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Panthers Bolster Blue Line, Add Depth on Day 2 of 2019 NHL Draft

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

2019 NHL Draft Day 2 Interviews

2019 NHL Draft Day 2 Interviews

Interviews with GM/President of Hockey Operations Dale Tallon, Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala and day two 2019 NHL Draft selections

  • 02:50 •

VANCOUVER - After stockpiling high-end forwards in recent drafts, the Florida Panthers turned their focus to the defensive side of the ice at this weekend's 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver, B.C.

Having already secured top-ranked goaltender Spencer Knight with the 13th overall selection on Friday, Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon took the floor at Rogers Arena on Saturday morning looking to give his new netminder with some help in front.

Of the first four picks the Panthers made on Day 2, three of them were defensemen.

"It was necessary to improve our team defense and our depth chart," Tallon said of his strategy during the draft. "We want balance and to play with more physicality on the backend, so that's what we addressed. Goaltending was obviously a priority, then defense, and then at the end we added a lot of heavy, big players that can score. We also added a little skill as well. It's a very diverse group that we drafted. I'm excited and happy about the results of our day."

In the end, that diverse group of nine picks featured one goaltender, three defensemen and five forwards. Despite making no major moves, Tallon did use the flexibility his wealth of draft picks provided to move up twice and secure two players he believed had slipped through the cracks.

First, Florida acquired the 81st overall selection from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for a pair of picks in the fourth round (104 and 114). Then, the club went on to grab the 136th overall selection from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round draft choice.

"The more picks, the more options you have," Tallon said. "We were able to utilize that… It kept a nice flow to the draft for us. Having picks 52, 69, 81, 106, and so on, we weren't absent for long periods of time. It continued a good flow and it worked out to be a really good draft for us."

Already boasting one of the top forward pipelines in the league, there's no question that the Panthers succeeded in filling out some of the remaining holes in their prospect pool. From a potential franchise goaltender to high-upside skaters, this year's class checked all the boxes.

"We were able to address a lot of our needs on a lot of different levels, starting from the net out," Panthers Director of Amateur Scouting Jason Bukala said. "We got a nice group of defensemen with a combination of skill and size. Then, obviously, some real nice additions up front as well, some 200-foot players that we really wanted to add to our organization to lean out our prospect pool a bit. This was as exciting a day, or two days, that I can recall since coming to Florida."

With insights from Bukala and Tallon, here's how Florida's second day of the draft unfolded:

Vladislav Kolyachonok (2nd round, 52nd overall)

Position: Defense

DOB: May 26, 2001

Height: 6'2''

Weight: 187 lbs.

Shoots: Left

Team: Flint Firebirds (OHL)

Kolyachonok's first tour of North America was certainly fruitful.

Taken in the second round of the 2018 CHL Import Draft by the OHL's London Knights, the Belarusian blueliner played only one game with his new team before a roster squeeze landed him on waivers and eventually with the Firebirds - a move that paved the way for him to shine.

Earning ample playing time in Flint, Kolyachonok posted four goals and 25 assists in 53 games during his first season after crossing the Atlantic. Prior to that, he'd spent the previous two years suiting up in his native country playing with U-17 and U-18 squads in Belarusian Extraleague B.

"It was a really good experience," Kolyachonok said of his transition to North America. "I was traded from London to Flint. I played lots of minutes in Flint, in tough situations. I think it was probably the best experience of my life, and now I'm here."

Kolyachonok describes himself as a two-way defenseman, but added that he needs to work on the offensive part of his game to become a more well-rounded skater. When asked if there was any one NHL player he compared himself to, he said "I'm just trying to develop in my own way."

At the 2019 U-18 IIHF World Junior Championship, Kolyachonok produced at a point-per-game clip, racking up a goal and four assists over five tournament games while captaining Belarus.

"A good result for Belarus, but not good enough for me," Kolyachonok said. "I want to win. I just always want to win. I don't want to be finishing fourth for something. I had really mixed feelings."

Kolyachonok's selection marks the first time the Panthers have drafted a player from Belarus.

"I wanted to see who would take me, who would believe in me," Kolyachonok said when asked about the final moments leading up to his selection. "Now, I know it's the Florida Panthers."

Kolyachonok will look to build on his strong foundation with Flint during the 2019-20 campaign.

Bukala's Assessment: "Great skater. He's got size. He's pretty lean, but he's put together. He's had to battle through some adversity… He didn't bat an eye [when he went to Flint]. He joined a rebuilding junior franchise. It said a lot about him character-wise. He just wants to be a good player. We had already identified him on our underage list a year ago when he was in Europe at the World Junior Championship. We had him as a target from the beginning of the year. It didn't matter where he was going to play, we already had him on our list."

John Ludvig (3rd round, 69th overall)

Position: Defense

DOB: Aug. 2, 2000

Height: 6'1''

Weight: 198 lbs.

Shoots: Left

Team: Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

Ludvig has enough sandpaper in his game to open his own Home Depot.

