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Panthers mulling options with No. 1 pick

by Mike G. Morreale

TORONTO -- Florida Panthers director of scouting Scott Luce is familiar with the usual posturing that takes place leading up to the NHL draft.

He said he expects the drama to be ramped up even more in the weeks ahead since Panthers general manager Dale Tallon admitted his willingness to shop the No. 1 pick for the right price. The 2014 NHL Draft is June 27-28 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

The Panthers finished 29th in the League standings and won the first pick at the NHL Draft Lottery in April. Tallon made public his willingness to trade the pick in May on a radio interview on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

Florida has won the lottery three times; in 2002 and 2003 Florida won it and traded the pick.

"The one thing that Dale does very well is he interacts with his scouting staff both pro and amateur with regard to what's coming up the pipeline and he does a great job managing the assets that we put forth to him," Luce told "There's no question that if the right deal were to come along Dale would definitely pull the trigger, but it will be a high price because it's the first overall pick.

"In the end it all comes down to basic asset management and Dale said that the pick is available for the right price. So we'll listen to the offers and see if the right price does come along."

The Panthers have picked in the top 15 of the draft 15 times in their 20-year history, with eight picks among the top five. The franchise has held a top-three pick in four of the past five years, but hasn't picked No. 1 since selecting defenseman Ed Jovanovski in 1994.

The managerial and scouting team are doing their due diligence at the NHL Scouting Combine this week. The club scheduled interviews with the top three players on NHL Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters eligible for this year's draft: No. 1 center Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs, No. 2 defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts and No. 3 center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice, as well as the top-ranked goalie in North America, Boston College freshman Thatcher Demko.

Luce, in his 12th season with the Panthers after joining the club's scouting staff in July 2002, said the 2014 draft has been a challenging one for scouts.

"There's a lot of excitement in South Florida for this selection and what we could possibly bring to the organization and add to our already deep depth of prospects," Luce said.

He was asked the type of approach the organization will take.

"Once we put together a final list we draw various lines in the list to make a notation that at certain points in the draft this player is the best available and if he's on the board we'll select him because that's the proper asset-management move," Luce said. "We'll also have a select list for position and needs in the organization and we usually get to those in the mid-rounds when we start looking at what we have in the system, what's coming and who we need to sign.

"At some point Dale will ask, 'I'd really like to get position X type of player,' and we'll go to that list and say, 'OK, this guy is available.' Then it's up to myself and the scouting staff to say that we can take him now or maybe the next round, but we manage the list in that way so it's never just one strategy."

Luce has helped build a pretty formidable prospect pool in Florida recently, among them defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov.

Luce said that while Barkov, the Finnish forward taken with the second pick of the 2013 draft might not have been "the sexy pick," he was the player they had their eyes on.

"It was an interesting process last year," Luce said. "We had it in our minds that we would be picking No. 1 and Nathan MacKinnon was going to be the guy. But we got thrown a loop and that's what triggered the deep conversations after losing the draft lottery and regroup as a staff and organization and say now is the time to sharpen the pencil."

It was a bit of a surprise that the Panthers opted for Barkov rather than forward Jonathan Drouin (No. 3, Tampa Bay Lightning) or defenseman Seth Jones (No. 4, Nashville Predators). Luce said that the organization's Finnish scout, Jari Kekalainen, the younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen, did a phenomenal job updating the staff daily on Barkov's progress. The talented forward had surgery to repair his shoulder in April and his status for the start of the 2013-14 season was in doubt.

"At our year-end meetings, that's when it sort of came to fruition that we were going to have a much more difficult choice on our hands than we originally thought because [Barkov] was that good," Luce said. "Once Dale had his final meeting with [Barkov], he was at ease with the scouting staff's decision that this was the guy we'd like to select."

On Oct. 3, 2013, Barkov became the youngest player (18 years, 31 days) in the expansion era to score a goal, and he had eight goals and 24 points in 54 games. He sustained a season-ending knee injury playing for Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he was playing on the top line for Finland with Teemu Selanne and Mikael Granlund.

The Panthers appear to be in good hands down the middle for the foreseeable future with Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, last season's leading scorer, as well as on the blue line with future stars Mike Matheson, Ian McCoshen and Alex Petrovic.

"There's no question the strength of our organization has been development ever since Dale came on board," Luce said. "[Manager of player development] Bryan McCabe and [assistant coach and former director of player development] Brian Skrudland have allowed us to breathe easier because we know the players we select in the draft will develop properly and have the best possible chance of becoming NHL players.

"This development is going to allow our good players to become great players and our marginal players to become average players. In my opinion, the development side of the equation, which takes time, is what will put our organization back on the map in the League."


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