At the end of the day Sunday, fans walked out of the BB&T Center's NHL Draft Party with full stomachs, children with painted whiskers on their faces and most importantly, an excitement and eagerness that Panthers hockey season is just a few months away.
What stood out most about the near 1,000 fans gathered in Club RED and the lower bowl of the arena was their enthusiasm and energy, as they welcomed Aleksander Barkov to South Florida at the team’s annual NHL draft party.
The Colorado Avalanche affirmed what they've been saying for weeks when they chose Nathan MacKinnon from Halifax with the first overall pick, a player that many thought would go to the Panthers before Avs executives announced they would pass on top prospect Seth Jones and go with a forward.
As expected, sighs were let out throughout the BB&T Center when MacKinnon pulled on his new Avs jersey, but anticipation was still at its peak as many tried to predict what Panthers GM Dale Tallon would do next. After just a short time waiting, the TVs told the audience that the "PICK IS IN," and the cheers grew louder, only subsiding enough for them to hear that Aleksander Barkov was the Panthers’ pick.
Although top prospect Seth Jones and CHL Player of the year Jonathan Drouin were both still up on the board and available at that time, Cats fans were happy with the decision to take Barkov instead.
"I thought we were going to get Seth but I'm fine with Barkov," said Dennis Dill, who said he's been a Panthers fan for all 20 years of the team’s existence. "He's (17) years old and he's already playing in professional hockey in Finland, and you know to me it was a jump ball and I have no problems with that pick."
Other fans said they also had their minds set on the idea that the Panthers would draft Jones or Drouin, but it all came down to putting their faith in the front office.
"I like it," said fan Blake Mathesie. "I know (Tallon's) good with the younger guys…In Dale we trust."
The 17-year-old Barkov is a skilled player who may have lacked the media exposure that the top three North Americans received, but was touted as Central Scouting Service #1 ranked European prospect. Barkov totaled 48 points (21-27-48) in 53 games with Tappara in the Finnish Elite League during the 2012-13 season, finishing second on his team in scoring. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound center has represented Finland at each of the last two World Junior Championships. He recorded seven points (3-4-7) in six games during the 2012-13 tournament in Ufa, Russia. In 2011-12, Barkov became the youngest Finnish player ever to be selected to play in the World Junior Championships.
"I thought (Barkov) was a good pick," said season ticket owner Randy Brandt. "I think hopefully with (Rookie of the Year Jonathan) Huberdeau he'll do real well, and I know we wanted a big center for him to play with."
Once the stress of that top pick was over, fans returned to enjoying the activities offered at the draft party while they waited for the second pick at No. 31 to come along. One fan said he was enjoying the activities so much that he actually missed the No. 2. pick.
"We were out on the main floor doing all the activities that they have, so I really didn't have a chance to pay attention to the draft," said Panthers fan Jason Sarnowski, who appreciated all the opportunities to get his kids involved at the party. "We really enjoyed ourselves and were glad we were invited."
Linda Richard, who has been a season ticket holder for years, said the draft party was a great time as she watched her kids doing the slap shots on the floor while she waited for the 31st pick. The pick eventually came around and defenseman Ian McCoshen of the Waterloo Black Hawks became the second prospect to put on the Panthers jersey Sunday.
Fans also snuck in a few autographs with team captain Ed Jovanovski, who made an appearance and went on air with former Panther Bill Lindsay, which got fans even more excited about his return next year during the Cats' 20th anniversary season.
And though the draft party ended much earlier than the draft did, with eight new players drafted including one Finnish powerhouse, Panthers fan Jacob Dovis said the future looks bright next year.
"It can only get better," he said.
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