JUNE 19th 2021
GM Mike Beginner, AGM Joseph McDonough, Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, and head coach Ryan McGill sit in their hotel room in Dallas, going over last-minute preparations for the 2021 Entry Draft to be held later that day.
Surprisingly little is being said. This is Beginner’s 15th draft as GM, Andersson’s fifth as head of scouting, and McGill’s sixth as head coach. Including prior jobs the three have held in the organization brings the total up to 10 for McGill, 12 for Andersson, and an astounding 27 for Beginner. Long practice has shown them many of the scenarios a team can face – enough to guide their decision-making this time around.
For McDonough, however, this is his first NHL draft. He joined the team in January, when Beginner’s long-time assistant GM, Dave Thomas, moved behind the bench to assist McGill. It’s a measure of the kind of trust the whole team has built in Beginner’s time: when he was new and the former assistant GM, Darryl Sutter, moved behind the bench, Jacques Martin was suspicious of being undermined. This transition went much more smoothly among the staff. Still, McDonough is a little uncertain now. Most of his knowledge has come from outside – he has seen the moves the team has made along with everyone else, but this is the first time he’s seen the reasoning behind the moves. And though Beginner hired him specifically for that outside perspective, he hasn’t always taken the advice Beginner gave him upon being hired – “Yell at me every once in a while if I’m doing something stupid.”
The team has a pair of large magnetic whiteboards and a series of names written out on rectangular magnets. These are color-coded by position and sorted, re-sorted, parsed, sorted again. One board is divided into columns, and down the edge of each column is space to write the names of the teams in their current draft order. The current “big board” of the Panthers’ overall draftee rankings occupies the rest of that board: it’s a rough estimate of how Beginner and his staff guesses the teams will want to draft, and thus a clue as to whom among those hopefuls the team can expect to be available when they pick; this year, that’s 15th, 36th, 45th, 72nd, 78th, and 202nd. In years past the team has picked higher than their record would indicate thanks to shrewd trades, sometimes involving picks two or three years away that have turned out favorably for them: it’s how they were able to pick Nicolas Filiatrault second overall (via Calgary) in 2017, and Luch Sanipass fourth (via St Louis) in 2020.
Absent such a call now, the only thing left is to be sure of the plan going in. Beginner’s phone is silent, and has been since Edmonton called, trying to get a mid-round pick without giving up their own first-round choice, which is down to 29th after a prior deal. This doesn’t really appeal to anyone in Florida’s brain trust. Two days ago, in fact, they moved up, trading veteran defenseman Brent Seabrook to Columbus to jump seven spots higher in both the first and second rounds. The deal also got them a young, promising 23-year-old wing named Nestor Söderqvist, who will compete for playing time on the team’s thin right side.
McGill, studying the names on the team’s wish list and matching them up across the columns, suddenly speaks. “You know,” he says, pointing at the board, “there are lots of guys we like between 25 and 55.”
McDonough looks up. Beginner waits. McGill is taking his time before continuing. “If we load up in there, it might be worth going back out of the first round entirely. We could hold 36 and 45 and get another pair of picks, and find guys we like anyway.” Four of these targets are forward prospects: Kahlil MacKinnon, Jozef Varga, Marcel Benko, and Blaine Ernest; two others, Oskar Åberg and Dan McConnell, play defense; the seventh is goaltender Rob Crowley, whose #23 rank by the International Scouting Service is the highest of these seven players.
“And if we sweeten the pot they may bump the pick,” McGill says.
In the corner, Andersson is shrugging dubiously. “Just because we are expecting to pick from those guys doesn’t mean that we would turn down a guy like Kaleta or Desharnais,” he says, naming two men the Panthers expect will be gone before the fifteenth pick.
McGill is tapping the board, as if that will move the names around. “Let’s say 29, 36, 45, 51.” He looks along the list and finds his targets quickly. “MacKinnon, Åberg, McConnell, Ernest.” Those are the 29th, 32nd, 45th, and 54th prospects on the ISS ranks this year. McGill is clearly working his way up to asking Beginner to call the Oilers back.
“That wouldn’t be a bad draft,” Andersson concedes.
Something about the phrase sticks in Beginner’s craw and he shakes his head. “The moment we start settling for ‘not bad’ before we start, we’re wasting our time.” He stands smoothly. “If I’m moving back down, I’m not doing it for ‘not bad,’ and I’m not doing it for a ready prospect. I’m taking someone with a track record.”
“Vancouver,” says McDonough, and when everyone glances over, he realizes that he’s blurted it out.
“What about Vancouver?” Beginner says. He is already turning to shuffle through spreadsheets, to look at the Canucks’ roster overview.
