Florida Panthers

Belarusian defenseman can bolster Panthers’ blue line

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon talks playoffs

Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon talks about his team as playoff week kicked off Monday, April 11, 2016.
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Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon talks about his team as playoff week kicked off Monday, April 11, 2016.

A day after making Spencer Knight the first goalie in the organization’s history to be drafted in the first round with Friday’s 13th overall selection, the Florida Panthers continued to buck trends on Day 2.

With their 52nd overall pick, Florida drafted a Belarusian player for the first time in franchise history with defenseman Vladislav Kolyachonok. Drafting a defenseman this high is certainly a change of pace for a Panthers organization that hasn’t drafted a blueliner within the first two rounds since 2014 when it landed first overall pick Aaron Ekblad.

“It was necessary to improve our team defense and our depth chart,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “Goaltending obviously was a priority and then defense and then at the end we added a lot of heavy, big players that could skate and score and we also added skill as well and so it’s a very diverse group we drafted, so I’m excited and happy about the results of our day.”

Florida’s first pick of Day 2, Kolyachonok is a right-<FZ,1,0,17>shot, puck-moving defenseman who defends with authority and brings a physical presence with his 6-foot-2 frame. This was his first season coming from Belarus, registering 29 points in 53 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds.

“[Moving to North America this year] was a good experience,” said Kolyachonok. I was traded from London to Flint and played lots of minutes in tough situations. I think [the move] was one of the best experiences in my life and now I’m here.”

Kolyachonok was captain for Belarus at the U18 World Junior Championships and was named to the OHL All-Rookie team.

In the third round, the Panthers selected another defenseman from the Central Hockey League in John Ludvig. Ludvig scored just 18 points in 58 games for the Portland Winterhawks, but is highly touted for his shutdown acumen and ability to kill penalties.

After trading picks 104 and 114 to move up to 81st overall, Florida rolled the dice on forward Cole Schwindt from the OHL. Schwindt scored 19 goals and 49 points in 68 games for the Mississauga Steelheads, but what flies under the radar is his extremely mature and responsible defensive game.

Florida again went the defenseman route in the fourth round with Carter Berger, who ripped home 27 goals and 63 points in 54 games for the Victoria Grizzlies in the British Columbia Hockey League. A late bloomer who went undrafted last year, Berger is a longer-term project who’s committed to the University of Connecticut.

Florida took advantage of the opportunity to add further depth to its prospect pool with back-to-back fifth-round picks — the first of which was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for a 2020 fifth-round choice.

The player taken with the Panthers’ first fifth-round pick, Henry Rybinski, was late to the draft because the Vancouver native was completing his driver’s exam — which he passed.

“It was pretty difficult to focus [on the driver’s test],” said Rybinski. “I was kinda shaking in the car and trembling and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna pass this,’ but then getting drafted is kind of a sigh of relief.”

Rybinski is a left-wing playmaker who bounced among three different teams. It was the end of the year when he played for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League that he really put things together, ending the year on a 33-game tear where he registered 35 points.

Forward Owen Lindmark was drafted with the 137th pick. He is a steady two-way pivot who had 25 points in 56 games for the star-studded U.S. National Team Development Program. He says he models his game after Jonathan Toews and has already started business classes at the school he’ll play at, the University of Wisconsin.

Florida drafted scoring overage forwards with its final two selections of the draft — Greg Meireles (sixth round) and Matthew Wedman (seventh round) both producing at well over a point-per-game clip in the CHL.

“[Wedman’s] heavy, he scores goals and goes to the net. He goes to the dirty areas … we like his ability to score goals and work through traffic,” said Tallon.

In all, the Panthers made nine picks, drafting five forwards, three defensemen and a goalie.

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