Minor league system starting to bear fruit for Florida Panthers

By Brian Fogarty

Vince Trocheck - Florida Panthers

Photo: Forward Vince Trocheck is having a strong rookie pro season. Through 32 AHL games, the 20-year-old has 11 goals and 12 assists. (courtesy of Ray Carlin/Icon SMI)

The Florida Panthers currently have four players on their NHL roster who can still be considered prospects. Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Dylan Olsen, and Jimmy Hayes are all seeing regular shifts for Florida, and all have been effective at that level. There are also a handful of prospects at the AHL level who are either NHL-ready or not far off.

The minor league system as a whole is a group that seems to be gravitating to opposite poles. There are those like Drew Shore and Alex Petrovic who are defining themselves as players ready to make the leap, and their opposite number in players such as Josh McFadden and Jonathan Hazen whose careers appear headed in the wrong direction. Regardless, with 18 prospects in the minor professional system, the Panthers have a lot of talent from which to choose their next south Florida stars.

NHL

Aleksander Barkov, C, 18

Barkov is among the youngest players ever to earn a regular roster spot in the NHL, and on some shifts he looks like a player barely past his eighteenth birthday. However, Barkov's rookie, youthful mistakes are overshadowed by his exceptional hockey sense and size. He has shown early in his NHL career that his wrist shot is capable of beating big league goaltenders, and he is incredibly strong on his skates. He is among the team leaders in powerplay time on ice, and although he does not get any work on the penalty kill, he has a shown himself to be capable in his own end. There is no doubt that Barkov has everything it takes to be a top-line NHL center and a future All-Star.

Nick Bjugstad, C, 21

Bjugstad suffered a concussion in training camp and spent the first couple of weeks of the season on the injured reserve list. Once he was cleared to play and joined the team, he centered the third line and averaged only around 10 minutes of ice time per game. Since the early part of November, however, Bjugstad has started to play like the dominant, powerful center that was expected of him when the Panthers selected him out of high school. Through the months of November and December, Bjugstad has scored 7 goals and 6 assists in 29 games. Perhaps more impressive is that all of Bjugstad's points have come at even strength. Like Barkov, Bjugstad has a bright NHL career ahead of him, and the two look to be the team's top-six centermen for years to come.

Jimmy Hayes, RW, 24

Hayes joined the Panthers organization in the trade that sent Kris Versteeg to Chicago and was assigned directly to the NHL club. The 6'6, 215-pound winger had seen only limited ice time for the Blackhawks in their talent-rich system, so the move to Florida allowed him some opportunities he had otherwise been missing. In his 21 games for the Panthers, he has scored four goals with an assist on mostly third-line duties. He gives the Panthers a lot of size on the right side of the ice, a position that has needed additional depth in the system. Hayes recently played in his 64th NHL game, and will soon be graduating from prospect status.

Dylan Olsen, D, 22

After being acquired from Chicago in mid-November, Olsen was initially assigned to San Antonio. There, he played in just three games (with a single assist) before getting the call to join the NHL squad in Sunrise. Olsen, who was selected 28th overall in the 2009 NHL draft, wasted little time before endearing himself to Panthers fans. In his debut game for Florida he assisted on a goal and played nearly 20 minutes against the Flyers. In his 16 games since then, he has added another five assists and has scored three goals. In addition to his offensive contributions, Olsen has been logging tough minutes for the Panthers, playing primarily in his own zone against the opponents' better players. Olsen has the look of a player who has been waiting for his break to appear and does not want to let this opportunity go to waste.

AHL

Drew Shore, C, 22

After an excruciating and slow start to the season, Shore has pulled his game around in December. The Rampage's top-line center notched seven assists in his last 10 games at the AHL level, including two multipoint efforts, and was recently recalled to the NHL. Although Shore has yet to score a goal this season, his 74 shots on net ranks fourth-best in San Antonio and indicative of the offensive pressure he generates. Shore has been at his best with the puck on his stick below the goal line, picking out attacking teammates with precise passes and creating prime scoring opportunities.

