As the NHL Draft approached in 2013, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was torn.
After losing the draft lottery to Colorado, the last-place Panthers dropped to second in the order.
The Avalanche were set to take Nathan McKinnon with the first pick, leaving top-ranked defenseman Seth Jones available to the Panthers.
As much as Tallon and the Florida scouts liked Jones — a 6-4 blue-liner with good puck-moving skills who was the top-rated player in the draft — they were intrigued by a Finnish center who, although just 17, was already playing professionally in Europe.
The Panthers also looked hard at forward Jonathan Drouin, the second-ranked North American skater behind Jones.
Yet Florida European scout Jari Kekalainen was absolutely in love with a kid who answered to the Russian nickname Sasha and leaned hard on the Panthers to take him.
The Panthers’ decision to select Finland’s Aleksander Barkov turned out to be one of the best decisions the franchise has ever made.
“We feel very fortunate that he was there,” Tallon said Tuesday, “and we made the right decision.”
Drafting Barkov might have marked the true end of the franchise’s dark days, and should be considered a turning point in the resuscitation of a moribund organization.
“Great day for our franchise,” Tallon said Tuesday as the team celebrated signing Barkov, now 20, to a six-year contract extension.
“I’m excited about this young man, not only for his hockey but for his ability to be such a class act. He’s going to lead us to the promised land.”
As much as Tallon liked Jones, the underlying truth was the Panthers really needed an NHL-ready center who would come cheap.
Unknown to the public, the team was for sale; spending was curtailed.
Free agent Stephen Weiss, considered by some to be the face of the franchise after playing in more games for Florida than anyone else, waited for an offer from the Panthers that never came.
With Weiss heading elsewhere — he signed for five years in Detroit — Tallon decided Barkov was his guy.
For better or worse, the Panthers were going to build around young, talented players, most notably physical centers such as Barkov and 6-6 Nick Bjugstad.
“We like to be strong up the middle to be successful,” Tallon said.
It hasn’t even been three years since that draft day in Newark, New Jersey, yet the Panthers look like a transformed organization.
Months after Barkov was drafted, the team was sold to New York businessmen Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu.
Tallon, albeit late in the proceedings, was given some money to bring in a few unsigned free agents such as Brad Boyes and Boston Stanley Cup hero Tim Thomas.
Although the 2013-14 Florida team struggled again, it won the draft lottery this time and finally had the top pick.
One could see things starting to turn around.
Barkov, obviously, has been a big part it.
During his rookie season, Barkov showed his value as the team’s fortunes headed south after he missed a month after a knee injury.
Barkov was lost for the remainder of the season after reinjuring the knee playing for Finland at the Olympics as an 18-year-old.
The Panthers finished 29th in the 30-team league that year.
Barkov’s star really took off last year when the Panthers traded for Jaromir Jagr in February.
Barkov said he initially didn’t believe reports Jagr was going to join his team. But he did, and Barkov has been Jagr's centerman ever since.
The trio of Barkov, Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau seemed to have instant chemistry and the three continue to lead the Panthers — a team headed into the All-Star break with a comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division and ranked second in the Eastern Conference.
When asked whether he thought the Panthers would get to this point so quickly, Barkov smiled.
“To be honest, maybe not this good,” said Barkov, who scored his 13th goal of the season in the second period of Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Toronto.
“But I believed in this team and that we would be in the playoffs this year and get our chances. We’re in a good spot, but we have to keep looking at the next day, the next game. We’re not satisfied yet. We’re not where we want to be, and that’s the playoffs.”
As for Weiss, he was bought out by the Red Wings last summer after two injury-plagued seasons.
Weiss, Florida’s all-time leader in games played (654) and assists (249), is currently out of hockey.
Drouin, drafted right after Barkov by Tampa Bay, is also out of hockey — sort of.
After being sent to the AHL, Drouin made his trade demands public, causing a rift between him and the organization. That chasm was only made wider when he left the AHL team to await a trade that could be a long way off.
Also, had the Panthers taken Jones in 2013, they probably wouldn’t have selected another defenseman the following year.
That means the Panthers might not have rising star Aaron Ekblad around if they hadn’t taken Barkov.
“I see a really bright future in this team and this organization,” Barkov said. “I’m really happy to be here.”