The NHL Entry Draft, which will be held over two days on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the beginning of the free agency period on Friday have the potential to bring sweeping transformations to any organization. For the Checkers, who have already experienced such change since last taking the ice, it’s a chance to get a better idea of what their first rosters made up of Florida Panthers prospects will look like.
As clear as such things can be within current global circumstances, that is.
“To be honest, I think we’re all waiting,” incoming Checkers coach Geordie Kinnear said last week. “Things are still working themselves out.”
In addition to the pandemic creating uncertainty about when the 2020-21 season will begin, new Panthers General Manager Bill Zito, who has already made two trades since taking over last month, now gets his first major opportunity to begin applying his vision.
The reality of various leagues around the world starting at different times will also affect player placement. For the Panthers, the Finnish trio of Henrik Borgstrom, Aleksi Saarela and Eetu Luostarinen are among those beginning the season in Europe until hockey can return to North America. Junior and college players may also have to end up changing plans.
While the immediate destinations of other such players in the Panthers’ prospect pool will continue to be determined by who can play where and when, this week should at least begin to set the table in terms of who would be most likely to be a Checker in a normal season - for whatever that’s worth.
And now, a closer look at what’s in store for this week:
THE DRAFTThe Panthers hold the 12th overall pick in the draft, which will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. To put a little Checkers perspective on that, that’s where the Hurricanes landed Martin Necas in 2017 and Ryan Murphy in 2011. Not far off from that spot were Jake Bean (13th overall in 2016) and Zach Boychuk (14th in 2008).
So, it’s a decent area to grab a key member of a Calder Cup champion and/or an AHL All Star. It almost always requires a wait, however, as it takes just the right combination of readiness, willingness and eligibility to step into the AHL at 18 years of age.
More likely, the player taken at 12 won’t be in the Checkers’ mix for another year or two. The same is true for the rest of the players that the Panthers are preparing to select with their other seven picks in Rounds 2-7 on Wednesday. However, they will certainly be names to remember for Checkers fans, as roughly 63 percent of players drafted by the Hurricanes between 2010-17 ended up playing at least one game for Charlotte. Just last season, 14 Hurricanes draft picks played for the Checkers, including the team’s top five scorers.
We won’t pretend to know what specific players the Panthers are targeting at any point in the draft. Instead, we’ll turn you to our new friends at FloridaPanthers.com, who have profiled a number of players expected to be in the mix at 12 and have also compiled various mock drafts from around the hockey world.
We can tell you that the Panthers have seemingly done well near that spot in recent years, grabbing Owen Tippett, a center who scored 40 points in 47 AHL games during an All-Star rookie season, at No. 10 in 2017, taking promising Russian winger Grigori Denisenko, a strong candidate to make the Panthers next season, at No. 15 in 2018, and nabbing Spencer Knight, now considered one of the top goaltending prospects in all of hockey, at No. 13 in 2019.
FREE AGENCYIn a normal year (yeah, yeah), the first day of free agency is when the biggest players sign the biggest deals. That said, we might not see a whole lot of developments that trickle down to the AHL level at 12 p.m. on Friday, but there should certainly be noteworthy news in the coming days, weeks and months.
Those moves will come as NHL clubs move to surround their raw prospects with more experienced players, who will help in the development process and also serve as more call-up-ready players to bolster organizational depth when needed. Recent Checkers examples of these players include Max McCormick, Fredrik Claesson and Brian Gibbons – all of whom joined as free agents in the 2019 offseason.
In terms of experienced depth players still under contract, the Panthers seem most set on defense with Tommy Cross, 31, and Ethan Prow, 27. The forward ranks could be a different story, where Paul Thompson, Ryan Haggerty, Danick Martel and Joel Lowry, all veterans on last season’s Springfield Thunderbirds team, are set to become free agents this week. In goal, the Checkers would stand to have at least one experienced option in either Sam Montembeault or Chris Driedger – whichever does not earn the NHL backup job behind Sergei Bobrovsky.