IN MY OPINION

David J. Neal: It’s simple – Florida Panthers should draft Seth Jones

 

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Simplicity works with amazing frequency. How often do you see people mess up meals, attire, birthday parties, stories (guilty) by trying too hard to be smart? Sometimes, you just blow up the bounce house and get out of the way.

That’s what the Panthers should do at Sunday’s NHL Draft: take defenseman Seth Jones with the No. 2 overall selection in the NHL’s annual pick-and-pray.

Jones, who plays for the Western Hockey League’s Portland (Ore.) Winterhawks, draws notice from non-puckheads for his lineage: son of former NBA player Popeye Jones. Scouts like that Dad passed along size (6-4 or 6-5, 205 pounds, probably filling out to 230 at full maturity) and the athleticism manifesting itself in skating ability and offensive skill.

Jones is ranked as the No. 1 North American defenseman or forward by NHL Central Scouting. Other scouts have him No. 2 behind goal-scoring center Nathan MacKinnon.

You can definitely be too thin. You can never be too rich. You definitely can never be too rich in defensemen, especially offensive defensemen with size. It’s the rarest commodity on a roster.

It’s why I’ve never criticized the Panthers taking Jay Bouwmeester in 2002 instead of power forward Rick Nash. Nash turned out to be the better player, though consensus opinion had him below Bouwmeester. That’s a mistake in hindsight, a classic draft “darn,” not a philosophical mistake. The true killer that year turned out to be moving up one spot — one spot! — to take center Petr Taticek at No. 9 overall and leaving Alexander Semin on the board for Washington.

Two of the NHL’s best under-23 defensemen, 21-year-old Erik Gudbranson (who stands 6-5) and maddening 22-year-old Dmitri Kulikov, wear the leaping cat with 21-year-old Alex Petrovic in the minors. Don’t care. Give Jones another two seasons and he’ll be emerging as Gudbranson hits his prime.

In 2006-07, Anaheim steamrolled to the most predictable Stanley Cup since pastels and mullets after trading for Chris Pronger (No. 2 overall, 1993) and putting him with Scott Niedermayer (No. 3 overall, 1991). The No. 2 seed Ducks took six games to win their second-round playoff series, five games each in the other three series. With their superior skating, puck handling and hockey sense, Pronger and Niedermayer helped Anaheim control long stretches of games.

The 6-6 Pronger has been on St. Louis’ only President’s Trophy (best record) team; Edmonton’s only Stanley Cup finalist since the breakup of the 1980s Oilers; Anaheim’s only Stanley Cup winner; and one of Philadelphia’s two finalists of the past 25 years. All that’s not an accident.

Reports say Colorado, the team that caused Jones to fall in love with hockey during his father’s time with the Denver Nuggets, wants MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick. Maybe that’s a smokescreen. NHL folks aren’t above a little shuck-and-jive at the top of the draft.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon agreed in general that you can’t have too many good defensemen, but said Saturday of their organizational blue-line state, “We have a pretty good depth chart there.”

Tallon said of his philosophy: “Take the best player available that fits your needs the most. If you have a philosophy of strength up the middle or build the back end first, whatever your philosophy is, focus on that.”

True, the Panthers’ season got crippled by injuries up front, exposing the lack of offensive depth. That’s a short-term view, though. Led by NHL Rookie of the Year Jonathan Huberdeau, there’s young offense on the roster and in the system. Besides, the Panthers can find scoring with the other four of their picks that come within the first 98 of a draft Tallon says is likened to the 2003 draft.

Only two first-rounders that year played fewer than 200 NHL games. That first round is considered to trail in quality only the legendary 1979 draft that, because of rules changes on draft eligibility and the death of the WHA, wound up being three and a half draft classes in one.

“The team that won the Stanley Cup had the puck the longest and that’s why they won,” Tallon said. “That’s what I like — puck possession.”

Tallon knows Chicago well, of course, having had a hand in building Chicago’s 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup winners. The way the Blackhawks moved the puck out of the back, quickly defusing turnover-birthing forechecking, went a long way to helping the puck possession Tallon embraces. That’s another reason Jones works.

This isn’t some mixed-bag Chopped draft that requires getting funky at No. 2. Keep it simple, in concept and name: Seth Jones.

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