The first round of Friday night’s NHL Draft was a little boring for the Florida Panthers, but that’s fine with them. Their years of rebuilding and picking near the top are over.
Panthers executives spent three hours watching top prospect after top prospect come off the board at First Niagara Center before selecting Finnish center Henrik Borgstrom with the 23rd overall selection.
By the pre-draft rankings, the pick was a bit of a surprise. Borgstrom, who turned 19 this month, was draft-eligible last year and wasn’t selected. NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the ninth-best European skater in the draft, while TSN’s Bob McKenzie rated him 35th overall.
But the Panthers, of course, didn’t see it that way.
“He’s got good size, but on top of being a big kid, he’s got elite-level skill,” GM Tom Rowe said. “We talked to (European scout) Jari Kekalainen about him quite a bit and he thinks he’s a top-six forward.”
Borgstrom (6-foot-3, 180 pounds) is committed to play at the University of Denver next season. Jason Bukala, the Panthers co-director of amateur scouting, said the team collectively watched Borgstrom 25 times during the year.
“He doesn’t play the 200-foot game and he’s not as heavy as (Aleksander) Barkov, but he’s got the same type of offensive puck skill as Barkov,” Bukala said. “Dale (Tallon, president of hockey operations) went to see him in Chicago at an elite camp and he just came away like, wow, this is just something we can’t overlook. He’s too good at that slot.
“He’s coming to North America to go to college, which didn’t allow him to play in the Elite League over there,” Bukala added. “His club team wanted him to be up with the men’s team, but because he’s coming to college, he can’t earn a paycheck. … Central Scouting rates the players a lot differently that teams rate the players.”
Borgstrom displayed quite a bit of humor in his press conference and took questions in two languages. He said he chose college over the Finnish Elite League so he could get more practice.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” he said. “I’m quite, like, a skinny guy, so I have to gain some muscle. In Finnish Elite League you have so many games … so you don’t have time to practice that well. In college, you have whole week time to practice.”
The Panthers have four picks Saturday in rounds 2-7: 33rd overall, 94th, 114th and 175.
The Toronto Maple Leafs opened the draft by selecting American center Auston Matthews first overall, and the Winnipeg Jets followed with Finish winger Patrick Laine. With the third pick, the Columbus Blue Jackets went off the board for defenseman Pierre-Luc Dubois, passing over consensus No. 3 Jesse Puljujarvi, who was happily scooped up by Edmonton at fourth overall.
Meanwhile, Boca Raton's Jakob Chychrun – the No. 1 rated North American defenseman – fell to 16th overall, where the Arizona Coyotes traded up to get him. Chychrun still became the highest South Florida native ever selected in the NHL draft, passing the mark set by Margate's Shayne Gostisbehere, who went 78th overall in 2012.
Chychrun had a bit of a wait, but said it was “extremely worth it.”
“I honestly couldn’t be happier,” he said. “Arizona is a team I really wanted to go to. Growing up in Boca Raton, it’s awesome to be going to another southern market. They have a really bright future ahead so I’m extremely excited to be joining Arizona.”
Chychrun joins a Coyotes team that went 35-39-8 last season, nine points out of a wild card spot. There was plenty of talk before the draft about the possibility of Chychrun being drafted by the host Sabres, in part because Chychrun knows the son and daughter of Sabres owner Terry Pegula, but they took winger Alex Nylander eighth overall.
-- New Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle spoke with reporters at First Niagara Center before the draft.
“A big thing I wanted was the term,” Yandle said of his 7-year, $44.5 million deal, “and they were nice enough to give it to me.
“… Just talking with the owners, the brass, it’s one of those things you can tell they want to win; they’re not just here to have fun. You want to have fun obviously, but they want to win and they want to do it now.”
Yandle said Shawn Thornton is the only player he knows on the Panthers, having skated with him over the summer before.
-- Perhaps not surprisingly, Rowe didn’t have much to say about a report that the team is working on an 8-year, $60 million extension with defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
“Not really. Not yet, it’s too soon,” the GM said. “We’ve been talking to him. I know (assistant GMs) Steve Werier and Eric Joyce have been doing a lot of hard work in that area. But we’re not there yet.”