“Do you think they’d give us #23 and #37?” McDonough asks. “Plus, they really like Anderle. That leaves them #15 and #53.”
“And Anderle,” Beginner adds.
“We get 23, 36, 37, 45.”
“Why are we giving them a guy to move down?” McGill asks.
“Well, we’re friendly,” Beginner quips. Everyone laughs, including McDonough, who is also shaking his head.
“But I like this idea a bit more,” Beginner says. “That’s a better selection, especially if we keep Anderle.”
This is a common theme of Beginner’s over the past few months. He has been adamant about holding onto more of his prospects – he, like everyone else, read the scouting report on the popular Hockey Net website, where Florida’s current roster was broken down according to where they’d been drafted and how long they’d spent in juniors or with the Panthers’ various minor-league affiliates. Most people were impressed with how long Florida was willing to wait to see its best prospects make the big club, and what they did afterward; McDonough has been most impressed with the number of the those prospects who stayed with the organization. It was an absurdly-high number: 18 of the 29 men who’d skated for the Panthers the past season had been their own draftees. Another, Denis Kulyash, was a Nashville prospect who’d played his whole NHL career in Florida.
Beginner, however, spent a lot of time thinking about the imports who’d come and gone recently: Ted Davis, Tony Galan, Tom Lavander, and Oskar Nylander. Of those, Nylander had been a Panthers draftee in 2013, then traded, returned, and re-departed. The others were answers to a question that the team had been asking since Olli Jokinen retired: who is the number-one center? It had been too soon for Bryan Cameron, too much for Serge Bauer, too expensive for Ted Davis, and too intimidating for Tony Galan. And in the past season, with the still-raw John Cyr and the very young Anders Henriksson looking unready, Beginner had acquired Ryan Getzlaf.
Getzlaf played very well, and the team made the playoffs… and burnt out in five games against a determined New Jersey Devils squad. At the time, Beginner was the one dinged in the press, primarily for not acquiring Montreal defenseman Gregg Pederson to shore up the defense.
The cost would have been the very-promising Yevgeni Nosov: the team’s sixth-round choice in 2019 had proved to be an amazing find, leading Rochester’s defense in scoring, being one of their strongest as measured by several differential-strength metrics. Beginner would have loved to acquire Pederson – only 26, one of the best in the league in his own end, and eager to see the last of the Canadiens after being lowballed in contract negotiations.
It was a deal similar to many Beginner had approved over the years, but for some reason, this year was different. Beginner refused. Likewise, when Toronto wanted Anderle, Beginner again said no to the sort of a trade that would not have caused hesitation previously. And in the weeks leading up to the draft, Beginner had revealed why: what he had really wanted to do was subtract, not add. He hadn’t wanted to rob Kenndal McArdle and Nathan Horton of a prime year and a good chance at another playoff run, so ultimately he didn’t do that, either – but he had begun to suspect that the core needed to change. He couldn’t do that if he dealt away the sorts of players who would become that new core – he had already locked up 24-year old defenseman Samuli Laine to a good contract, and was in a position to afford similar offers to 22-year old Marek Ludvik and 26-year old Roman Svoboda, which in turn would let him see who among the next crop (Nosov, Anderle, Gary Flynn, Kaj Bergkvist, Ari Gasparini, and Derrell Little) would join them.
McDonough had favored the opposite approach, and felt justified after the first-round flameout. He decided to follow Beginner’s advice and say so: Pederson was a certainty, while Nosov, however promising, was only a possibility. The Panthers’ goalies had faced more than 31 shots per 60 minutes, well above their normal standard, and something that Pederson was ideally-suited to remedy. It also would have been one less thing to worry about as Jay Bouwmeester and Denis Kulyash moved into their twilight.
Beginner agreed, and then showed him something else: the aggregate statistical record of the five playoff games. By both standard and advanced measures, the positives in Florida’s play had been driven primarily by younger players. Horton had scored twice and added an assist, but all on the power play; McArdle’s only point was a power-play assist; Getzlaf had done nothing. And they weren’t just unlucky five-on-five, either. The first line’s shot differentials were badly negative. They had been outplayed and outchanced by New Jersey’s second and third lines. The players who had made the most contribution to the Panthers’ effort were Ludvik, with three assists and a positive Corsi; John Cyr, who also had two goals and an assist (two of those three points were at level); and Patrick Sjölund, who scored shorthanded in overtime to win Florida’s only game of the series, added an assist, and was generally strong in all zones. Nicolas Filiatrault and Cody Kozack also had goals, and most of the best play after them came from Laine and Svoboda. Seabrook, meanwhile, had been relentlessly average, and Kulyash had not played at all.
