SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers top brass recently had their first opportunity to get up close and personal with 114 of the best draft-eligible players at the 2016 NHL Scouting Combine, which was held May 30-June 4 at First Niagara Center and HarborCenter in Buffalo.
After setting franchise records for wins (47) and points (103), while also capturing the Atlantic Division title, the Panthers will have six picks at the June 24-25 draft, including the 23rd and 33rd overall selections.
“I think it’s a pretty solid draft class,” Panthers President of Hockey Operations Dale Tallon told FloridaPanthers.com. “I think we’re going to get two really good players. We’re in good shape and we’re going to keep adding depth to our already deep depth chart. We’re really excited about it.”
Among the top prospects at this year’s combine were Zurich center Auston Matthews and Tappara right wing Patrik Laine, the top two skaters on NHL Central Scouting's ranking of international skaters eligible for the draft. Sarnia Sting defenseman Jacob Chychrun, a Boca Raton native and No. 4 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, also impressed and is currently projected to become the highest Florida-born player ever selected in the draft.
All of those players, however, will almost certainly be long gone by the time the Panthers find themselves on the clock in the latter half of first round, which is an unfamiliar feeling for a franchise that has held a top-5 selection in four of its previous six drafts.
“When you’re picking later in the draft, it usually means that you’re team is already in a good position,” Tallon said. “It’s not quite the same as picking in the first five, where you take the best player available. But since we picked up the 33rd pick, we might look at it differently. We’ll have a chance to look at a lot of different pieces and identify what our most pressing needs are.”
With a talented, new-look hockey operations department leading the way, including General Manager Tom Rowe and Assistant General Managers Eric Joyce and Steve Werier, the Panthers are confident that even though they’re missing out on this year’s top prospects, they will still be walking away from the draft with a few important pieces to the franchise’s long-term puzzle of success.
“It’s nice to know that there’s going to be a good pool of players (later in the draft),” Rowe said. “You know that you’re going to end up with two really good players that you can foresee in your lineup in two to three years.”
As a way of showcasing their physical talents and stamina, combine participants were put through 12 unique fitness tests, including grip strength, standing long jump, bench press and pull-ups. There was also a Functional Movement Screen, bike tests, the VO2 max test, which measures a player's endurance, and the Wingate Cycle Ergometer that measures a player's explosiveness.
“We look at those tests more from a mental point of view,” Rowe said. “When they’re doing the Wingate, we look at how willing they are to push themselves to the next level and really take it to another level as far as the mental part of it. From lifting weights to doing the cardio, we look to see if they have the mental capacity to really push themselves. That’s what I really look at more from those tests than anything else.
“We know that the kids coming in most of the time are going to need an education on nutrition, strength training and proper technique, so we don’t get too hung up on that stuff. It’s more our own personal opinion on how tough they are mentally and when they’ve reached that point of exhaustion, if they have it in them to push themselves to the next level.”
By this time of year on the hockey calendar, the Panthers’ front office has admittedly already done an extensive amount of homework on the physical gifts of these prospects and scouts have already observed numerous on-ice performances. However, the 20-minute, 1-on-1 interviews, Rowe says, served as a way for the team to learn some new information about the potential future NHL-ers, including an important look into their maturity and personalities.
“You can’t really tell a lot other than what type of personality the kid has,” said Rowe, who notes that Florida interviewed between 14-16 prospects per day at the combine. “Is he energetic? Is he even keeled? Is he a real low-key type of guy? That’s the biggest thing that you can come out of those meetings with. Then what you want to do is circle back a week before the draft and set up some more interviews with guys that you think are going to be within striking distance of where you’re going to be picking.”
What future stars could potentially be within “striking distance” for the Panthers at the draft? Find out next week in our in-depth draft preview!