More than his offense, however, Shore's defensive play has improved from his already solid two-way game. He shows tremendous effort while back-checking or penalty killing, and is typically well positioned and effective in his own end. In just his second year of professional hockey, Shore plays in all situations for the Rampage, and sees a lot of ice time in all three zones. Given his all-around abilities, good size and above-average foot speed, Shore seems likely to at least split the remaining season between the AHL and NHL, if not see a call-up permanently.

Vince Trocheck, C, 20

Trocheck has quickly adapted to professional hockey after his award-winning major junior career. Over the first few months of the season, Trocheck has scored 11 goals with 12 assists and leads the Rampage in scoring. He centers the team's second line and plays on both the penalty kill and powerplay units. He is a capable defender who plays hard at both ends of the ice despite the score or game situation. On offense, Trocheck is a constant threat to score or create a chance for a teammate. He has deceptive quickness with the puck and the stick-handling to deke around defenders with ease. Trocheck is a natural athlete, a tireless worker, and a skilled performer who has a bright hockey future. As a player who can fill any role and still make an impact, Trocheck's game will translate well to the NHL despite his lack of prototypical big-league size.

Quinton Howden, LW, 21

Howden has played a multitude of roles for the Rampage this season, moving between spots on Shore's left wing to a more defensive, two-way role on the second or third line. He uses his size well to shield the puck from defenders, and utilizes his tremendous speed as a relentless forechecker and penalty killer. In fact, two of Howden's four goals on the season have been scored while shorthanded.

In order to become an effective NHL player, Howden will need to continue to develop his offensive game and find ways to create offense off of the half-boards. He fights hard in the corners, but has not yet established an ability to generate scoring chances on his own. At just 21 years old, Howden still has plenty of time to hone the offensive aspects of his game and become a true two-way player with NHL skills.

Alex Petrovic, D, 21

On many nights, Petrovic is arguably the best player on the ice for the Rampage. His development as a professional hockey player continues at a skyrocket pace and his game has advanced in every aspect of play. In the defensive zone, Petrovic is seldom out of position and he currently leads Rampage defensemen in plus/minus with a plus-six rating. His hits can be punishing, but he does not take himself out of the play to make a hit. Instead, Petrovic uses his strength, skating, and timing to use physicality as an extension of his positional defense. He has a high level of hockey intelligence, and reads plays quite well.

Although his wrist shot is not overly deceptive or dangerous, his thundering slap shot is a valuable weapon, one that he readily deploys. Still, the most impressive part of his game has been his incredibly high panic threshold, with or without the puck. Petrovic never looks flustered, even on those seldom occasions that he gets trapped outnumbered in his own zone with the puck on his stick. In times like those, he makes calm, deft decisions and safe plays that rarely result in chances going the other way.

Colby Robak, D, 23

Like Petrovic, Colby Robak uses his size, positioning, and hockey smarts to play efficient shutdown coverage in his own end. Although not as physical as Petrovic, Robak plays a strong game along the boards and effectively clears the crease in front of his netminder. He gets a lot of ice time in all situations, and both he and Petrovic are relied upon heavily by the San Antonio coaching staff. Robak currently has three goals and eight assists through 26 AHL games.

Jonathan Racine, D, 20

A lower body injury has troubled Racine through the early part of the season, and he has seen just 22 games of action with the Rampage so far. In those games he has four assists, but scoring has never been a major part of Racine's game. Instead, he plays an even, no-frills style of defense and on most nights can easily go unnoticed. He still needs a healthy amount of development before he could be ready for NHL play, but he has the smarts and abilities to someday play along the Panthers blue line.

John McFarland, LW, 21

McFarland has played most of the season in the ECHL, but is currently getting another chance in the AHL. When McFarland has the puck, he is lightning fast and drives hard into the offensive zone. He has a good and deceptive wrist shot that he can score with from middle distances. Unfortunately, when he does not have the puck, McFarland is at best a non-factor. He will be physical on the forecheck, but lacks exuberance on the back check and plays defense, as if it was a burden to be endured. His up-ice determination is not enough to earn him anything more than a minor league career. Until he can translate all of his skill into play in his own zone, his opportunities at any ice time beyond the AHL will be severely limited.

