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Florida Panthers Have Third Selection -- For Now; Who Do They Take?

EddieMINNEAPOLIS – In past winters, Jonathan Huberdeau and his family packed up their RV and headed south from Quebec. The last stop would be South Florida where they would take in a Panthers game, usually against their beloved Montreal Canadiens.

Along the route, the Huberdeau clan found places like parking lots at Wal-Mart or Cracker Barrel to crash for the night.

“We would stay everywhere, sleep everywhere,'' Jonathan Huberdeau said Thursday afternoon. “We wouldn't park at the [Sawgrass Mills] mall across the street because there were too many people always. We liked going there. There's a lot of people from Quebec in Florida around Christmas.''

The Panthers may just offer Huberdeau and his family nicer accommodations in the near future.

Jonathan Huberdeau could be the newest member of the Panthers if Florida takes the 6-foot-1 center with the third overall selection in Friday's NHL Draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. There have been reports Florida was in talks with Edmonton to move up to the top selection and take Canadian center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins only that appears unlikely. The Panthers will select no closer than third.

If Nugent-Hopkins is gone – as is expected – the offensively challenged Panthers could take Huberdeau with their pick. The family Winnebago would find nicer digs in future trips.

“We could upgrade him from the Wal-Mart to the BankAtlantic Center if he becomes our selection,'' Panthers scouting director Scott Luce said with a grin. “We'll probably even paint their initials in the parking lot.''

The Panthers have the third pick for the second time in as many drafts. Florida selected brawny defenseman Erik Gudbranson at the Los Angeles selection show last June. Gudbranson, who isn't signed yet, will be given a chance to make the Panthers roster.

Whomever is taken with the third pick Friday will also get that opportunity.

The Panthers could also find players at this draft without actually drafting them. With general manager Dale Tallon running things – and Florida needing to spend $30 million to get to the league-mandated salary cap floor -- the Panthers are a wild card many teams want to converse with.

“We'll do whatever it takes to get better,'' Tallon said.

One rumor floating around Thursday was Florida trading the third pick to another team for a signed player and a lower first round pick. Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos have said they would move the third selection for the right price. With so much money to spend, and with teams trying to shed salary, the Panthers are expected to be busy this weekend. Florida has 10 picks in this draft including seven among the top 91.

“People know we're going to be aggressive,'' Tallon said. “We've positioned ourselves – painfully – to be in this position. We have to start to reap the benefits of it, make some good hockey decisions as we move forward.

“A lot of teams know where we're at. Some cap-challenged teams have been talking to us. It's interesting. Nothing has come to fruition has come yet, but there has been a lot of conversation, a lot of pondering. It's solid. It'll be an eventful 10 days. It's starting to percolate. This is the time I love.''

Another player the Panthers have targeted with the third pick is winger Gabriel Landeskog. A native of Sweden, Landeskog has been playing junior hockey in Kitchener, Ontario (where Pete DeBoer coached before coming to the Panthers) the past few years.

Both Huberdeau and Landeskog would give the Panthers more firepower. The Panthers have plenty of defensemen in their system after taking Dmitry Kulikov and Gudbranson with their first selections the past two seasons. Florida is looking for offense and hope to find it with the third pick.

Edmonton holds the first selection in the draft for the second straight year. The Oilers are expected to take Nugent-Hopkins. Colorado picks second and is thought to be leaning toward Landeskog.

The first round will be held Friday with the following six rounds coming Saturday.

“There are a lot of very good players, perhaps not players you could put the franchise label on right now,'' Luce said. “But in time, I think there's a lot of guys who can earn that.''