Offense expected to be a priority for Panthers at the 2017 NHL Draft

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

It’s that time of year again. The 2017 NHL Entry Draft is here, and this time around, 31 teams, including the Vegas Golden Knights, will look to alter their future by drafting teenage prospects from all around the world.

Of course, at last year’s draft the Panthers turned heads by selecting Henrik Borgstrom – a relatively unknown, overage center – out of Finland’s Junior A league with the 23rd pick.

Borgstrom went on to have a stellar freshman season at the University of Denver, posting 22 goals and 21 assists in 37 games and earning several awards and honors.

For that reason, it’s entirely possible that the Panthers select absolutely no one from the short list of candidates below. But considering they’re picking 10th overall – after moving down a spot at the draft lottery – it’s also very likely that they won’t go too far off the board.

The Panthers also own one pick each in rounds 2, 3, 5, and 6.

“Obviously I’d like to get some goal-scoring,” General Manager Dale Tallon told Sportnet’s John Shannon at the Draft Lottery in April. “We were down offensively this year as far as that was concerned […] but if we had any need at all, it’d be to get a natural goal-scorer.”

“Our depth chart looks solid on the backend, and I’d like to fill some needs up front.”

That sets the table perfectly, because there are several solid forwards available around the Panthers’ draft position that are worth taking a look at.

So, without further ado, here are some players – in no particular order – to key in on and be aware of before the Panthers make their 1st-round selection.


Eeli Tolvanen is a highly-skilled winger whose best attribute is his shot.

Ranked 8th by NHL Central Scouting among all North American skaters, Tolvanen finished 3rd in the USHL in scoring with 30 goals and 54 points in 52 games during his second season in the league.

As a 16-year old, he represented Finland at the U17 World Hockey Championship and recorded 9 goals and 1 assist in 5 games to not only lead the tournament in scoring, but also earn All-Star honors.

He then went on to lead the U18 World Junior Championship in goals with 7 before tying the team lead in points with 6 in 6 games at this year’s U20 tournament.

Tolvanen is a dynamic skater and possesses a game-changing shot, which comes in the form of an incredibly hard one-timer or a laser beam of a wrister. He can pick corners from inside the blue line, find a hole from a tough angle, and basically score from just about anywhere in the offensive zone.

At 5’11”, 189 pounds, Tolvanen isn’t a towering presence by any means, but he thinks the game quickly and is very effective one-on-one thanks to his skating ability and quick thinking.

The 18-year old is committed to Boston College for the 2017-18 season, and considering what he’s done so far – as well as the collegiate performances of past top prospects – he may not last long there before turning pro.

Even though Tolvanen hasn’t played in Finland for a few years, the Panthers have a ton of trust in Jari Kekalainen – their head of European scouting and main Finnish scout – so it wouldn’t be surprising if he had a say in selecting the winger or not.

Update 6/23: Tolvanen’s admission to Boston College has apparently been rejected, meaning he’ll have to follow a different developmental path. His CHL rights are held by the Oshawa Generals, so that’s an option for him.

He is also eligible to play in the AHL next year, which could make him more desirable to NHL teams at the draft.

 

Nick Suzuki is a cerebral, offensively-talented forward capable of playing center or on the right wing.

The 5’11”, 183-pound native of London, Ontario tallied 96 points in 65 games this season for the Owen Sound Attack, a 58-point increase over his rookie year. His 45 goals were good for fourth in the OHL and second among the league’s draft-eligible players.

Suzuki, ranked 10th by Central Scouting, is one of the more complete players available at the top of the 2017 Draft.

His high hockey IQ and vision allow him to set up teammates and be in the right place at the right time offensively. Despite being a fairly average skater, he’s just as capable without the puck, whether it’s in the defensive zone or on a backcheck.

A deceptive, accurate wrist shot makes him dangerous in most areas of the offensive zone.

Suzuki’s only appearance at the international level came with Canada at the U17 World Hockey Championship when he notched a goal and 3 assists in 6 games.

Scouts really like Suzuki’s skilled, ultra-competitive style of play and the consensus is that he’s a pretty safe pick at basically any position inside the 1st round.

