Florida Panthers have diverse, talented group of prospects at college level

By Brian Fogarty

Evan Cowley - Florida Panthers

Photo: Freshman goaltender Evan Cowley was strong in his limited starts with the University of Denver. Cowley was a backup to starting goaltender Sam Brittain, who is also a Florida Panthers prospect. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has a penchant for college hockey prospects, especially with the flexibility that the current NCAA eligibility rules allow. In fact, the Panthers currently have nearly double the amount of college players in their system than they have in major junior hockey, an anomaly in a league that relies heavily on the CHL for player development.

NCAA

Sam Brittain, G, Denver Pioneers (NCHC)
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010

After struggling through a year of disappointments last season, Brittain returned to the Pioneers determined to reclaim a starting role and prove that he can be a dominant goaltender. He had a fantastic campaign, leading his team to the inaugural NCHC Championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Weekend after weekend throughout the winter, Brittain was Denver's best player on the ice, posting results that put him in the top echelon of college goaltenders. He started all but a handful of games and showed his understudy Evan Cowley (another Florida prospect) what it means to be a starter and senior leader in the NCAA. The Panthers will have until later this summer to sign Brittain to a contract, but given his results this year and the relative lack of depth in the system at the position, there can be little doubt that the deal will get done.

Kyle Rau, C/RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011

Last season, Rau played wing on a Minnesota top line that included current NHL forwards Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula (MIN). This year, Rau has assumed the leadership void left by those two and shifted to center, his customary position. Although the additional responsibilities did hurt his statistical production, his play in other aspects of the game has seen impressive improvement and he continued to score timely and important goals. In a play somewhat reminiscent of his state-championship overtime goal, Rau netted the goal that clinched a Big Ten trophy for the Golden Gophers. Throughout the year he displayed courage and toughness in the corners and a willingness to battle much bigger players for the puck. Although his diminutive stature will be an obstacle to his future career, he has been progressing well in Minnesota, and will have another year to develop before turning to the professional game.

Rocco Grimaldi, C/W, North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011

Like Rau, Grimaldi also made a shift from the wing to center after several of his team's top offensive players moved on from the college game. With the departures of Corban Knight (CGY) and Danny Kristo (NYR) among many others, Grimaldi took over a top role for North Dakota and turned in nothing less than the best season of hockey in his young career. He was the team's top scorer and a player who created havoc on every shift. In the opening game of the NCAA tournament, Grimaldi put together his first collegiate hat trick as he and UND sent Wisconsin home earlier than expected. Grimaldi plays a tough-nosed style despite being one of the smallest players in the game. His conditioning, strength, and exceptional skating abilities keep him out of harm's way, and his great hands and finishing ability ensure he is effective whenever he touches the puck.

Zach Hyman, RW, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010

Hyman started the 2013-14 season playing on the third line for the Wolverines, and although he became an adept defensive player during his first couple of years under coach Red Berenson, offensive opportunities were limited. However, since Hyman's promotion to the second line right wing midway through the year, he has finally broken out and been a regular name on the score sheet. His quickness and hockey intelligence have always been apparent, but this year was the first time that he has shown that he can score at the college level.

Connor Brickley, LW/C, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2010

Brickley's injury-plagued college career came to an end recently as his Vermont team was bounced from the Hockey East tournament by a deep and skilled Union squad. The promise that Brickley showed early in his time with the Catamounts never fully developed, partly due to numerous and often unfortunate injuries, and partly due to limited offensive support on a team that struggled to score goals. Brickley's all-around play and his efforts in all three zones earned him a professional opportunity, and he has started playing games in San Antonio on an amateur tryout contract. In his first six professional games, Brickley has tallied a goal and an assist.

Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2012

Matheson came of age this season for the Eagles. The defensive breakdowns which plagued his freshman season have been mostly eradicated from his play in his own zone, and his truly top-level offensive capabilities have allowed him to become one of the best young defensive prospects in college hockey. He ranks among the top defensive skaters in the country, and he has tremendous vision on the breakout or in transition. His skating allows him to join the rush and activate into the attack, but still have the speed to get back on defense. There is a strong possibility that Matheson could forego the rest of his college eligibility and sign a contract with Florida at the end of the season, but the Eagles would be thrilled to see him return for another year.

Ian McCoshen, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2013

As one of the youngest players on the Boston College Eagles, it would have been easy for McCoshen to try to take a back seat to some of the more experienced players on one of the nation's top teams. Instead, he has worked hard to become an integral part of the Eagles team. McCoshen is a fluid skater with great size at 6'3 and 205 pounds, and he still has plenty of time to get even bigger and stronger. He has a blistering shot, and although he does not have the pure offensive talents of teammate Matheson, he is a skilled player with remarkable upside. He also played for Team USA at this year's World Junior Championships, though he made little impact in the five games he played.