“Well, that’s only five games,” McDonough said, and he was right, and Beginner agreed with the warning. Nevertheless, he said, it was the sort of thing that wasn’t going to get better over time. None of those 35-and-over players was going to get magically younger. Watching them blown off the ice by the Devils’ young studs like Terence LaForest, Matthews Allison, and Dalibor Laco was to Beginner a confirmation that things had to get better from the ground up, and slathering new paint and shingles on the old foundations was not helping. Thus, the departure of Brent Seabrook.
It was this conversation that was really continuing now, in the form of a debate over Vancouver’s draft choices. Both Beginner and McDonough knew that the sizable crop of promising kids in Florida’s system were not all going to bloom into greatness. Beginner just preferred to keep them all rather than trade on them for parts that might not fit later, and leave them worse off long-term for no current gain. McDonough was pushing for a modified approach, one that gained draft picks while also putting the team in position to make another run at the Cup – perhaps this season, if things worked out. The trade-off was in emptying the prospect cupboard. Though he wasn’t saying so now, part of him was still considering Pederson, who was still not signed and still looking to get out of Montreal. “Man… if we could sign that guy, we’d be able to lock down anyone in this league,” he had remarked a few days ago.
Beginner had been intrigued enough to ask about Pederson again. The Canadiens, however, had taken him off the table. Either he was going to sign with them, or he was going to sit. In any case, he wasn’t going to be dealt to a team like Florida that needed to shed salary to afford signing him. Montreal wasn’t interested in a veteran like Getzlaf, for example, who still had two years left on the deal he signed – perhaps an example of the sort of thing Beginner wanted to be yelled at for doing.
McDonough wasn’t yelling now, but he was strong on the possibility of the trade-down. “What I meant was, we can give up Anderle instead of a pick,” he says. “We might be able to hold the 15th, give up the 36th and 45th instead,” he is now saying.
“15, 23, 37?” McGill says dubiously. “Anderle and two seconds for a first would be about all we could expect. That’s just 15 and 23, and then our guys are gone when we get to 72 and 78.” He taps the board at each number. “Canucks get Anderle, 36, 37, 45, and 53. I can’t say I like that.”
“If we’re going to move again,” Beginner says, “can we move further up? Instead of going 15 to 23, can we go 15 to, say, six?”
McDonough shakes his head. “Tampa’s fifth. Tough to deal with them. Colorado’s six and doesn’t have a second-round pick. They really need a goalie.”
“They can get a goalie 15th,” McGill says.
“Not the guy they want,” McDonough replied. “Jackson and Nadeau will go in the first twelve for sure. I think we can talk to Philly. They’ve got the 10th and 25th. If we really want to swing for the fences here, we can try to get those picks for our 15th and 36th, with a sweetener. They really want defenders ready this year, so the picks aren’t as important to them. We may even be able to hold our 15th too, if we offer them a nice enough guy on the blue line.”
Beginner ponders… 10th, 15th, and 25th; the cost would be both second rounders and at least two defensive prospects – good ones. “Anderle may not be good enough,” he says aloud.
“Nosov?” McDonough asks.
“Could be,” Beginner says lightly. “But if I’m Philly, I’m thinking more like Ludvik.”
A near-audible wince runs the room. If Beginner didn’t want to move Nosov for Pederson, he certainly won’t move the already-established Ludvik, a bargain at $1.49 million for each of the next two years, just for a draft pick.
“Yeah, we can’t do that,” McGill says.
“Well, we may not have to,” McDonough says. “Or – and hear this out – “
Beginner is already laughing.
“Seriously – if we move a guy or two to make this happen, we can move Getzlaf separately, or maybe even Cyr for a few blue-line guys.”
“What’s the point for us?” McGill asks.
“Well, we get younger and cheaper in the bargain,” McDonough says. “And though I really like him, maybe you could move Kozack and shift Cyr to wing.”
That would save an extra half-million for the season, move the player older by two-plus years, and save the team a giant headache on the horizon – both Kozack and Cyr are unrestricted free agents as of July 1, 2022. Everyone else the team has to decide on then is restricted.
“And then we sign Pederson,” Beginner says, still laughing.
McGill cracks up despite himself. “Why didn’t you take the Montreal job again?” he asks McDonough, who had interviewed with the Canadiens two months before Beginner hired him.
“Look, Joe,” Beginner says. “We’re just not getting Gregg. I’d love to. I didn’t do it in February because I wasn’t going to be able afford him in July – not him and everyone else. There’s just no money. Hell, I may not be able to afford half our wings. That being said, I think that Philly’s the smart money to move if they can get the kind of prospects they want. They’re really not that interested in guys like Anderle or Bergkvist. We can afford to let them percolate, but Philly’s in a hurry.”
“Does no harm to ask,” McDonough says.
Beginner grabs the phone.