Florida Panthers system well stocked with NHL-caliber talent

By Brian Fogarty

Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers

Photo: Nick Bjugstad is one of several Florida Panthers prospects who are currently playing in the NHL. Bjugstad was selected 19th overall by the Panthers in the 2010 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Juan Salas/Icon SMI)

The Florida Panthers' system remains well stocked even after the graduation of Jonathan Huberdeau and Jacob Markstrom. The organization has incredible depth and skill at center and defense, and although the goaltending depth chart looks relatively weak, it remains a solid group with a couple of players performing well in the early part of the current season.

Left Wing

Huberdeau's graduation leaves a glaring lack of top level talent at the left wing position. Quinton Howden has struggled to generate consistent offense in his second professional season, and this year has just three goals and four assists in 15 games. His speed and defensive commitment will always make him a viable prospect for NHL play, but he appears to be on track to become more of a checking-line winger going forward.

Yaroslav Kosov continues to toil in a defensive role in the KHL, and much like Howden, needs to advance his offensive skills in order to become an impact player at the top North American levels. He does play a solid and effective two-way game, but he looks to have plateaued in his scoring development.

Christopher Clapperton has been a surprise this fall in the QMJHL. He started the season by scoring 14 points in the Armada's first six games, and currently stands at 12 goals and 21 assists in 21 games and is 10th in the league in scoring. His production has been encouraging, but he will need to prove that his scoring is enough to overcome his lack of size and quickness.

John McFarland continues to plug away in the ECHL and his NHL future dims each day despite his speed and puck skills. Francis Beauvillier is another winger with good speed, but his lack of scoring ability slots him as more of a penalty-killing, energy player in the professional ranks. Garrett Wilson has finally found a place in the AHL, and his leadership skills and sound fundamental play may yet help him find his way to the NHL in another year or two.

As for the rest of the right wingers in the Florida system, Alexander Delnov does not seem to be progressing particularly well in the WHL, Connor Brickley has been unable to find any scoring touch at all in Vermont, and Eric Selleck continues to prove that if you have size and are willing to drop the gloves you can find a paycheck in professional hockey. Mattias Lindstrom has yet to play a game this season.

Center

The Panthers organization has arguably the deepest set of NHL-caliber centers in the league, led by last summer's second overall draft pick Aleksander Barkov. The 18-year-old has quickly adapted to NHL play despite being the league's youngest player. Through his first 22 games, Barkov has scored four goals with five assists while averaging about 16 minutes per game. His play without the puck has been impressive and his elite-level hockey sense is apparent in everything he does. He has all the tools to be an NHL All-Star for many years to come.

Behind him in the depth chart is another rookie with great size, intelligence, and scoring ability in Nick Bjugstad. The 21-year-old started the season on injured reserve after suffering a concussion in training camp, but since his return he has shown that he is more than capable of becoming a solid NHL center. His skating has improved over the years to the point where his feet now match the quickness of his hands. He is particularly good at using his size and strength to create offensive pressure in tight spaces.

At the AHL level, Vince Trocheck has been enjoying a terrific start to his professional career. He currently ranks second among rookies in points with 18 through 17 games. Drew Shore has yet to score a goal, but continues to find ways to help the Rampage. Both look to have good NHL futures before them.

The Panthers also have two of college hockey's top players in Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau, both captains and top-line centers on their respective teams. For North Dakota, Grimaldi has continued to fly all around the ice with his remarkable skating and explosive offensive ability. He has produced at a point-per-game pace so far this year, and leads his team in scoring.

Rau may not lead Minnesota in points, but he is clearly the leader of the team. He takes the important faceoffs at both ends of the rink, attacks the puck everywhere on the ice, and plays much bigger than his size. The Gophers are the top-ranked team in college hockey, and Rau is a significant contributor to their success.

Steven Hodges has just recently returned from an injury that kept him out of the Victoria Royals lineup for the beginning of the season. Hodges has some offensive abilities, but plays more of a two-way game.

Matt Buckles, a fourth-round pick in last summer's NHL draft, is a freshman at Cornell, and is scoreless in his first seven collegiate games.

Right Wing

The average size of the system's right wing took a big jump up with the recent addition of the 6'6, 210-pound former Boston College Eagle, Jimmy Hayes. A consistent if not prolific scorer in the AHL, Hayes joins the Panthers as the team's top right wing prospect, and easily has the best scoring potential of the group. Hayes looks to have a more direct track to the NHL with the Panthers than he did with the more talented Chicago Blackhawks.

Zach Hyman, now a junior with the University of Michigan, has become a solid defensive winger, but has not been able to produce offensively at the college level. Until he can begin scoring at a level equal to his Junior A promise, he can be considered only a bottom-line NHL winger, at best.

