When the Florida Panthers held the second overall pick in the 2013 draft they selected center Aleksander Barkov instead of defenseman Seth Jones. It wasn't the move a majority of onlookers would have made, so it set up a nice "What If" scenario to follow in the coming years.
With Barkov and 2010 pick Nick Bjugstad setting the foundation for a potentially crushing 1-2 punch down the middle in the future, Florida's choice at the top of the 2014 draft was much clearer. Three or four players were considered legitimate candidates to go No. 1, but the Panthers took Aaron Ekblad - the only defenseman in the group - to fill out the roster need they passed on a year earlier. Today, Ekblad signed his three-year entry-level deal with the Panthers and will likely start on the second or third pairing in October. No surprise there.
Spoiler alert: we here at THN have the Panthers pegged as a playoff team this season. Ask anyone in the office and they'll tell you that's my fault. But this team will be better than you think. We're so used to assuming the Panthers will be in the basement, but if you look closer you might be surprised by what you see.
First of all, as I wrote back in July, Florida will have a much more stable goalie duo this season led by Roberto Luongo. The substantial upgrade over Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom for a full season should alone be enough to boost them into the post-season picture.
Forget for a moment that Brian Campbell makes a very cap-unfriendly $7.14 million and he's still a swift puck-moving defenseman with strong possession numbers. Dmitry Kulikov had a terribly unlucky 2013-14 season in which he had the second-lowest PDO on the team (Florida's goalies had an .884 save percentage when he was on the ice) so a bounce back season should be expected from him. Those are two pretty good defensemen. Add in Willie Mitchell's experience in a depth role, hopeful growth from Erik Gudbranson and now Ekblad and you have some good pieces to work with.
And up front is pretty promising, too. The Barkov-Bjugstad combination could be a force in a few years and is already a tantalizing big-body duo that held their own last season as rookies. Had Barkov not gotten injured, they may have been 1-2 in team scoring. Jonathan Huberdeau is bound to have a better year. Jussi Jokinen is a terrific possession player who was added via free agency. Tomas Fleischmann struggled with a 4.3 shooting percentage that is likely to shoot up.
In all, there are a lot of reasons to believe this team will be better this season and on the playoff bubble, at least. I have them in.
The picks Florida ended up making in those two drafts have started to form a very intriguing future roster core. The Panthers have the sturdy defenseman of the future to build around and also a big-body center presence (x2) at the top of the depth chart. Filling out those top two center spots with quality players, let alone ones who stand 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6, can be one of the hardest things to do. Just ask the Maple Leafs.
While Jones vs. Barkov will be a very interesting "What If" to watch play out over the next decade or so, you can expand it to include the 2014 draft as well. Had Florida taken Jones, they likely would have taken one of the centers in this summer's draft: Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart or Leon Draisaitl. Assuming they would have selected Reinhart (who went No. 2), Florida still would have picked up a quality center, but sacrificed some size. In a few years, the Panthers could look like geniuses for going against the grain and picking Barkov over Jones in 2013, setting the table for an Ekblad selection in 2014. Or, they could look foolish if Jones goes on to become a Norris caliber defender and Reinhart outshines Barkov.
If you had to choose right now, which combination would you rather have: Ekblad and Barkov or Jones and Reinhart? We'll be revisiting this scenario in the future.
I'd take the Ekblad/Barkov combination because I love the thought of Bjugstad and Barkov hitting their peaks together in a couple years. If they hit their projected peaks with that size, Florida will be a handful in short order. But this will be an interesting one to watch play out, won't it?