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Panthers, top pick Crouse enjoy draft in South Florida

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Florida Panthers general manger Dale Tallon wanted to make the evening extra special for the boisterous hometown fans when he stepped to the podium at BB&T Center on Friday and asked senior adviser Bill Torrey to announce the No. 11 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Torrey, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, was president of the Panthers when they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in their only appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

The cheering got louder as Torrey stepped to the microphone to announce left wing Lawson Crouse of the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League as the Panthers' top pick.

The first round of the draft in South Florida was a fitting way to celebrate a new beginning in the lives of 30 top prospects who fulfilled a lifelong dream of being selected by an NHL team before a capacity crowd.

It was the second time the draft was held in Sunrise -- the building was named National Car Rental Center the first time, in 2001. In addition to the managerial team on hand, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie earlier in the week, and goaltender Roberto Luongo were also in attendance.

"Florida is a great place, a fun place to live, and this is an unbelievable building to play in," Ekblad said. "The fans we have are passionate. I think consistency in our game and finding ourselves, making sure that we make the playoffs consistently, is going to bring that fan base. It's up to us as players to put our best foot forward and be on the ice playing our best in the future."

Luongo had some advice for Crouse.

"Bring some shorts and a T-shirt for the hot summers," he said.

The Panthers got a prototypical power forward in Crouse, who has a nose for the net and patterns his game after James Neal of the Nashville Predators and Rick Nash of the New York Rangers. He is nicknamed "The Sheriff" for his willingness to stand up for teammates.

"The way he plays the game, he shows that he's big, strong and physical, and he can skate," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "Our scouts were really happy he fell to us. We'd love to see him make the team next year, and if he goes to rookie camp and then training camp and plays well, you never know."

The 6-foot-4, 211-pound left-handed shot, No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters eligible for the draft, had a busy week in South Florida. He joined Erie Otters center Connor McDavid (No. 1 pick, Edmonton Oilers), Boston University center Jack Eichel (No. 2, Buffalo Sabres), Erie center Dylan Strome (No. 3, Arizona Coyotes), Kingston Frontenacs center Mitchell Marner (No. 4, Toronto Maple Leafs) and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin (No. 5, Carolina Hurricanes) for batting practice at Marlins Park in Miami on Wednesday, and then a top prospects clinic at Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs and a tour of the Everglades in an air boat Thursday.

A few highlights from his trip included being the only prospect to hit a home run during batting practice and the only prospect to eat a worm on the boat during the Everglades tour.

"It was a pretty busy week, but I'm happy now and very happy to be a Florida Panther," Crouse said. "I knew anything could happen. I met with Florida [Friday] morning and knew after that meeting there could be a strong possibility that I would be drafted by the team."

Crouse said he was beginning to get a little nervous as names were announced prior to Florida's selection.

"That comes with territory, I guess," Crouse said. "The nerves kick in a little bit, but it's all good at the end of the day."

He was glad to hear a chorus of cheers from Panthers fans after he was selected.

"Me and my dad always had a saying when I was growing up, and it was, 'Put a log on the fire,'" Crouse said. "Whenever someone doubts you, we always say put a log on the fire. It didn't bother me where I went in the draft."

Gallant was glad to hear the throng of Panthers fans cheering when Torrey made the choice.

"It was awesome," he said. "You heard the cheering when our team announced the pick, and that was great. I've been home for a month now, so it seems like it's been long offseason already. We're itching to get back at it. I thought it was great to have the draft here and I think this pick will help us out in the long run."

Ekblad, who on Thursday moved into his new apartment, offered some words of wisdom for his new teammate.

"Don't come in expecting anything," Ekblad said. "You have to work for it. That's the one mantra we want to have in Florida."

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