Anthony Luciani and Jonathan Hazen continue to produce at the ECHL level with Cincinnati, where they have nine and six points, respectively, but neither has been able to translate that scoring into AHL-level success. Both look as though they are career minor-league players at this point.

Logan Shaw, in his initial professional year, was unable to register a point in seven AHL games and was demoted to the ECHL level. Shaw has good size, and could become a quality bottom-six forward in the NHL if he can find a way to get there.

Rounding out the right-wingers is Joe Basaraba. The senior for Minnesota-Duluth is in the midst of his most productive season of college hockey. He has good size and hockey intelligence, but needs refinements in several areas before he can be have an NHL future.

Defensemen

Defense, like center, is a position of tremendous depth for the Panther's organization. Topping the group is Mike Matheson, a gifted skater and puck handler with a bullet shot. Florida's first-round pick in the 2012 draft is currently playing with-and sometimes paired with-last summer's 31st-overall pick Ian McCoshen. Both defensemen have an array of talents and skills. McCoshen, like Matheson, is an offensive-minded defenseman with a dangerous shot. McCoshen has better size than Matheson, but although he is a good skater, he cannot match Matheson's smooth quickness. Matheson has been steadily improving his play in the defensive zone and has become a solid defender, while McCoshen needs continued work in that area. Both, however, appear well on their way to NHL careers in the near future.

Alex Petrovic is quickly becoming a top AHL-level defenseman. He brings terrific size and physicality to the ice, and has a huge shot from the point. He is fourth overall in shots on goal for the Rampage and first among defensemen, and his two goals and six assists places him second behind only fellow prospect Colby Robak for scoring from the back end. Robak is another player with great size (he and Petrovic are both over 6'3) and two-way presence on the ice. Both Robak and Petrovic will likely get an opportunity to play NHL minutes this season.

Another recent addition to the system is Dylan Olsen. The former first-round pick has yet to find a permanent role in the NHL, but he has a lot of talent and adds a defense-first orientation to the Panthers system. He also brings good size and physicality to the blue line.

Ed Wittchow has steadily developed into a quality stay-at-home defenseman while patrolling the blue line for the Wisconsin Badgers. The 21-year-old is another big body with good skating abilities.

Michael Downing join the organization after being drafted 97th overall last summer and currently skates for the Michigan Wolverines. Two other 2013 NHL Draft picks, Joshua Brown and Mackenzie Weegar, play in the CHL. Weegar, a smaller, offensive defenseman, is amidst a breakout season with 19 points in 20 games.

Jonathan Racine brought his rock-solid blue line presence to the AHL this season and has not missed a beat. He plays with patience and positioning, and looks to have a solid bottom- or even middle-pair NHL future.

Jonatan Nielsen is a mobile stay-at-home defenseman currently playing for Troja-Ljungby of the Swedish Allsvenskan league.

Ben Gallacher is now skating for UMass-Amherst and looks to be improving as a prospect. He moves well and plays a tough game, but he also shows promise as a two-way defender.

R.J. Boyd continues his slow development path for Michigan State and Josh McFadden has been playing the ECHL for Cincinnati. Both Boyd and McFadden look like marginal prospects unlikely to play in the NHL any time soon.

Goaltenders

The Panthers have four goaltenders in the system. Michael Houser leads the group, but Sam Brittain has been playing extremely well over the first part of his senior year, and has silenced many questions that arose from last year's struggles.

Houser was recently sent down to the ECHL as a response to Markstrom's AHL reassignment. In San Antonio, Houser had posted a .917 saves percentage and 2.17 goals against average through five games. In his two starts since rejoining the Cyclones, Houser has stopped 73 of the 78 shots he has faced. Houser has plenty of top-level tools and so far has been progressing quickly. He looks to be at least NHL-backup material.

As mentioned, Brittain has been spectacular so far for the Pioneers. Brittain has started all but one of the team's twelve games. He is third in the nation in save percentage after allowing only 18 goals on 330 total shots against and is fourth in goals against average (1.61 goals allowed per game).

Brittain's backup at the University of Denver is Evan Cowley, who was selected 92nd overall by the Panthers in 2013. Cowley is a tall, fluid but raw goaltender who has seen action in just one game so far this year, in which he stopped 33 of 36 shots.

Sergei Gayduchenko has not yet been able to cement himself as a starter in the KHL. He is currently playing a backup role for Sibir Novosibirsk, where he has seen action in just seven of the team's 27 games. His results have been subpar and his prospects as an NHL goaltender are fading.