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Florida Panthers draft defenseman, forgo trades as two rivals make deals

The The Florida Panthers go into next season as the defending Southeast Division champions.

Based on Friday, repeating as champions won’t come easy.

Both Carolina and Washington swung deals on the opening night of the NHL Draft at the Consol Center. Those trades should make both teams at least a little better.

The Hurricanes, who missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, traded for Pittsburgh star Jordan Staal a day after Staal turned down a 10-year contract with the Penguins. Staal, younger brother of Hurricanes’ All-Star center Eric, can be a free agent after next season. “We’ll figure out a way to keep him,’’ Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said.

Carolina sent the eighth overall pick, forward Brandon Sutter and a prospect to the Penguins for the 23-year-old Jordan Staal.

Washington, which finished just two points behind Florida after winning the division the previous four seasons, picked up the second-line center it has been missing in Mike Ribeiro. The Capitals sent Cody Eakin and a second round pick to Dallas for Ribeiro — who scored 18 goals with 45 assists for the Stars last season.

Florida, meanwhile, wasn’t able to create any trade magic — at least just yet.

The Panthers had made a major deal at the draft the past six years but didn’t make any on Friday. The Panthers stood pat and took defenseman Mike Matheson with the 23rd overall selection. Past draft-day deals by the Panthers included sending Roberto Luongo to Vancouver in 2006, acquiring Tomas Vokoun in 2007 and sending Olli Jokinen to Phoenix in 2008.

“There are things you can’t control,’’ said GM Dale Tallon, who traded Keith Ballard at the 2010 draft and picked up reigning Lady Byng winner Brian Campbell last June.

“The conversations happened but it has to be the right mix. That’s the way it goes.

“We had a wonderful year and moved to the back of the grid. We didn’t have the picks to accomplish the deals. But we got a guy we really wanted.’’

The Panthers seemingly have struck gold with their past two drafts in which Florida had the third overall pick. With defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers have a pair of players who should be in their lineup for years to come.

There is no such expectations for Matheson. A native of Quebec, Matheson is headed to Boston College in the fall. The Panthers knew Matheson is off to the national power program — and is more than fine with that. Matheson, who is 6-foot-1, scored 11 goals last season for Dubuque of the USHL; he was ranked the 30th North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.

“His greatest asset is his skating. It’s just incredible,’’ said Brian Skrudland, former captain of the Panthers who is now the team’s director of player development.

“We think we got a special one.’’

Said Tallon: “He’s arguably the best skater in the draft. He can move the puck and I like guys like that.’’

The Panthers are deep on defense within the organization but that didn’t seem to faze Matheson. Florida will hold a development camp in July with Matheson expected to attend.

“In every organization they have defensemen coming up,’’ he said. “It’s up to me to do what I have to do.

“I have to perform.’’

Edmonton had the top pick in the draft for the third straight year and added Nail Yakupov to the Oilers’ young stable of talented forwards. Taylor Hall (27 goals last season) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (18) were Edmonton’s previous No. 1 selections.

Yakupov becomes only the third Russian to be taken first overall, joining Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin. The winger had 31 goals in 42 games for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League last year. Yakupov left Russia to play in Canada and prepare himself for the NHL.

“I’m ready for the NHL,” he said. “It’s a great team, a young team.

“They are young but they played good. I think it’s going to be a great team.’’

Columbus, which had the worst record in the league but didn’t win the draft lottery, took defenseman Ryan Murray with the second overall pick.

The draft concludes Saturday at 10 a.m. with the second through seventh rounds. The final six rounds will be broadcast on the NHL Network. Florida could have four selections remaining as the Panthers have the option to send their second round pick to Tampa Bay (as part of the Kris Versteeg deal with Philadelphia last summer).

If the Panthers keep the pick, they will surrender their second round selection next June. Florida doesn’t currently have selections in the fifth or seventh rounds.

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