NEWARK, N.J. -- The Panthers had a chance to continue to improve their defensive stock with the second pick in the 2013 NHL Draft but instead looked to fill a more pressing need.
Despite having top-ranked prospect Seth Jones waiting for them, the Panthers picked Finnish center Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov on Sunday afternoon.
Barkov, born in Finland to Russian parents, becomes the second-highest draft pick in Panthers history. Florida selected Ed Jovanovski with the top pick in 1994.
Although Jones — who landed in Nashville — said he wanted to make the three teams who passed up on him regret it, the Panthers needed a player ready to step into the NHL right now.
Barkov, who has played two seasons of pro hockey in Finland, appears to fit that bill. Jones was available after Colorado took center Seth MacKinnon with the first overall pick.
“He’s big, strong, creative and can play in all three zones,” said general manager Dale Tallon, who added that he made the decision to draft Barkov — 6-3, 210 pounds — shortly after their final interview on Saturday afternoon.
“He makes other players around him better. He has great vision, great hands. He’s a rare commodity, a big center with skill. He fits into what we already have coming in size and speed. He gives us real strength up the middle.”
One thing that seemed to impress Tallon and his staff the most is the skill set Barkov showed in Finland.
As scouting director Scott Luce said Saturday, Barkov’s talents always have surpassed his age as he has played up a level throughout his junior career.
Barkov turned pro as a 16-year-old and scored 28 goals with 36 assists in 85 games over two seasons with Tappara of Finland’s Elite League.
Barkov, who turns 18 on Sept. 2, told Tallon he is ready to leave Finland behind and join the Panthers and the NHL in the fall. Barkov, at age 16, became the youngest player to score a goal at the world juniors for Finland.
“I played already two years against men in the Finnish Elite League,” Barkov said, “and it’s a very good league with very good players. I think it helps me very much.”
Said Tallon: “He’s played against men as a 16-, 17-year-old. We like his strength, he’s strong on the puck and on his feet. He’s only going to get stronger.”
Barkov missed most of the postseason after sustaining a shoulder injury that needed surgery. Tallon said Barkov will be cleared to play in August and be in camp come mid-September.
If that is the case, Barkov will say goodbye to Tappara.
When the Panthers played a preseason game against Tappara in Finland in 2009, Barkov’s father, Alexander, was an assistant coach for the Tampere, Finland, team. Florida ended up losing that exhibition 4-3 in a shootout.
Barkov, who attended the game, admits he rooted against the Panthers then — but is now a big fan.
“I know we have very good players, one Finnish player [Sean Bergenheim] and Johnny Huberdeau who won the Calder Trophy,” Barkov said.
For Jones, projected to be the top pick just a few weeks ago, falling to the Preds at No. 4 wasn’t too big of a deal. When Florida went for Barkov, Tampa Bay selected playmaker Jonathan Drouin.
Tallon said it was a tough decision deciding between Jones and Barkov.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about [being among the top three picks],” Jones said. “I’m competitive. I have a competitive nature, and I get that from my parents. You definitely want to prove them wrong, and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you.”
Florida did end up taking a defenseman — but waited until the second round to take Ian McCoshen. Born in Southern California but raised in Wisconsin, McCoshen is big and can play on both ends of the ice. McCoshen will join Florida prospect Mike Mathesen at Boston College in the fall.
“We really like him, his size and intensity,” Tallon said. “He has great skills, and Boston College develops defensemen. He’s another big player for us.”
The Panthers also added some depth later in the draft, selecting three college-bound players in the fourth round — goalie Evan Cowley (92nd overall), defenseman Mike Downing (97th) and center Matt Buckles (98th).
Florida also selected winger Chris Clapperton to kick off the fifth round, and took defenseman Josh Brown in the sixth.