2020 NHL Draft

Team Recaps: Florida Panthers

Steve Kournianos  |  11/13/2020 |  Nashville  |  [hupso]

I can’t recall ever being blown away by a Panthers’ draft haul much like this one, which on paper may be the best the organization has had in several years. They kicked it off with a bang by grabbing top two-way center Anton Lundell at 12th overall, then developed a trend of tough forwards with each of their next three picks — center Ty Smilanic from the U.S. NTDP and wingers Emil Heineman (pictured) and Justin Sourdif. All four were ranked in my top 55, including Sourdif at 19th. That in itself is justification for a perfect score, but new GM Bill Zito and his staff also mined the later rounds for a top-100 gem in center Elliot Ekmark and standout defenders in Kasper Puutio and Zach Uens. 

Anton Lundell, Center (12th overall)

The drafting of goalie Spencer Knight in the first round last year followed by this year’s selection of a two-way center like Lundell certainly accentuates Florida’s desire to tighten things up in their own end, regardless of how long it takes to materialize. Lundell is able to tackle the tough checking assignments but he also transitions the other way in a hurry. It’s not uncommon to see Lundell’s line run lengthy cycles in the opposing end, adding to the idea that the best defense is to have an even better offense. He also has a deadly shot and is effective at managing a power play.

Emil Heineman, Left Wing (43rd overall)

The Cats entered the 2020 draft already owning two of the game’s premier goal-scoring prospects in former first-rounders Owen Tippett and Grigory Denisenko, so drafting Heineman right around where we expected him to be is just adding more protein to an already healthy diet. This kid can fly down the wing, but it’s Heineman’s size and direct routes to the net that caused significant issues for J20 defensemen. Heineman is a bit of a late bloomer so it may take him another two or three seasons in Sweden to round out a game that is centered on shooting and goal scoring.

Ty Smilanic, Center/Wing (74th overall)

By the time Round 3 rolled around, it became obvious that the Panthers were gunning for forwards with size. In Smilanic, they drafted a versatile bulldog who not only impacts shifts with his violent charges to the net but also for his tireless work on the forecheck. The stats with the NTDP may seem average, but his rough-and-tumble style caused him to miss some time with injuries, in addition to the fact that his team was not your average run-and-gun NTDP. He’s committed to Quinnipiac in the ECAC, which is expected to resume play after the new year.

Justin Sourdif, Left Wing (87th overall)

Much like the three players chosen before him, Sourdif provides his team with a consistent effort both on and off the puck. He made an instant impression on me as a draft-1 for Vancouver in the 2019 WHL playoffs, so there was never any doubt that he would be ranked in my first round, nor did he ever give a reason to drop him out of it. In any event, this pick could be one that we all look back on and wonder how such a talented kid with comendable traits was drafted outside the first two rounds. Sourdif has a wicked shot and can make highlight-reel plays in addition to throwing his weight around.

Michael Benning, Defenseman (95th overall)

A brilliant playmaker from the back end who may have gone higher had he been a little taller or thicker, Benning is a wonderful puck rusher who combines speed with ridiculous skill. He’s not going to be the guy you summon to reduce the likelihood of an opposing scoring chance, but few defensemen in the draft can go from defense to offense as quickly as Benning. His passes are clean, crisp and accurate, and he can act like a fourth forward. He’ll likely be a long-term project who spends all four years in college with Denver; mostly because he has to get stronger and improve his ability to handle bigger forwards.

Zachary Uens, Defenseman (105th overall)

Uens is a kid whose name was constantly thrown around as a potential sleeper, and deservedly so — he was one of the top freshman defensemen in college hockey and played a pivotal role on Merrimack from start to finish. Uens is an impressive skater who looks both comfortable and confident and he moves the puck up the ice, and his big shot in addition to his playmaking makes him a candidate to run the power play at higher levels. He’s got the length (6-foot-1) that Benning lacks, but Uens also could stand to tighten things up with his decisions during defensive-zone coverage. 

Kasper Puutio, Defenseman (153rd overall)

The last of the three defenders selected by Florida is the best in terms of actual defending, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a tight-checking team like Everett traded for Puutio midseason after Swift Current made him the first pick in the 2019 CHL Import Draft. Puutio is as clean a decision-maker as they come but he also skates well and can handle physical play on either the forecheck or in the corners. 

Elliot Ekmark, Center (198th overall)

I received the Ekmark selection with a lot of enthusiasm since he was ranked 100th and wasn’t drafted until late in the seventh round. He’s talented on the puck and can be a dangerous one-on-one player, but a big reason why I was bullish on him was the effort and tenacity despite being listed at 5-foot-9. He hits, forechecks, kills penalties, and can be counted on for keeping the motor revving late in shifts. 

Devon Levi, Goalie (212th overall)

We all know that the aforementioned Spencer Knight is on an Askarov-like level when it comes to prospects from between the pipes,  so the drafting of a goalie in any of the two or three drafts thereafter should be viewed as a contingency rather than a stab at a potential No. 1 who can challenge him. Levi is on the smaller side (6-foot-1) but he had an outstanding season at both the CCHL and international level. You had to figure he was on the radar for multiple teams since he played at the World Junior “A” Challenge  and was ranked by Central Scouting, but his size was expected to keep him in the later rounds. Committed to a big-time program at Northeastern, Levi was ranked in my top 200 so no beef with this pick whatsoever. For what it’s worth, the Canadiens drafted former Husky Cayden Primeau in the seventh round in 2016 and he now is one of the top goalie prospects in hockey.

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