NEW YORK -- When the Panthers had the third overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Florida landed forward Jonathan Huberdeau — who is now the NHL’s reigning rookie of the year.
“There were two players we thought were close to Huberdeau,” assistant general manager Mike Santos said. “We just waited for the picks to be made, and he fell into our lap. Looking back, the right guy fell into our lap.”
On Sunday, Florida has the second selection after Colorado. The Panthers hope history repeats itself and another top-end talent heads to South Florida.
Colorado, which won the draft lottery in April to pull the top pick away from the last-place Panthers, said it will select a forward and not top-rated defenseman Seth Jones.
Of course, this could be a bluff in trying to get the Panthers — or another team — to trade up for the top pick.
After all, Jones not only has ties to the Denver area and the Avs organization, but as a defenseman he plays a position where the Avs could use help. Florida general manager Dale Tallon said he believes what the Colorado management team of former players Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy is selling.
“Based on their history as players and as people, they are new to the game, but I believe they are very truthful,” Tallon said. “I’m just concerned about what we can do. The top four guys are slam dunks. We’re very prepared and satisfied they all will help us out.”
If the Avs were to take center Nathan MacKinnon, whom it is believed the Panthers prefer, Florida is projected to select Jones.
Florida, by virtue of finishing the season in last place, will get what projects to be a very good player with either MacKinnon, Jones or forwards Jonathan Drouin and Aleksander Barkov.
“We’re going to get a better-than-normal prospect in this draft,” said Scott Luce, the team’s director of amateur scouting. “We, as an organization, would much rather be in the playoffs like we were the year before, picking at 23 and getting a guy like Mike Matheson every year rather than going through the top guys in every draft. Our fans deserve that and our staff deserves that.”
Tallon said Saturday that the Panthers haven’t decided whom they will take with the second pick and reiterated that Florida could move up in a deal with Colorado or slide down.
This draft is deep in talent and teams covet Florida’s position.
“We’re going to get one hell of a player,” Tallon said. “I wish I had more picks. I really do. You try to be greedy, but you only get one kick at the can. You better make sure it’s the right one. We’re fortunate to be picking where we’re picking.”
Said Santos: “If you are picking one, two, three or four, you are getting a player who is a game-changer. Being at No. 2 doesn’t change a heck of a lot from being No. 1.”
The Panthers will have plenty of suitors Sunday, although Tallon said Saturday was “eerily quiet” on the trade front.
“Whatever the best option is for us, that’s what we’re going to do,” Tallon said. “I had conversations with [Colorado] on a couple of occasions. You have to exhaust every opportunity to get better.
“It would be unfair for me not to ask them if they were thinking about moving that pick. If they move it for something that we had or … could have given them, it would be very frustrating for our franchise and for all of us. We explore every avenue to make sure we have the best available picks. That’s how I’ve always operated.”
Luce has been watching Jones and MacKinnon for a long time. Although Jones comes into the draft as the top-rated prospect by NHL Central Scouting, MacKinnon is a player who has been pegged to be a top pick for the past few years.
Although surpassed by the emerging Jones in the eyes of some scouts — Jones is approaching 6-5 and can skate as well as anyone in this draft — many believe MacKinnon is a franchise-changing offensive forward.
“With our spot, we feel there are four guys out there who are elite guys,” Luce said. “We spent the past few months looking at those four guys to determine who is the best fit for our organization. It’s still a work in progress. We’ve had a lot of conversations.”
Because of the lockout that shortened the 2013 season to 48 games, the NHL is cramming all seven rounds of this draft into Sunday.
The first round is projected to take just over two hours to complete with the Panthers kicking off the second round with the 31st selection.
Tallon and his crew are hoping to continue adding to the Panthers depth as Florida holds five of the first 100 picks. Although Florida doesn’t have a third-round pick — yet — it does have three early selections in the fourth.
“Those picks are going to turn into something very positive for us,” Tallon said. “Either we’re going to use them to move up, or it’s such a deep draft, we’ll fill some needs.”