Michael Downing, D, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted 4th round, 97th overall, 2013

Another freshman who enjoyed a quality opening season of college hockey, Downing played a deceptively quiet role for the Wolverines. He finished the year second on the team scoring by a defenseman with 12 points in 34 games, just two points behind team captain, senior Mac Bennett (MTL). Downing shares several similarities with fellow prospect McCoshen. Both are smooth-skating, big defensemen who are willing and able to drive the play toward the offensive zone. Both have heavy shots from the blue line, and both can manage the point on the powerplay or kill penalties. More than that, both have good NHL futures ahead of them.

Matt Buckles, C, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2013

Buckles played a checking-line role for the Big Red in his initial season in Ithaca. Although he did not get a lot of scoring opportunities this year, he did score four goals, and showed good two-way awareness on the ice. He is not the most dynamic player, but he is a tough competitor who never stops working. The freshman has plenty of time to develop his game further.

Ben Gallacher, D, Massachusetts Minutemen (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2010

Gallacher plays the game as if he were 6'3, 220 pounds even though he is much smaller than that. The 5'11, 185-pound defenseman was the only member of the Minutemen who had been drafted by an NHL team, and was one of the youngest players on a team heavy with overage upperclassmen. Gallacher continues to improve his positional play, and should continue to develop over his remaining years at Massachusetts.

Evan Cowley, G, Denver Pioneers (NCHC)
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2013

Cowley's freshman year at Denver was frustrated by the dual forces of injury and the spectacular play of Sam Brittain, both of which kept Cowley off of the ice for all but five games. In his first game, in October, Cowley allowed three goals on 33 shots. He would not play again until late February, but in the four appearances he made over the last month of the season, Cowley stopped 78 out of 81 shots against for a .962 saves percentage. With Brittain's graduation from the program, Cowley will have an inside track to the starter's job next season.

R.J. Boyd, D, Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 183rd overall, 2010

Boyd completed his senior season with a goal and six assists in 34 games, giving him a total of 18 points in his time with the Spartans. Boyd has developed into a steady defensive player who plays without much panic in his own end. Although he is a good player, there is nothing about his abilities that make him stand out above the crowded and deep blue line corps in the Florida organization. Boyd could get an invitation to rookie camp over the summer but he will have to turn in an impressive performance in order to get signed to an NHL contract.

Joe Basaraba, RW, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, 2010

Basaraba finished his college career with a solid season as captain of the Bulldogs. He scored eight goals and 10 assists in his senior year, but never really blossomed as an offensive player. He can grind it out in all three zones and is a capable skater and physical player. If he earns a spot on an NHL roster, it will be through showing the same willingness to play whatever role is asked of him.

Ed Wittchow, D, Wisconsin Badgers (Big Ten)
Drafted 6th round, 154th overall, 2011  

Wittchow took on more responsibilities this season, and has quickly become one of the Badgers most reliable defensemen. He uses his size well, especially down low and behind his own net, forcing players to change directions or make unplanned passes in order to avoid his physical play and tough defense. Although he doubled his offensive output this season, he is a defense-first player who scored just seven points in his 37 sophomore-season games. He does have a powerful shot from the point and is a good passer, but he simply is not the kind of player that will push the play into the offensive zone.

Europe

Yaroslav Kosov, LW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2011

Kosov struggled to get ice time on a Metallurg team that relied heavily on their top three forwards, each of whom played near or above 21 minutes of ice time per game, and were responsible for two-thirds of the total points scored by forwards. Kosov squeezed out a meager four points in 32 games, but played less than 10 minutes a night in a checking and defensive role. In order to reach his full potential, Kosov will need to find a way to get more and better ice time, perhaps in North America.

Sergei Gayduchenko, G, HC Donbass (KHL)
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2007

Gayduchenko failed to make much of an impact for Sibir at the start of the season, playing in just eight games. He signed mid-season with HC Donbass in his home country of Ukraine, but he saw no ice time throughout the remainder of the season.

Jonatan Nielsen, D, Troja-Ljungby (Allsvenskan)
Drafted 7th round, 194th overall, 2012

Nielsen played in 44 Allsvenskan games for Troja-Ljungby this season, finishing with one goal and four assists. The big, stay-at-home defenseman plays a smart, positional game with some offensive upside, though he will need to work on his up-ice skills.