FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers coaching search will pick up steam this week as six front-runners for the vacancy, including fired Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, will meet with the team's brain-trust in New York City, according to a team source.
The source also said that if the Panthers don't like any of the many offers they're fielding from other teams regarding their overall No. 1 draft pick, then they're leaning toward selecting 6-foot-3, 218-pound defenseman Aaron Ekblad because he's considered the most NHL-ready of the projected top four prospects.
"Ekblad is this year's player most likely ready to step in and play in the NHL," Scott Luce, the Panthers director of scouting, told the Sun Sentinel last week. "He's physically mature and has got lots of mileage underneath him at the OHL level."
Other than Bylsma, the other five leading candidates have all met or spoke to General Manager Dale Tallon, but now will also sit down with the team's co-owners, Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, as well as CEO/President Rory Babich.
Those repeaters are believed to be Ron Wilson, Canadiens' assistant Gerard Gallant, former Stanley Cup -- winning coach Marc Crawford, and Red Wings' assistants Tom Renney and Bill Peters.
Tallon, who's in New York for Wednesday's GM meetings, has repeatedly said that he wants a coach with NHL head-coaching experience, which would include Bylsma, Crawford, Wilson and Renney. Bylsma's in Manhattan, too, as a guest analyst on NHL Network for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Madison Square Garden.
The source said that Bylsma, who was fired by the Penguins on Friday, expressed an interest in guiding a Panthers' team that's stocked with young talent, including centers Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck, as well as being secure in net with veteran goalie Roberto Luongo.
Bylsma, who took the Penguins to a Stanley Cup title in his first season in 2009 and won the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award in 2011, is believed to be a front-runner for all three teams with openings, including the Hurricanes and Canucks.
Bylsma has worked with Tallon on the 2014 United States Olympic team which finished fourth in Sochi. Tallon has said he intends to add two veteran defensemen to the Panthers' blue line which was partly responsible for allowing 3.20 goals-per-game, 29th worst in the league.
The blue-line reinforcements could come in a trade for the Panthers' top pick -- which Tallon has been openly shopping since the Panthers jumped over the 30th-ranked Sabres to win the draft lottery last month -- or in the deep pool of free-agent defensemen.
Two of those unrestricted free-agent defensemen, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, have been playing for Bylsma in Pittsburgh, so they might be more willing to come to South Florida if their coach is there, too.
Orpik, 33, is the more defensive defenseman of the two, with Niskanen, 27, entering his prime after notching 46 points and a plus-33 on-ice rating that led all NHL defensemen. Niskanen made $2.5 million last year, and will be one of the top defenseman available on the free-agent market.
Several teams have reportedly expressed a desire to move up in the draft to take Ekblad, including the Maples Leafs, Flames and Oilers, who have the eighth, fourth and third pick respectively.
Tallon, who's in New York for GM meetings, told the Toronto Star that he has spoken to 12 coaching candidates, and has received one, "fair offer," for the top pick. Tallon has said he expects to have a coach in place before the draft, which will be held at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, June 27-28.
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