Appearing 58 games with the Portland this past season, the 18-year-old tallied five goals, 13 assists and a career-high 77 penalty minutes. According to HockeyFights.com, he's also not afraid of a scrap. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, he's dropped the gloves eight times.

Still, Ludwig's biggest strength is his physical, sound defense.

Earning top-pairing minutes with the Winterhawks, he was often tasked with shutting down the opposition's top players on most nights. An exceptional shot blocker, he also isn't afraid to put his body on the line and puts that talent to good use each game, especially on the penalty kill.

He also knows first-hand what it takes to reach hockey's highest level, as his father, Jan Ludvig, played in 314 NHL games over seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres.

Next season, Ludvig is expected to play an even bigger role in Portland.

Bukala's Assessment: "He's hard and mean, but with skill. He trains as an MMA fighter. He's an old-style, Rocky kind of guy when it comes to his training. He's got bloodlines. His dad played in the league. Between the ears, he's relentless, heavy. He's going to be the captain potentially in Portland this upcoming year. He's a good fit for us."

Cole Schwindt (3rd round, 81st overall)

Position: Center / Right Wing

DOB: April 25, 2001

Height: 6'3''

Weight: 176 lbs.

Shoots: Right

Team: Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)

Florida made its first trade of the day to get back into the third round and select Schwindt.

A teammate of Owen Tippet's over parts of two seasons in Mississauga, the Panthers saw quite a bit of Schwindt while he competed alongside the organization's 2017 first-round pick. Not quite the elite scorer that Tippett is, Schwindt succeedes by doing a little bit of everything on the ice.

In 68 games with the Steelheads this past season, the versatile 18-year-old set career-highs in goals (19), assists (30) and points (49). Projecting as a two-way forward, he's very good in the defensive zone. He's also known for having an active stick, but still stays out of penalty trouble.

When you talk about Schwindt, the term "200-foot game" is something that you'll see a lot. As previously stated, he does a little bit of everything and does it all pretty well. One of his biggest assets, however, is in the faceoff circle, where he won 52.9 percent of his draws in 2018-19.

Already armed with intangibles, he'll look to continue making strides on offense with the Steelheads next season.

Bukala's Assessment: "We were able to track him because of Tipp being there. There's lots to like. He's another big, strong presence in the middle of the ice. He's real good in the faceoff dot and can kill penalties. He's not a guy that you're going to look to score as much as some other guys like the Borgys and the Trochecks and the Barkovs, but he adds that layer in his role. He's a big pickup for us."

Carter Berger (4th round, 106th overall)

Position: Defense

DOB: Sept. 17, 1999

Height: 6'0''

Weight: 201 lbs.

Shoots: Left

Team: Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL)

Berger was looking at the silver linings after the Panthers called his name.

Passed over during his first year of eligibility in 2018, the 19-year-old rearguard took that slight in stride, returning to the draft one year later only to be selected in his hometown of Vancouver.

"It's pretty special," Berger said. "I grew up here, born and raised. It's always in the back of your mind, all season long. You're playing with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. I'm so happy."

Using that chip as fuel, Berger was one of the most-improved defensemen in the BCHL this past season. He was the top-scoring blueliner on the Grizzlies, setting new career-highs in goals (27), assists (36) and points (63) - 29 more points than he had tallied in his 2017-18 campaign.

"I don't think it was really necessarily one thing," Berger said when asked to pinpoint the reason for his breakout season. "I think the main thing for me was just my confidence. It was my third year with the team, my third year in the league. I was really comfortable with the organization, players and staff. When you're comfortable like that, it tends to lead to success."

Berger is committed to man the blue line for the University of Connecticut starting in 2019-20.

"I'm a late-bloomer," Berger said. "With the college route, it offers you so much time to develop. You obviously want to make that step to pro hockey as quick as possible, but at the same time you don't want to rush it. I think the college path is perfect for that."

Bukala's Assessment: "He's an old kid, going away to UCONN next year. He's a transitional defenseman, a top-10 skater in the draft. He's a powerful, powerful skater. He's quick, fast. I like that he's got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder because he was overlooked in the past. He's going right into UCONN to quarterback their power play and be a big part of that program."

Henrik Rybinski (5th round, 136th overall)

Position: Left Wing

DOB: June 26, 2001

Height: 6'1''

Weight: 170 lbs.

Shoots: Right

Team: Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)

The Panthers had to trade for a second pick in the fifth round in order to select Rybinski.

"It's a lifelong dream come true," said Rybinski, another Vancouver native. "Before it happened, I was really nervous. Then, it just happened. I started smiling. You think about all the work you've put in. It was a surreal experience. I was really happy. I was overwhelmed with feelings."

Like most prospects, Rybinski could benefit from packing on a few pounds - "I'm a little skinny, ain't going to lie," he said - but despite his size he isn't afraid to go into the dirty areas to get the job done. A self-described gritty player, he believes one of his best assets is his work ethic.

