Florida Panthers

David J. Neal: Florida Panthers make gutsy, bold move with Aleksander Barkov

The Panthers are the only professional team in town that plays with pucks, but Sunday they showed they’ve got a lot of guts.

With everybody’s No. 1 or No. 2, 6-4 offensive defenseman Seth Jones, sitting there to be taken at No.2 overall, the Panthers went for 17-year-old Finnish center Aleksander Barkov. They eschewed the kind of player on which general managers and scouts tether their careers.

Give Panthers general manager Dale Tallon credit for the courage his peers so often lack.

Do you know why the NHL adopted the point just for getting to overtime when they instituted four-on-four overtime, and refuse to institute three-point wins? Because both moves mitigate what’s on the line each of 82 game nights. General managers and coaches hate real risk. They hate leaving the warmth and comfort of the herd.

Tallon doesn’t. He stepped out in the cold. Instead of making an organizational strength even stronger — and maybe giving himself some really good trade options down the road — he addressed a more immediate need. That’s not the usual NHL draft philosophy.

A Prudential Center-wide grumble audible on the TSN (Canada’s ESPN) broadcast accompanied the Panthers announcement. The last time a South Florida team’s draft pick drew that kind of response, six years ago and a commuter train ride away in New York, the Dolphins had just taken kick returner/wide receiver Ted Ginn (and his family).

This isn’t a Ginn pick, a reach for a specialist instead of trying to address a major need. Top line two-way centers, especially ones as big as the 6-2, 205 Barkov, bring great value.

Ask Detroit’s brain trust where the Red Wings would be without Pavel Datsyuk, and watch their faces crumble like inner city Detroit. He’s been the NHL’s best two-way center since the 2004-05 lockout. Guys like Datsyuk play regular shifts, power plays, penalty kills, often take important late game face-offs.

Barkov’s already been playing with mature men in the Finnish Elite League for two seasons. This season, he was the second-leading scorer for Tappara, which had its best season in years, behind former NHL player Ville Nieminen. He’s more ready to make an NHL impact now that Jones is by nature of his position — defensemen take longer to develop. The only question on him concerns a shoulder he injured last year.

That said, Detroit had Datsyuk while still dreading for years the eventual retirement of seven-time Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) winner Niklas Lidstrom.

More than one media outlet quoted Detroit general manager Ken Holland, in discussing how defenseman Chris Pronger’s teams fell off after he left, as saying that’s exactly what Holland worried would happen to Detroit after Lidstrom left.

In the first year post-Lidstrom, the Red Wings went from an annual 100-point team and Cup contender to just scraping into the playoffs.

And Datsyuk averaged a point per game, right at his career scoring average, with a plus/minus of plus-21, ninth in the league.

Barkov could be a bulkier Datsyuk. He could be Niklas Hagman, who showed goal scoring potential in the Finnish First Division then specialized in ringing posts with the Panthers.

He could be Alexander Svitov, the big two-way center Tampa Bay drafted No. 3 overall in 2001 and had a paltry 37 points in 179 games for Tampa Bay and Columbus.

When Tallon said Saturday he had heard many people compare this draft to 2003’s excellent first round, I thought about what the Panthers did that year.

The Panthers held the No. 1 overall pick. They decided on center/winger Nathan Horton over center Eric Staal. So, they traded down to No. 3 because they knew Pittsburgh would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at No. 1 and Carolina would take Staal at No. 2.

Fleury backstopped Pittsburgh’s consecutive Eastern Conference champions and 2009 Stanley Cup champions. Staal was the centerpiece of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup. The multi-talented, sometimes lackadaisical Horton kept getting injured with the Panthers before being traded to Boston. He helped the Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup.

Taking Horton wasn’t a bad pick. It just wasn’t the best pick. That’s what the Barkov selection feels like.

Save this column to laugh at it one way or another in five years.

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