Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers draft pick Lawson Crouse brings size and speed

Florida Panthers draft pick Lawson Crouse attends the Top Prospects Media Opportunity at the Westin Ft. Lauderdale Beach Resort on June 25, 2015 in Sunrise.
Florida Panthers draft pick Lawson Crouse attends the Top Prospects Media Opportunity at the Westin Ft. Lauderdale Beach Resort on June 25, 2015 in Sunrise. Getty Images

One night before, the Heat was ecstatic to see Duke’s Justise Winslow fall to it with the 10th pick in the NBA Draft.

The Panthers had a similar feeling Friday when hulking winger Lawson Crouse dropped out of the top 10 and right to the NHL Draft’s host team with the 11th overall selection.

“I can’t believe he was there,’’ Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said at the conclusion of the first round at BB&T Center on Friday night. “We had him sixth on our list, and he gives us exactly what we need. He’s a power forward, can skate, score and is tough. We couldn’t be happier.’’

The second round of the draft kicks off Saturday at 10 a.m.

Ranked fifth in the NHL’s central scouting rankings for North American skaters, Crouse was thought to be headed to Philadelphia with the seventh overall pick.

Only the Flyers went with Ivan Provorov. Columbus, San Jose and Colorado also bypassed Crouse which got him to start thinking South Florida may become his landing spot.

“I knew anything could happen, and I kept my options open,’’ Crouse said. “When Florida did roll around, I felt pretty confident about things, knew my interviews there went very well. I’m happy to be a Panther. It’s just a number at the end of day; the real work starts now.

“It doesn’t matter where you get taken, it’s how you work afterward.’’

Crouse, 18, says his next goal is to make the Panthers out of training camp.

“If I come prepared,’’ he said, “it’s going to be tough to send me home.’’

Both Tallon and coach Gerard Gallant said they hope Crouse indeed makes it impossible for them to send him back to junior hockey this coming season, as Aaron Ekblad did last year.

His first course of business is attending Florida’s development camp, which starts Monday in Coral Springs.

“Jonathan Huberdeau said it’s real fun to play here,’’ Crouse said. “You can’t beat the weather. This has been a unique experience for me and a different lifestyle now. But I’m looking forward to the change.’’

Said Gallant: “We want him to make the team; we like to play our young players. But we’re not going to put them in if they’re not ready. One step at a time. Dale drafted the kid, makes the decisions. But I’d love to see him make our team.’’

Crouse is a player so tough he’s nicknamed “The Sheriff” yet athletic enough to have scored 26 goals in 56 games last year in the Ontario Hockey League.

And of the six top prospects who took batting practice at Marlins Park on Wednesday, Crouse was the only player to hit one out.

“He can hit homers, right?’’ Tallon asked. “I like this kid a lot. He interviewed tremendously well, a classy kid.’’

Tallon long has been big on players with size and speed who show a little toughness.

It appears Lawson is a right in that mold.

At 6-4 and 215 pounds, Lawson uses his size to mow through opponents — something that will become harder to do at the NHL level.

One thing that isn’t in question in Lawson’s willingness to defend a teammate.

Last year, Crouse was suspended a few times by the OHL for his physical play — including four games when he jumped off the bench to charge an opponent who barreled one of his teammates.

If the Panthers send him back to the Kingston Frontenacs — the team Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson once played for — he will miss the first eight games for his head shot on an opponent in his final playoff game of last season.

Tallon said he’s not worried.

“That comes with being that kind of player,’’ Tallon said. “He’ll figure it out as far as that’s concerned. But I like that fire in the belly.’’

Lawson Crouse

Position: Left wing.

Age/hometown: 18; Mount Brydges, Ontario.

Height/weight: 6-4, 215.

Scouting report: Crouse is physical and has no problem running through opponents when moving toward the net.

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