After being traded from the Medicine Hat Tigers to Seattle, he shined while carving out a much larger role than he had with his previous club. In 33 games with the Thunderbirds, he notched seven goals and 28 assists - both career-bests. He also had two assists in six playoff games.

He will look to build on that breakout performance next season with Seattle.

"I can't say if I was still [in Medicine Hat] this would have happened, but I feel like it was the right choice," Rybinski said. "At the time I was kind nervous about how things were going to go, but it turned out to be worth it. I'm really glad about how things went."

Rybinski hopes to be in South Florida at development camp when he turns 18 on June 26.

"I've never been there, but I heard it's unreal," Rybinski said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Bukala's Assessment: "We're looking at a full 200-foot player with skill. He's got room to put on more weight. He's lean right now. But, again, he's got compete and knows how to put the puck in the back of the net. He's another guy that you can use in a variety of roles, which is really important for us."

Owen Lindmark (5th round, 137th overall)

Position: Center

DOB: May 17, 2001

Height: 6'0''

Weight: 192 lbs.

Shoots: Right

Team: U.S. National U18 Team

The Panthers think they've found a diamond in the rough with Lindmark.

Despite posting 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 56 games with the NTDP this past season, the 18-year-old forward was a bit overshadowed by some of the team's other star forwards, such as 2019 first-round picks Jack Hughes, Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield and Matthew Bodly.

That being said, his skill clearly didn't go unnoticed by Florida's scouts.

"It's an unbelievable experience," Lindmark said of the draft. "It's something that you dream about as a kid. Today, seeing it come true, it's truly unbelievable. I'm forever grateful."

Growing up a Blackhawks fans, Lindmark said he's eager to one day reach the NHL and play for new Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, who guided Chicago to a trio of Staley Cups.

"The hard work starts right now," said Lindmark, a native of Naperville, Illinois. "I'm going to development camp after this and then working later this summer at Wisconsin. I just can't wait to get back to work and keep improving my game."

Keeping with the Blackhawks theme, he said he models his game after Jonathan Toews.

"I always loved the way he played," Lindback said. "The 200-foot style that he plays, I think I have a similar two-way game to him. I'm obviously not comparing myself to him, but he's definitely someone that I look up to. I love watching him play hockey."

Heading into his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin in 2019-20, Lindback said the biggest area of his game he wants to improve on is his stickhandling. It's an area he's worked to improve on a lot recently and something that he wants to get better at "constantly, every day."

"First and foremost, it's the coaching staff," Lindmark said about his decision to join the Badgers. "They're all really down to earth. They're great people. Then, the campus, you can't find anything you don't like about it. It's great. I actually reported there last Sunday. I got a couple classes in, a couple days of school there."

Bukala's Assessment: "He played on such a special team, but there's only one puck. Owen flew under the radar a little bit, in relation to some of their other high-end guys. We believe that in any other year on that team, he would have played a more significant role offensively. What you're getting there is a kid going to Wisconsin that plays fast and hard. We believe that he's got a lot more skills and a lot more to give offensively than his numbers currently show."

Greg Meireles (6th round, 168th overall)

Position: Center / Right Wing

DOB: Jan. 1, 1999

Height: 5'10''

Weight: 190 lbs.

Shoots: Right Team: Kitchener Rangers (OHL)

Another overager, Meireles exploded this past season in Kitchener.

After posting just 30 points last season, the 20-year-old forward more than tripled that total in 2018-19, racking up a team-leading 97 points (36 goals, 61 assists) in 68 games. Of those points, 43 came on the power play. A high-volume shooter, he also led the club with 249 shots.

In March, he was named the OHL's "Player of the Month" after posting 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in eight games. In that span, he recorded at least one point in each game he played.

Given his age, Meireles could turn pro sooner rather than later if he continues to develop.

Bukala's Assessment: "Now he's got to prove that last year wasn't just an anomaly and that he was slowly building to that. Some kids, their timeline is different. They grow at different stages, all that kind of stuff… We stepped on him because we're of the belief that we didn't step on him now we'd be in a compete situation for him as a free agent next year. We believe in him enough right now that instead of getting ourselves in a quandary with 10 other teams, we'd draft him, bring him in, nurture him for a year and then see where he goes from there."

Matthew Wedman (7th round, 199th overall)

Position: Left Wing

DOB: May 25, 1999

Height: 6'3''

Weight: 196 lbs.

Shoots: Left

Team: Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)

With their final pick of the draft, the Panthers added their third overage player of the weekend.

A teammate of Rybinski's in Seattle, the 20-year-old forward recorded 40 goals and 77 points in 66 games with the Thunderbirds this past season, earning a spot on the 2018-19 WHL West Second All-Star Team. A breakout player, his 77 points were 30 more than his old career-best.

Wedman is the first Seattle skater to reach 40 goals since the 2009-10 season.

Looking ahead, Wedman, like Meireles, will have a chance to become a pro in the near future.

Tallon's Assessment: "He's a big, heavy hard player. He scores goals and goes to the dirty areas… We like his ability to score goals and work through traffic."

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