Owen Tippett is a powerful scoring winger who has the ability to change the course of a game with one shot.

Similar to Tolvanen, Tippett has an NHL-caliber  release and isn’t afraid to use it.

In his second OHL season, Tippett saw a 55-point improvement from his rookie season as he recorded 44 goals and 31 assists in 60 games for the Mississauga Steelheads. He managed another 10 goals and 9 assists in 20 playoff games.

He led his team in points during the regular season and had 16 more goals than the next highest player.

During the 2015-16 season, Tippett was named to the OHL’s First All-Rookie Team and represented Canada at the U17 World Hockey Championship – where he totaled 5 goals and 3 helpers in 6 games – and the U18 World Junior Championship.

Measuring in at 6’0″, 203 pounds Tippett plays a fast, energetic game and doesn’t shy away from engaging in physical play.

He uses his speed to get around defenders and drive wide to the net and is quick to get into scoring areas. He can score from just about anywhere, is able to get his shot off quickly in traffic, and knows where to be to get offensive opportunities.

Tippett has the natural goal-scoring ability that Dale Tallon desires while also possessing speed and grit, so if he’s available at number 10, don’t be surprised if the Panthers take his name off the board.

Michael Rasmussen is a power forward who uses his size to his advantage to generate offense down low.

The 6’5″, 221-pound center finished his second year in the OHL with 32 goals and 23 assists in 50 games for the Tri-City Americans after posting just 18 goals in 13 more games as a rookie.

Rasmussen, ranked 5th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, played for Team Canada at the 2015 U17 World Hockey Championship where he tallied 2 goals and 1 assist.

Fifteen of Rasmussen’s 32 goals this season came on the power play, and that’s what has many scouts worried.

He’s proven to be a solid net-front presence because of his size, long reach, and willingness to get physical, but it’s unclear if he’ll be good enough to score from the same areas – or different ones – at the next level.

The Panthers’ Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala is said to have the most say in all rounds of the draft, so it’s very likely they look elsewhere with the 10th pick.

The best thing Rasmussen has going for him is his NHL-ready frame, and that’s what will have many teams interested in him.

But his even-strength production is concerning to those looking for a player capable of producing in different ways and in different situations.

Rasmussen could be an option if things go Dale Tallon’s way, considering we know he values size and skill.

Having said that, you can bet the team’s analytically-inclined prospect analysts will push hard to avoid selecting the physically-imposing forward, especially after the Lawson Crouse debacle in 2015.

There are other options that may not be as big or gritty as Rasmussen but possess a lot more skill and potential to become an impact forward.

Casey Mittelstadt is a creative, smart, highly-skilled forward.

The 18-year old began the season in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers but returned to high school where he recorded 21 goals and 43 assists in 25 games this season for Eden Prairie, the same school that Panthers prospect Kyle Rau attended.

He finished out the year with the Gamblers, totaling 30 points in 24 games and earning him the best points-per-game average in the league (despite the small sample size).

Mittelstadt was named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey as the most outstanding senior high school hockey player in the state. Rau and Nick Bjugstad, as well as several other current and former NHLers, also earned the award during their high school days.

He also won a bronze medal with Team USA at the U18 World Junior Championship in 2016 after recording 9 points in 7 games.

Many scouts would’ve preferred the 3rd-ranked North American skater to remain in the USHL due to the fact that it provides a higher level of competition than high school hockey.

Not only that, but it would’ve benefitted his development since he’s committed to the University of Minnesota for the 2017-18 season.

He’s still a bit raw overall and has an averaged-sized frame at 5’11”, 198 pounds, but performed surprisingly well in the USHL and that bodes well for his ability to transition to college hockey.

He possesses an above-average shot, is a slick skater, can handle the puck and make plays in traffic with ease, and is capable of playing both center and the wing.

Mittelstadt is a high-end talent and could go anywhere from the top 3 to lower in the top 10, so he’ll be one to pay attention to.

Kristian Vesalainen is a strong, left-shot winger with skill and a pro-ready frame.

At 6’4″, 209 pounds, Vesalainen is a force to be reckoned with, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a capable offensive player.

He owns a hard, accurate shot and the vision to set up his teammates for prime scoring chances while his size allows him to win battles down low, fight through traffic, and be hard on the puck to maintain possession.