Michael Houser, G, 21

Houser has made a couple of trips between Cincinnati and San Antonio this fall, driven mostly by the high quality of his performances and the status of Jacob Markstrom's position with the Panthers. When with the Cyclones, Houser has been among the ECHL's best netminders, stopping 93 percent of the shots he has faced. In the AHL, his results have been closer to the league average. However, he remains composed in the net when he plays, and although he can struggle at times with his rebound control against the AHL's better shooters, any flaws in his goaltending are easily corrected with experience. The 21-year-old netminder has plenty of time to gain that experience before he will be expected to make a significant contribution to the big club.

Garrett Wilson, LW, 22

After playing the majority of the last two seasons in the ECHL, Wilson looks to have finally found a permanent spot in the San Antonio lineup. He has played 28 games with the Rampage this year, lining up in an assortment of roles including right and left wing to both Shore and Trocheck. Wilson currently leads the Rampage with a plus-eight rating, due in no small part to his sound offensive play as well as defensive awareness, and is fifth overall in scoring with 14 points.

Wilson plays a steady game, not flashy or dazzling in any one aspect, but he is beginning to show an ability to influence games in smaller ways. A well-timed check, a necessary zone clearance, a turnover created off of the forecheck. He pays attention to the details and has been using his quickness and size to slowly work his way into what could become a long career in professional hockey.

ECHL

Logan Shaw, RW, 21

Shaw started his rookie campaign in the AHL, but after seven scoreless games, was sent down to Cincinnati where he has received more ice time and has had more success. In 20 games with the Cyclones, Shaw has scored eight goals and assisted on 10 others. With his size and skills, there is a good chance he will get another call up to San Antonio before the end of the season.

Anthony Luciani, RW, 23

Luciani looks as though he has finally worked his way through his plague of injuries and is enjoying a successful season for Cincinnati. After playing in just 29 games last season, Luciani started this season on a hot streak that saw him tally nine points in his first seven games. November was not as kind, however, and his scoring dried up for several games, but he has since turned things around and has seven goals and 13 assists through 23 games on the season. Luciani is small, but he has a scorer's touch around the net and works hard to generate chances.

Jonathan Hazen, RW, 23

Hazen's hockey fortunes appeared to take a turn for the better last year, after he played in 48 games at the AHL level. However, so far this season he has not been able to crack the San Antonio lineup. He has seen teammates take their turns with the AHL squad, but he has not received a call himself. To make matters worse for the winger, his scoring production has dropped off considerably from previous years.

Mattias Lindstrom, LW, 22

Lindstrom has been on the injured list all season after suffering an undisclosed injury in training camp. He is currently on the rehabilitation track with no timetable for his return.

Josh McFadden, D, 22

McFadden continues to struggle for consistency in the ECHL. With just five in 17 games, the offensive-defenseman's contributions have been minimal.

System Notes

After years of having multiple entrants to the World Junior Championships, defenseman Ian McCoshen is the only Panthers prospect participating in the 2014 tournament, a testament to the organization as a whole coming of age. McCoshen will give the US team size and mobility on the back end, and should see a good amount of powerplay time. Other Panthers prospects such as Barkov were eligible for the tournament, but are currently playing in the NHL.

Rocco Grimaldi has been stellar so far this season for North Dakota and was recently named the NCHC Offensive Player of Week for December 9th-15th. He has scored at a point-per-game pace this season and is riding a five-game points streak into the winter break.

Russian goaltending prospect Sergei Gayduchenko recently signed on with the Ukranian KHL team Donbass Donetsk after being released by Sibir Novosibirsk. The 6'5 netminder had posted a subpar .884 saves percentage in eight games for Sibir, and looks to once again try to find a home with a new team. Donbass is Gaiduchenko's fourth KHL team in the last four seasons.