As the eyes of the hockey world focused on Saturday night’s second game of the Stanley Cup finals in Tampa, close to 120 NHL hopefuls also had the Sunshine State on their minds.
With the 2015 NHL Draft being held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on June 26 and 27, Saturday was one of the final chances for teams to get to see top prospects in action during rigorous workouts at the pre-draft combine.
The event, held at the Sabres’ new HarborCenter complex across the street from their arena, featured all sorts of off-ice physical testing.
With less than three weeks left before the draft, most of the prospects appeared ready to finish up, hop on a plane and head to South Florida.
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Those southbound flights will come soon enough. Some, like generational talent Connor McDavid, have other business to attend to.
“I’m looking forward to a little time off here; this kind of wraps up the draft year, and it’s exciting,” said McDavid, the coveted center who is expected to be taken first overall by draft lottery winner Edmonton.
“I’m just going to hang out; I have some school I have to finish up, get back to that and graduate from high school.”
Florida general manager Dale Tallon took in the early workouts, which included body measurements (standing height, wingspan) as well as agility testing and cardio.
Whether these tests determine what skills a player has on the ice is up for debate, with Tallon and others wishing there was some on-ice testing.
McDavid, who can afford to be a little blasé about the combine proceedings, admitted he didn’t exactly know how he scored on what he said was the toughest test — a 30-second sprint on a stationary bike.
Jack Eichel, the Boston University center who will likely be drafted second by the Sabres, said he paid attention to where his numbers were in comparisons to others — especially McDavid, whose group he followed.
“It was very cool, a great experience, and I was taking everything in,” said Eichel, who said some Buffalo fans told him “welcome home.”
Tallon, along with other general managers, left the arena before the midway point of the testing.
The Panthers, who will pick 11th on the draft’s opening night barring a trade up or down, not only missed the playoffs but finished out of contention for the top players like McDavid, Eichel, Dylan Strome and Noah Hanifin.
Although Tallon is confident Florida will get a high-end player despite being outside the top 10, he probably would have stuck around a little longer Saturday had the Panthers had a top-five pick.
“This is a good draft early, and you will be able to get similar players from 15 to 50,” Tallon said. “In that regard, it’s a deep draft, and we have two [third-round picks] and a fourth, which will be very important for us.
“We’ll get a real good player at 11. We’ll have a big pool of guys and have identified players we will be happy to take at that position. We’re confident we’ll get one of the guys we’ve identified who will help our depth chart. We’re going to take the best player who is there.”
▪ Tallon said he has begun speaking with the representatives for restricted free agents Jonathan Huberdeau and Jimmy Hayes.
Both forwards had career highs in goals and assists last season. Tallon said he is open to a number of different deals for Huberdeau — the third overall pick of the 2011 draft — including a long-term pact.
Florida signed center Nick Bjugstad to a six-year deal that kicks in next season.
“We’re just starting the preliminary discussions, and I met with his agent two days ago,” Tallon said of Huberdeau, who had 15 goals and 39 assists last season.
“The biggest thing is agreeing on terms, and once we figure that out we’ll start talking numbers. We’re looking at a bridge [contract] or something a little longer or a long-term contract. We’re open to anything. We’ll get something done that’s best for both of us.”
Hayes, acquired by the Panthers in the Kris Versteeg deal with Chicago early in the 2013-14 season, had 19 goals and 16 assists last season. Hayes has 30 goals in 125 games with the Panthers.
▪ This draft will be the second one held in Sunrise. Florida last hosted the draft in 2001, with the Panthers making a big splash by trading for Valeri Bure to play alongside his brother Pavel.
Tallon said Saturday that he won’t make trades just “to put on a show” in his home arena.
“We’re going to do what we do to make the Florida Panthers better, period,” Tallon said.