news broke that the Panthers had let go of several members of their scouting staff, including the aforementioned Scott Luce, head amateur scout Erin Ginnell, amateur scout Paul Gallagher, amateur scout Craig Demetrick, pro scout Jim McKenzie, and European scout Kent Nilsson.

Although many were let go, the Panthers appear to have retained the ones they feel had the most positive impact on the department and team, including Finnish scout Jari Kekalainen who was instrumental in drafting Joonas Donskoi, Aleksander Barkov, Juho Lammikko, Denis Malgin – who burst onto the scene this season, one year after being drafted – and most recently, Henrik Borgstrom.

Jason Bukala was promoted to Co-Director of Amateur Scouting while Toby O’Brien was hired to work alongside him, among others. Richard Pollock became yet another scout hired through an unorthodox medium as he previously ran a TSN podcast covering the Winnipeg Jets while writing about contracts, the draft, and variables related to winning.

It was only a few days after Luce was fired when the Panthers traded Gudbranson and a 2016 5th-round pick to the Vancouver Canucks for Jared McCann, a 2nd-round pick (something they didn’t own before the trade), and a 4th-round pick. Once again, Lawrence and Weissbock were involved thanks to their knowledge of the 19-year old McCann and the Canucks overall. While the trade was made mostly to squeeze more value out of the cap, help assemble a more mobile defensive core, and add to the depleted farm system, it also began a string of moves over the course of the past several months that ridded the team of it’s former draft picks.

Next on the chopping block was Dmitry Kulikov, a 14th overall selection of the Panthers in 2009 who had been the team’s longest-tenured player before being dealt to the Sabres with the 2nd-round pick from the McCann deal for Mark Pysyk. Not only did they get back Mark Pysyk, a defenseman who has proven to be just as good, if not better than Kulikov at more than half the cost, but they got Buffalo’s 2016 2nd-round pick and a 3rd-rounder on top of that.

Then, one by one, several more former draft picks were moved out of the organization. The once highly-touted Rocco Grimaldi was traded away for a solid young goaltender in Reto Berra, Lawson Crouse and the contract of Dave Bolland turned into 2nd- and 3rd-round picks, Jonathan Racine was traded to Montreal for Tim Bozon, Connor Brickley was sent to Carolina for Brody Sutter, and most recently, Logan Shaw is now a member of the Ducks with Michael Sgarbossa joining the Panthers.

These departures are in addition to the handful of other former draft picks who were not offered a new contract and left via free agency at the beginning of July, including John McFarland, Corban Knight, Quinton Howden, and Garrett Wilson. Just about all of them have been in the Panthers’ system for years and have proven to be nothing more than replacement-level players.

The reason for this is that the previous scouting regime didn’t appear to prioritize players with defining skills or abilities. Logan Shaw may be an OK player, and Connor Brickley too, but they lack defining skills; nothing about them stands out or explains their high draft spot.

Compare these picks to the Panthers’ 2016 selections in June which were the first to be made by the overhauled scouting department. The 1st-round pick was Henrik Borgstrom who Kekalainen urged the Panthers to select despite him being in his 2nd year of eligibility and only projected to go in the 2nd or 3rd round.

Despite the fact that the organization is filled with centers, the Panthers knew that it wasn’t worth it to use this pick to fill a need because they have the players they need for now. Borgstrom is seen by the organization as having more upside and raw talent than many of the players that went before him in the 1st round, and since Kekalainen’s track record has been incredibly solid with the Panthers, they knew they could trust him.

In the 2nd round, the Panthers selected Adam Mascherin with the 38th overall pick after swapping with the Sabres in the Kulikov-Pysyk trade. They were fairly confident that he’d still be there despite moving down from the pick they originally had, and compared to past 2nd-round picks by the Panthers, Mascherin looks to be one of the better ones they’ve made. His defining skill is a laser beam wrist shot and it immediately made him one of the best shooters in the Panthers’ system.

Going down the rest of the draft list, there’s Linus Nassen who’s an incredible cerebral puck-mover already playing pro hockey in Sweden, the speedy, smooth-skating, offensively-aware Jonathan Ang, and the reliable two-way defender in Riley Stillman. In the 6th and 7th rounds, the Panthers made a couple bets with Maxim Mamin, a slightly older forward already playing in the KHL, and Benjamin Finkelstein, a slightly undersized, smooth- skating offensive defenseman.

In addition to these draft picks, the Panthers have done a really good job of increasing their odds of success at developing an NHL player. Draft picks and prospects, both of which are extremely valuable to the Panthers, can be viewed like lottery tickets; the more you have of them the higher your chances of hitting on at least 1 or 2.

In addition to Dryden Hunt, the Panthers have made several other signings and hirings to help off-set the poor drafting performances. Linus Hultstrom, a 23-year old defenseman, was signed out of the SHL in May with some help from Patrik Hall, a scout in the league who the Panthers eventually hired in mid-September. Hall joined the team not long after Rhys Jessop was hired as the team’s third prospect analyst alongside Weissbock and Lawrence.

Like them, Jessop was also a writer for Canucks Army. One of his more well-known works was an experiment known as “Sham Sharron” in which they labeled every NHL team’s draft from 2000 to 2010 as a success or failure depending on their ability to select better players using only scouting rankings and stats, among other predefined rules.

The Panthers’ drafts failed the experiment because the made-up “Sham Sharron” was able to make more successful picks using the aforementioned data. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Panthers will be running their drafts with only numbers and a computer, but the experiment showed that theoretically, the Panthers could’ve drafted better if they just used rankings and stats, and that’s an embarrassing revelation.

Even if the past draft picks are ignored, just look at some of the former and current prospects who the Panthers have signed and kept around. Vincent Trocheck, Jayce Hawryluk, Ian McCoshen, Thomas Schemitsch, Samuel Montembeault, Kyle Rau. There’s a noticeable divide between not only the old Panthers and the new Panthers, but more specifically the types of players that are seen as valuable and the ones that are not. Anyone who attended the Panthers’ development camp  and rookie tournament this past off-season would have noticed that there were far more non-roster invites – 14 in total – than in the past, and that speaks volumes as well.

Obviously, not every pick is going to pan out and some years will be better than others, because in the end, projecting 18- and 19-year olds isn’t an easy thing to do. However, the Panthers need to make sure they’re doing everything they can to make the smartest picks possible rather than wasting them on high-risk or unproven players, and that’s the direction they’re headed in. The 2016 Draft was only in June, but early returns are very encouraging, especially on Borgstrom, who is near the top of the NCAA in freshman scoring, and Mascherin, the OHL’s 3rd-leading scorer.

The focus was and will continue to be on finding players high in skill rather than ones who play little more than a checking game fit for every league but the NHL. Every pick in the draft is important, but the Panthers can’t afford to botch the early rounds like they’ve done over the past decade or so while their opponents succeed on a more consistent basis.

And perhaps it was a good thing that hardly any talent was identified, because previous ownership groups wouldn’t have been able to retain anyone as they could hardly afford to assemble a competitive NHL roster.

The main takeaway? For once, the future is bright.

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