Vesalainen is sturdy on his skates, owns a long reach, and takes long strides, so while he’s not a fast, flashy skater, he’s able to move up the ice efficiently and put pressure on opposing players.

He knows when and how to use his body to protect the puck and drive to the net and can spot seams to create plays in the offensive zone.

Ranked 7th among European skaters, he struggled to put up points this year as he bounced between the SHL – where he tallied 6 points in 26 games against men – SuperElit, and Liiga. Earning ice time as a U18 player in a European men’s league is tough, considering he just turned 18 at the beginning of June makes it even more impressive that he was able to get any time at all.

He has represented Finland at the international level on numerous occassions over the past several years, tallying 13 points in 11 career U17 games at the World Hockey Championship, 19 points in 14 career games at the U18 World Junior Championship, and 2 points in 6 games at this year’s U20 World Junior Championship.

As with Tolvanen, Vesalainen is a legitimate option for the Panthers because he possesses a solid combination of size and skill.

The Panthers haven’t minded drafting Finnish forwards over the past several years, especially in the 1st round, meaning Vesalainen is sure to be in the conversation.

Fun fact: Vesalainen was a teammate of 2016 1st-round pick Henrik Borgstorm with HIFK’s U18 Junior B team during the 2014-15 season.

Elias Pettersson, ranked as the second-best draft-eligible European skater, is a crafty, dangerous offensive talent.

A lanky foward, Pettersson’s uptempo, highly-skilled game is reminiscent of that of Henrik Borgstrom in that his shot, vision, and creativity make him a constant threat in the offensive zone.

Pettersson played for Timrå IK of Allsvanskan – a step below the SHL and widely considered to be the 5th-best pro league outside of the NHL – where he tallied 41 points in 43 games to lead all U19 players, nearly doubling the next highest total.

He also finished 9th overall in league scoring behind several players who were significantly older than him.

To add to that, Pettersson’s 21 assists this season were the most by a junior player in the Allsvenskan, a milestone reached by NHLers Mattias Ekholm, William Karlsson, and Pontus Aberg.

The 18-year old is relatively tall at 6’2″, but at 164 pounds, he could certainly stand to bulk up, especially if he wants to see similar success when he makes the jump to the SHL next season.

Pettersson’s silky smooth hands make him a nightmare for goaltenders in one-on-one situations and he often makes plays his teammates aren’t expecting.

The only concern about Pettersson is whether or not his game will translate to the smaller North American ice surface.

He dominated during his second season in Allsvenskan, but struggled to produce as one of the younger players at this year’s U20 World Junior Championship, managing just 1 point in 6 games.

He tallied 8 points in 7 games at the U18s in 2016 as one of the tournament’s older players. His high skill level will be difficult to pass up as the picks begin to come off the board in the 1st round.

Both Pettersson and Vesalainen have played in Sweden – including the SHL and SuperElit – during the past few years, so it’s likely that recently-hired Swedish scout Patrik Hall has a beat on them, as well as many other draft-eligible prospects.

Hall, who also serves as a scout for the Vaxjo Lakers of the SHL, is being mentored by the aforementioned Kekalainen. This means that if the Panthers take a European in the 1st round or at any other time afterwards, you can bet they did their homework and then some.

Overall, this will be the second year of the Panthers’ revamped amateur scouting staff which I talked about prior to the 2016 Draft.

In April, we noticed that Toby O’Brien, who was hired by the Panthers last June as a Co-Director of Amateur Scouting, was, for unknown reasons, removed from the team’s online staff directory.

For now, that seems to be the only major change in that area as we head into draft festivities at the United Center in Chicago.

Nonetheless, things look promising for the Panthers’ 2016 selections, and assuming the process remains mostly unchanged, I’d expect more of the same out of this year’s picks.

The Panthers have a lot of smart people working in their scouting department and the draft is yet another opportunity to add to the organization’s relatively shallow prospect pool.

Stay tuned to COTP on Twitter for coverage of the draft beginning with the 1st round on Friday at 7PM EST. Rounds 2 through 7 will begin at 10 AM EST on Saturday.

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