In the process of creating this article, I scoured numerous articles, pre-draft rankings and mock drafts in order to get a general feel of where players stand. As you can imagine, the pandemic-shortened season has created a rather massive divide among pundits when it comes to picks.
That being said, the below players, who are ranked in no particular order, were chosen due to the frequency in which they showed up within the 18-28 range of players during my research, a method that hopefully will help create some sort of consensus out of all of this pre-draft chaos.
With added assessments from EliteProspects.com, let's kick things off with five North American skaters that Panthers fans should keep an eye on during the first round of this weekend's draft.
1. Carson Lambos
Position: Defense DOB: Jan. 14, 2003
Birthplace: Winnipeg, MB
Weight: 197 lbs.
2020-21 Team: JYP U18 and U20 (UM 18 SM-sarja) / JYP (Liiga) / Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
Pre-Draft Ranking: No. 11 by NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters)
Despite an up-and-down season, there's a lot to like about Lambos.
A lethal weapon with the puck on his stick, the 18-year-old blueliner boasts a potent shot that always seems to find its way through traffic both on the power play and at even strength. He also possesses a fantastic set of wheels, which make him especially dangerous in transition.
Like most young players, his main area for growth is consistency. That being said, his highlights are some of the most fun to watch among this year's draft-eligible defenders. A fan of utilizing a fair amount of shot and head fakes, he does a great job keeping other defenders on their toes.
With the WHL season on hold due to COVID-19, Lambos packed up his equipment and hopped a flight overseas to begin his 2020-21 campaign with JYP in Finland. Although he did get a two-game stint playing against grown men in Liiga, most of his time was spent with JYP's U20 team with which he amassed 11 points (two goals, nine assists) and a +9 rating over 13 contests.
Upon his return to the WHL in March, he suited up in just two games with Winnipeg before his season came to an abrupt end due to a lower-body injury. Unfortunately, the injury also cost him a chance showcase his skills on a big stage with Canada at the IIHF U18 World Championship.
In perusing various articles, it appears more than likely that Lambos, who recorded produced 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 57 games with the Ice in 2019-20, will likely have already been taken by the time the Panthers find themselves on the clock with the 24th overall pick on Friday.
However, given the hesitation that often surrounds selecting players with pre-draft injuries, there's a chance he could slide right into Florida's lap, much like Anton Lundell did last year.
Elite Prospects Assessment: "Lambos is a potent shooter with the skill and instincts to manipulate defenders and improve his shooting location. With and without the puck, he activates from the point, becoming a passing option and a scoring threat. He fakes shots and passes, waits for the defender to commit, then bursts into the space he created."
2. Corson Ceulemans
DOB: May 5, 2003
Birthplace: Regina, SK
Weight: 187 lbs.
2020-21 Team: Brooks Bandits (AJHL)
Pre-Draft Ranking: No. 14 by NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters)
For fans of alliteration and strong defense, Ceulemans should be an enticing pick.
An aggressor on the ice, the 18-year-old rearguard has garnered pre-draft praise from pundits for his mobility and hard-to-play-against mentality, which manifests itself in his willingness to dive headfirst into battles along the boards and also clean out traffic in front of his own crease.
Over the course of a shortened season in the AJHL, he notched 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in eight games with the Bandits in 2020-21. Internationally, he helped Canada win it all at the IIHF U18 World Championship with eight points (one goal, seven assists) in six contests.
In 2019-20, he posted 35 points (five goals, 30 assists) in 44 games with Brooks.
Taking the collegiate route in his development, he's already committed to Wisconsin University for the 2021-22 campaign. While at school, he'll have the chance to continue bulking up his 6-foot-2 frame, while also polishing his all-around game within one of the nation's top programs.
If he's available at No. 24, the Panthers could be tempted to select Ceulemans in order to add a right shot to their stable of talented young defensemen. As of right now, most of the team's top defensive prospects are lefties, including Max Gildon, John Ludvig and Vladislav Kolyachonok.
Elite Prospects Assessment: "Ceulemans can pinch, engage opponents, box them out, control them on the boards, and shove them away from the puck. His gap is tight through the neutral zone and he defends the front of the net well. Quick threat identification there and attaches himself to them."
3. Francesco Pinelli
DOB: April 11, 2003
Birthplace: Hamilton, ON
Weight: 185 lbs.
