Panthers finally accept risk in keeping No. 1 pick

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Updated: 6/28/2014 7:48 am

Philadelphia, PA ( - Prior to Friday night, the Florida Panthers were awarded the top pick in the NHL Entry Draft on three occasions. Preceding their second year of existence, the braintrust in the club's front office plucked hulking defenseman Ed Jovanovski from Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League.

The last two No. 1 picks the franchise held have accumulated the following as long-term NHL players:

Six All-Star appearances and a Rocket Richard Trophy along with 336 goals and 628 points over 783 games in 11 seasons; a franchise-record 288 wins, a 2.62 goals-against average, 28 shutouts and .910 save percentage and one Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately for the Swamp Cats, the former's stats belong to Rangers forward Rick Nash, who was taken by Columbus first-overall in 2002, and the latter's numbers are the property of Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins' first choice the next season. Both clubs became the unwitting beneficiaries of Florida's itchy trigger finger.

Despite discussions to the contrary which reportedly included the Philadelphia Flyers and misfit center Vinny Lecavalier, Florida GM Dale Tallon stepped to the podium shortly after 7 p.m. (ET) and announced that not only would he not deal the pick, but also that NHL Central Scouting's second-ranked North American skater Aaron Ekblad was their man.

"It's unbelievable. It's cool to have my family and friends here supporting me," said Ekblad following his selection by the Panthers. "I believe they're an up-and-coming team and I feel that this is where I can facilitate my development and win a Stanley Cup in the next few years."

Ekblad, an 18-year-old defenseman for the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts with a huge offensive up side (23 goals, 53 points in 58 games) and a mean streak to boot, was an appropriate bookend to Jovanovski's selection in 1994.

He is literally an exceptional choice. Ekblad was granted "exceptional status" as a 15-year-old to be eligible for the 2011 OHL draft, only the second player to gain that distinction next to current Islanders captain John Tavares.

"He's so mature for his age," Tallon said immediately after leaving the podium. "And he fits what we have, with (Aleksander) Barkov, (Erik) Gudbranson, (Nick) Bjugstad ... these are cornerstones of the franchise, guys you can build around for a long time."

It was no surprise to hear rumors leading up to the start of Friday's draft, that Tallon was strongly considering shopping the top-overall pick to improve his club, but it is a surprise given that the last two times that occurred, the move benefitted the receiving team better either they could have imagined.

Consider that choosing Jovanovski 20 years ago and bringing him up for his rookie season of 1995-96, were actions which accelerated the success of the expansion entrant and gave them an identity.

Only 19 years old, the 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pounder provided a physical dimension to Florida's blueline which didn't exist for its first two seasons, and provided a counterpoint to the smallish and older presences of those like Terry Carkner, Geoff Smith, Robert Svehla, Magnus Svensson and Gord Murphy.

In the second round of the '96 playoffs, Jovanovski had one job: stop Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom.

He did so with a mixture of size, aggressiveness and positional play which largely stymied Philadelphia's top line, and was a major factor in toppling the Flyers in six games. He then set his sights on Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the Eastern Conference finals, and lassoed both superstars as the Panthers claimed a shocking seven-game triumph to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first, and to date, last time.

Jovanovski put together almost four solid years in south Florida before being bundled off to Vancouver in the January 1999 deal to snag Pavel Bure, and continued to be a force on the blueline for much of his remaining 15 NHL seasons -- which include the last three injury-plagued years with the Panthers.

Fast forward six years, and keeping Nash -- instead of shopping the pick to the Blue Jackets -- meant the Panthers would have gained a franchise-level sniper to replace Bure and his balky knees. One year later, and had the trigger not been pulled to Pittsburgh, Fleury certainly would have been the difference maker in net Roberto Luongo and a host of other lesser-skilled netminders never could be.

At the head of the 2014 draft class, Ekblad has been thrust into a similar position as the now-38-year-old former heavy. Still facing the end of his teenage years, the Ontario native and OHL's most outstanding defenseman will be soon counted on to alter the fortunes of a franchise which has only reached the postseason once since 2000.

"Strong, responsible defense. That's the position I play, and that's what I plan on doing when I get there," said Ekblad in a manner like his fellow top- flight draftees, showing signs of emergent confidence.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but it was clear the Panthers didn't see a game- changer in either Nash or Fleury. Those in charge then happened to be wrong. Those in charge now have shown the fortitude and willingness to take the plunge on Ekblad, as it was when Jovanovski came on board.

"We just didn't want to do something that was a quick band-aid. We wanted to do this thing the right way and keep on building the way we've been building," Tallon added. "It was a real interesting evening and morning, but we felt we had to take our time."

What remains to be seen is twofold: how Ekblad adjusts to the added expectations and responsibilities going forward, and how long Tallon and the Panthers will allow Ekblad to blossom into a true difference maker alongside his peers.


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