Panthers 2008-09 rookie review

By Ian Bross

In the fall, with the 2008-09 hockey season on the horizon, an assortment of Panthers prospects set their sights on breaking through with the big club. As in years past, the team looked for a boost from their young up-and-comers, and held high hopes that spots set aside for the next-generation players, would be ably filled. The stage was set for healthy competition in training camp, where an assemblage of NHL hopefuls looked to prove they had what it takes.

Arguably the greatest opportunity was at the center forward position, where a crack as a top-six forward was potentially up for grabs. The prime candidates to fill the vacancy, two of the premier prospects in the organization, were Shawn Matthias and Michael Frolik. As a prospect, Matthias’ saw a meteoric rise in his stock, since the Panthers acquired him at the 2007 trade deadline. Graduating from the OHL, where he enjoyed a stay with the Belleville Bulls, Matthias was the consensus pick, before the festivities got under way. It was Frolik, however, who ultimately won the coveted spot.

The Czech forward didn’t dress on opening night, scratched for a couple of games in the early going. Still, he remained with the team in lieu of guaranteed playing time with AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Though the Amerks could indeed have put Frolik’s talents to good use, the 20-year-old waited patiently for the time when he would be integrated into the Florida lineup. After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only three games, that chance finally came around. At that point, Frolik planted his skates firmly, and stuck from then on.

With limited time on the ice, almost a month’s time elapsed before the young forward notched his first point. In some ways, Frolik found his offensive flow on the powerplay. It was with the man advantage that he managed to get his name on the score sheet for the first time. And it was there where at times, whether resulting in points or not, he gave the best glimpse of what he was capable of. Frolik has good poise with the puck, which he is capable of distributing fluently.

At the end of November, the rookie had his first multi-point game. With a modest four points finishing the month, Frolik suddenly erupted in December in the absence of Nathan Horton. He added another 11 points to finish off the calendar year. Horton returned from injury, and Frolik’s status with the team was soon set once and for all. As the season went along, Frolik became a Florida fixture. With a niche carved out for himself, his rate of production plateaued.

The season was far from perfect. But in the inaugural campaign which consisted of 79 games, Frolik amassed 21 goals and 24 assists. There were a number of instances throughout the year in which one might have forgotten he was indeed a rookie. So far, Frolik seems to be fast blossoming into an NHL player.

Though he didn’t make the team out of camp, Matthias did make an appearance in a Panthers uniform. In 16 games, he had two assists. He didn’t put up any overwhelming numbers, but as long as he was a member of the team, consistently worked hard. Matthias finished 2008-09 in the AHL. He needs to do at that level, what he did well at the NHL level. And there are aspects of his game that need work, for instance, like learning to make better use of his size. How soon Matthias returns to Florida is up in the air.

As play progressed, Michael Repik established himself as the preeminent offensive threat in Rochester. Because of his success, Repik earned a call-up to the Panthers in December and again in March. Naturally, even in an abbreviated stay, it was on the offensive side of the game that the Czech winger contributed the most. Overall, he had two goals in five games played. If there was any hesitation to bring Repik into the fold earlier, it was likely because of his size. The main obstacle he will have in the future will be to cope with the physical intensity of NHL play. In the AHL, Repik utilized his speed to overcome this disadvantage. Allowing him time to make similar necessary adjustments to his game will be key.

Also making a brief appearance was Kenndal McArdle, who skated in three games, averaging under eight minutes of ice time. Jason Garrison skated in one game in October when the Panther blueline was thinned by injury. He played nearly 12 minutes and registered an even plus/minus rating in a 4-0 loss.