Panthers pounce to top pick in NHL Draft

NHL draft lottery losers last year, the Florida Panthers had their number come up this year. In the meantime, chalk up yet another loss for the Buffalo Sabres. The Panthers bucked the odds Tuesday by jumping up a spot and earned the right to the top pick in June. Florida, which finished 29th in the league, vaulted ahead of the last-place Sabres, who had the best odds of winning the lottery held in Toronto.

NHL draft lottery losers last year, the Florida Panthers had their number come up this year.

In the meantime, chalk up yet another loss for the Buffalo Sabres.

The Panthers bucked the odds Tuesday by jumping up a spot and earned the right to the top pick in June. Florida, which finished 29th in the league, vaulted ahead of the last-place Sabres, who had the best odds of winning the lottery held in Toronto.

“It means a lot to us. We’ve very excited,” said Travis Viola, Panthers president of hockey operations. “We’re looking to continue to build on our core talent of young players. It’s just a great opportunity.”

It also marked a reversal of fortune for Florida.

After finishing last a year ago, the Panthers were relegated to the No. 2 pick after Colorado won the lottery.

The top two projected prospects are left wing Samuel Bennett, of OHL Kingston, who finished first in the final rankings released by NHL Central Scouting last week, and OHL Barrie defenceman Aaron Ekblad.

The draft will be held in Philadelphia on June 27-28.

The Panthers (29-45-8) had an 18.8 per cent chance of winning the lottery, behind only Buffalo (21-51-10), which had a 25 per cent shot.

The Sabres continued what’s been a losing trend since the season began in October.

Buffalo’s 51 losses were a franchise worst, and the most losses in the NHL since the New York Islanders went 21-51-7-3 in 2000-01.

General manager Tim Murray took the latest loss in stride, telling the team’s website that he almost anticipated losing out on the No. 1 pick.

“We’re very comfortable,” Murray said. “The other way would’ve been gravy, but it’s kind of what we thought would happen, and we prepared for it.”

The Sabres were guaranteed falling no further than second.

Florida will have the first pick for the fourth time in franchise history.

The Panthers are gradually rebuilding. They made a splash this year by acquiring goalie Roberto Luongo in a trade with Vancouver. And they’ll be picking third or better for the fourth time in five years.

Their previous top three picks — defenceman Erik Gudbranson (in 2010), wing Jonathan Huberdeau (2011) and centre Aleksander Barkov (2013) — all played significant roles this season.

“We’re anxious to put a winner in Florida,” Viola said.

The Panthers’ move up marked the fourth straight year in which the last-place team failed to win the lottery. Since the NHL lottery system was introduced in 1995, the last-place team has earned the No. 1 pick only six times.

The Panthers had the No. 1 pick in the 2002 and 2003 drafts, but traded them away both times. They also had the No. 1 pick in 1994, when they selected defenceman Ed Jovanovski.

The remaining 11 teams maintained their draft order based on the final standings, starting with the Edmonton Oilers staying with the No. 3 draft pick. Calgary will select fourth followed by the New York Islanders.

The top 10 picks are rounded out by Vancouver picking sixth, followed by Carolina, Toronto, Winnipeg and Anaheim. The Pacific Division champion Ducks earned a lottery spot by acquiring a first-round pick in a trade with Ottawa, which finished 21st.

The New Jersey Devils, who finished 20th, were included in the lottery to maintain the weighted odds, but were not eligible to be selected.

The Devils are already slotted to pick 30th after being sanctioned by the NHL.

The league ruled New Jersey circumvented the collective bargaining agreement by attempting to skirt the salary cap by signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract in 2010.

Center Sam Reinhart (WHL Kootenay) and left wing Leon Draisaitl (WHL Prince Albert) were ranked third and fourth among North American skaters, while the top-ranked European skater is Finnish right wing Kasperi Kapanen.

The Sabres actually have a shot at holding three first-round picks based on two trades they made this year. The Islanders have to until June 1 to decide whether to hand over their first-round selection to Buffalo this year or next year.

Islanders head amateur scout Trent Klatt said the team has not yet determined its plans.

The Sabres will also acquire the Blues’ first-round pick should St. Louis reach the Western Conference finals.

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