2020-21 Team: HDD Jesenice (AlpsHL)
Pre-Draft Ranking: No. 15 by NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters)
Pinelli appears to be the type of player that can be molded into anything a team wants.
While you'll mostly hear him described by pundits as a two-way center, he's more than capable of lining up on the wing as well. Possessing an impressive hockey IQ and situational awareness in all three zones, he can also confidently be deployed on both the power play and penalty kill.
Like pretty much every 18-year-old, there are areas of game that could use some polish, but the foundation for a productive NHL player certainly looks to be there. In order to showcase his abilities, however, he, like many players in the OHL, spent this past season playing overseas.
Loaned from Kitchener to HDD Jesnice in the Slovenia's AlpsHL, he tallied 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 13 games in 2020-21. On the international stage, he also won gold with Canada at the IIHF U-18 World Championship, piling up four goals and seven assists in seven games.
There's no such thing as a safe pick, but Pinelli's skills should translate well at the next level.
Elite Prospects Assessment: "The foundation of Pinelli's potency is his hockey sense. He supports his teammates, takes optimal routes to prepare one or two plays in advance, always finds soft ice in the offensive zone, and times his movements perfectly into those pockets of space to strike. With a no-drawback push release, he's sending the puck home as a capable one- and two-touch finisher."
4. Sasha Pastujov
Position: Left Wing
DOB: July 15, 2003
Birthplace: Bradenton, FL
Weight: 184 lbs.
2020-21 Team: U.S. National U18 Team (USDP) / USNTDP Juniors (USHL)
Pre-Draft Ranking: No. 18 by NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters)
It's always nice to see "FL" on a potential top draft pick's profile these days.
Learning the finer points of hockey while growing up in Bradenton (roughly a three-hour drive across the Sunshine State from BB&T Center), Pastujov called Florida home until his talents took him to Michigan to join the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in sixth grade.
Since then, the 18-year-old winger has been one of the most-productive players in USA's pipeline. Turning heads with his hands, vision and shot, he led the U.S. National U18 Team in goals (30), assists (35) and points (65) in 41 games during the 2020-21 season, while also posting 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 18 games with the USNTDP Juniors in the USHL.
Considered more of an off-the-puck shooter than a puck carrier at this point in his development, he accumulated a team-leading five goals for Team USA at the IIHF U18 World Championship.
Heading to the University of Notre Dame in the fall, he should slot into a middle-six role for the Fighting Irish right off the bat. While at school, he'll have plenty of time to bulk up and brush up on his skating. And despite being a freshman, look for him to fill up the net on the power play.
Overall, consolidating the pros and cons from articles around the hockey world, Pastujov has the makings of a power-play specialist and lethal offensive weapon in the NHL. Whether or not he lives up to that billing or even grows beyond it will depend on his next few years at college.
Personally, I'm always rooting for any players coming out of the Sun Belt.
Elite Prospects Assessment: "A fantastic passer and puck-handler; he's constantly creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates in the offensive zone."
5. Logan Stankoven
DOB: Feb. 26, 2003
Birthplace: Kamloops, BC
Weight: 170 lbs.
2020-21 Team: Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
Pre-Draft Ranking: No. 31 by NHL Central Scouting (North American Skaters)
If you're looking for pace, look no further than Stankoven.
Not held back by his smaller stature in the junior ranks, the 18-year-old forward chases the puck around the ice like a dog going after a bone, winning battles against much larger opponents with ease thanks to some nifty handling, cerebral puck carrying and elusive footwork in tight spaces.
In addition to posting seven goals and three assists in six games with Kamloops, he showed off his relentlessness while helping Canada win gold at the IIHF U18 World Championship. Hitting the ice for eight games during the tournament, he scored eight points (four goals, four assists).
While there's room for improvement when it comes to his skating (a common trait for any young player as previously noted), Stankoven's top-tier shot makes him a potential first-round pick. He simply can rip it from anywhere on the ice -- off either foot -- and is a proven finisher on offense.
Given his work ethic and skillset, prospective teams likely won't dwell on his size too much.
Elite Prospects Assessment: "He's a fearless puck-carrier, always driving the inside, and never shy about setting up shop near the net-front off of the puck. He plays a north-south game and always attacks at an unrelentingly high pace. The mechanics behind his shot are so clean, exerting downward force while pushing his top hand off his body."