PHILADELPHIA — Seated at the head of the long, rectangular table in the front left corner of the NHL draft floor, Florida general manager Dale Tallon, owner of the first pick, took one more phone call from the hometown Flyers just before the draft got underway. He listened to an adjusted offer, just a bit different from the one he had turned down this morning, when Tallon and the Panthers staff decided to stick with the pick.
“Very enticing,” Tallon said. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough to move the veteran G.M., who was likely looking for an impact NHL-ready player and picks in return.
So, he settled for the top rated prospect in the 2014 draft, defenseman Aaron Ekblad from the OHL’s Barrie Colts. At 6’4” and 216 pounds, Ekblad is that rare 18-year-old, NHL-ready blueliner.
“Yeah, he can play,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said, perhaps begrudgingly about the fish he could not reel in.
“He’s a man. He’s a big strong kid,” Tallon said. “He’s played, as a 15 year old, against 20 year olds. (Ekblad was granted exceptional player status in the OHL.) He has more experience than any of these other kids. For us, it was the best choice for our depth chart.”
Ekblad would have made a splendid addition for the Flyers’ aging and defensively stunted roster, but in Florida, he joins a defense corps that includes a couple of other 20-something first-rounders in Erik Gubranson (3rd in 2010) and Dmitry Kulikov (14th in 2009). Developing them now is Florida’s great challenge. Highly rated defense prospects are often harder to gauge and project. Whereas a big-name blueline prospect like Ekblad could assert himself physically against the smaller players in junior, that definitely won’t be the case at the NHL level. And there may be some growing pains before he reaches his full potential, but it will be up to the Panthers to cultivate and not stunt the growth. That Ekblad was already being vigilant to not become distracted by the good weather and attractions in South Florida seems to be a sign of his maturity.
“He’s 18 going on 30,” Tallon said. “Very mature individual.”
Now, they’ll hope he plays that way too.
News and notes:
• Apart from the actual draft, there were plenty of newsworthy stories out of Day 1. The biggest came down five hours before the first pick was announced, when the Canucks dealt center Ryan Kesler to Anaheim for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and two picks. It was the first domino to fall in a busy afternoon for Vancouver G.M. Jim Benning, who also traded defenseman Jason Garrison to Tampa Bay and acquired Derek Dorsett from the Rangers for a third-rounder.
Kesler had asked for a trade out of Vancouver last season as the Canucks train came off the railings. They limped to a 36-35-11 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“Last year, that season was tough on all the players… That season was painful, to be honest,” Kesler said. “The fact that they’re in a rebuild and years away from being a contender, it was time for me to move on and win [a championship].”
Vancouver is obviously rebuilding (everywhere from management to roster), and four years, Kesler said, was a little too long for his own personal timeline. Turning 30 this year, Kesler is beginning to hear the clock ticking away on his Cup dreams. So, he waived his no-trade clause and narrowed his acceptable destinations to Anaheim and Chicago, and the Ducks, with a veteran core and some up-and-coming talent making a splash, won out. “We have not always been included in things like this,” Murray said. “To me, it means our organization is going the right direction.”
With the acquisition, the Ducks get bigger, stronger and more tenacious down the middle of the ice, with Kesler acting as a formidable second to top center Ryan Getzlaf. Kesler brings an array of skills — from face-off success to penalty kill experience — that will make him an easy fit for a team like Anaheim. And the Ducks bring Kesler a legitimate chance to lift the Stanley Cup—and soon. That opportunity comes at the expense of alienating the only team he’s really known.
“Quite frankly, we don’t want somebody who doesn’t want to be here,” Benning said. “We’re going to acquire high-quality people that are going to come I here and want to work hard for one another…. His mind was made up, so we did the best we could with the situation.”
• The second big trade of the day came down just before the first hour of the draft was through, as the Predators made the bold move to send forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh in exchange for winger James Neal, a one-time 40 goal scorer who played shotgun to Evgeni Malkin for the last three-plus years.
The move was curious for Pittsburgh, which has long struggled to find adequate wingers for its splendid centers. Neal seemed to be a good fit with Malkin, but according to Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, he believes this move could free him to land another, equally-if-not-better winger. He wouldn’t name names, but said by making this trade, it freed him to make moves in free agency.
That said, look for the Penguins to be players come July 1.
• The NHL announced Friday that the salary cap for the 2014-15 season would be $69 million with the floor coming in at $51 million. The number comes in a shade lower than what many believed, and thus, it could leave a couple of teams handcuffed for the coming season, including Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, who will need to make some moves over the summer to make all the puzzle pieces fit.
• The Arizona Coyotes (née Phoenix) began the process to buy out the remaining three years of center Mike Ribeiro’s contract. This won’t be a compliance buy out because the contract was signed last year, under the new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, Arizona will retain a $1.94 million cap hit for the next six years. Interestingly, Coyotes G.M. Don Maloney indicated to the Arizona Republic that the motivation for the buyout was not financial, but rather behavioral.
“Mike had some real behavior issues last year with us I felt we could not tolerate going forward,” Maloney said. “To his credit, he has been getting help this offseason and obviously would hope he continues. But at the end of the year and all the background checking and what happened, we felt that for us to move forward, we couldn't have him a part of this team.”
Of course, one would expect that the Coyotes perform their due diligence before signing Ribeiro last summer, but perhaps they thought things may be different in Phoenix, especially since there was shared history with coach Dave Tippett, who coached Ribeiro in Dallas from 2006 to 2009. But apparently, that mattered little and Ribeiro allegedly missed meetings, busses and got into a screaming match with the coach, according to a Fox Sports Arizona report.