The forward position has not traditionally been an area of strength for the Panthers. In the 2009 draft, the organization made a substantial effort to improve itself in that regard though. With eight selections, Florida chose seven forwards. The improved depth chart reflects this undertaking.
At left wing, Mike Duco almost made it to NHL play this fall. Duco was carried on the Panthers roster as an extra forward when the team opened the season overseas in Helsinki, Finland. The 22-year-old didn’t dress in any games, however, and was sent down fairly quickly. A free-agent signing two years ago, Duco will be one of the candidates to be called up in the event of injury.
The other professionals at left wing are Kenndal McArdle and Andrew Sweetland. McArdle has dressed for the Panthers previously, in just a three-game stint. For the most part, the former first-round pick has continued to lurk in the AHL with the Rochester Americans.
Sweetland was a free-agent signing out of junior. He is capable of producing at about a point-per-game pace at the ECHL level, but Sweetland hasn’t conquered AHL play, let alone sniff the NHL.
The Panthers have two OHL left wingers in 2009 pick Garret Wilson, and 2008 pick A.J. Jenks, both fourth-round selections. Jenks has been slow to progress thus far. Wilson is a promising newcomer, with seven goals and six assists in 13 games this season.
Last is Ryan Watson, now a junior with Western Michigan University. A seventh-round pick, Watson puts in lots of time on the penalty kill. He is not a scorer.
At center, the Panthers have three NCAA prospects. The lone professional is Shawn Matthias. Looking for a rebound after a disappointing rookie year last year, Matthias is currently with the Amerks again after initially winning a spot with the Panthers. The 21-year-old has dressed in two games already, and has not managed any points.
The first of the string of forwards the Panthers took in 2009 was Drew Shore out of the USNTDP. A true freshman at the University of Denver, the 18-year-old has a goal and an assist through four games. Shore has both size and offensive capabilities.
Corban Knight was also drafted this past June. He is a freshman with the University of North Dakota this year. Knight was originally headed back to the AJHL’s Okotoks Oilers, but instead joined the university a year early when a spot opened on the team. Knight has sat out for one of the Fighting Sioux’s four games played. He has scored one goal thus far.
The third collegiate center is Matt Rust, now entering his junior year. Rust has already represented the United States multiple times in World Junior Championships, and is a legitimate but possibly limited prospect. An already established versatile player, the issue concerning Rust will be whether or not he can add scoring to his repertoire. Rust has scored a goal and two assists through the first two games of action.
The Panthers last pick in the 2009 draft was OHL forward Scott Timmins. Taken in round six, Timmins is a two-way player with a winning track record, and some familiarity with Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. Timmins played under DeBoer when the Kitchener Rangers captured the 2008 OHL championship. This will be his last year in junior.
On the right side, the top prospect is Michal Repik. The 20-year-old almost made it to the NHL out of training camp this year. Instead, he is back in the AHL with Rochester, where as a rookie he was the team leader in points. He is off to a blistering start, with five goals and three assists in five games. It may not be long before the Panthers call his name.
Also playing professionally in 2009-10 are Evgeny Dadonov, Brady Calla, Dan Collins, and James DeLory. Dadonov left his native Russia this offseason to sign an entry-level deal with the Panthers. He will carry out his rookie campaign in the AHL with the Amerks. It hasn’t been an easy transition for Dadonov so far, who is scoreless.
Calla will be back in the mix for a spot with Rochester after opening up there last year, and being reassigned to junior. After taking a step back, the 21-year-old Calla will give it a second try this season. Similarly, Dan Collins hopes to crack the Amerks lineup. Plagued with inconsistency, Collins will probably spend the majority of his time in the ECHL. After one game with the Amerks, he is skating for the Johnstown Chiefs.
Like Calla, DeLory reverted from the pros to junior last year. In DeLory’s case, it was as he converted from defense to forward in an enforcer mold. With very limited skill, DeLory’s potential is equally limited. Perhaps he could one day make it in the NHL as an enforcer if he improves his skating, but it’s a long shot.
The only active NCAA player at the position this year will be Josh Birkholz. A 2009 pick, Birkholz is a freshman at the University of Minnesota. He will be the first Panthers prospect to suit up for the Golden Gophers. Favoring a veteran presence, Birkholz hasn’t received much ice time, and has even been a healthy scratch.
Most Panther prospects at the defensive position are in professional hockey already. In addition to those eight, three are in the NCAA, and two are in junior.
2009 draft pick Dmitry Kulikov is the club’s top defensive prospect, and he is likely to stay up with Florida the remainder of the year. The 18-year-old Kulikov came to camp with competition for blueline spots, and made a strong impression. He hasn’t looked at of place.
Also a first-round pick, Keaton Ellerby enters his second year of pro hockey. Ellerby was a candidate like Kulikov to claim a place with the Panthers. Though he graduated from junior relatively quickly, he did not graduate to the NHL with similar efficacy. Among the first cuts, Ellerby reprises his role with the Rochester Americans, for whom he will be a key defender.
Giving Kulikov the greatest run for his money was 24-year-old Jason Garrison. A collegian turned pro last season, Garrison has all along looked comfortable and adjusted. He was along with the Panthers as the eighth defenseman on their roster while their regular season got underway in Finland. He has been down with the Amerks since, but will in all likelihood serve as the first injury call-up on defense.
Michael Caruso will also suit up for the Americans this year. It will be his second year with the team, and his second professionally. Caruso is a conservative player, not at all flashy. His upside is not as high as some of the other names in the organization, but he is as viable as any other. Caruso’s hallmarks will be his consistency and steadiness if he succeeds at the highest level.
The first of two junior prospects, Colby Robak came to Panthers training camp, but didn’t last particularly long. The smooth skater returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings, where he will play out his final year of junior. Robak came on strong at the end of last season, and seems ready to have a big year. Already, Robak has tallied a goal and eight assists, nine points in 11 games.
Adam Comrie will also play out the year in junior, with the OHL’s Guelph Storm. Comrie was acquired by the Storm with the reputation of exceptional shutdown capabilities. Without putting his size to particularly effective use, even, Comrie has been a stalwart. Standing 6’4, Comrie is a strong skater with a desire to make things happen at both ends of the ice.
The three NCAA defensive prospects whose rights are owned by the Panthers are Matthew Bartkowski, Derrick LaPoint, and John Lee.
Bartkowski was a freshman last year with Ohio State. As a 20-year-old, he was quite impressive, and demonstrated few downsides to his game. He appears poised to have an excellent collegiate career, with good offensive instincts and plenty of toughness. Bartkowski already has one assist and 34 penalty minutes through his first four games.
LaPoint’s stock has fallen over the years. He suffered a severe leg injury at the end of the year last year. As a junior, there are a number of areas of his game that need work. LaPoint has one point in four games. Once touted for his offensive awareness, LaPoint has only scored 12 total points in his first two years combined.
The third NCAA defenseman in the system, John Lee, is a teammate of Drew Shore on a strong Denver team. Lee will continue his development as a sophomore.
At the bottom of the depth chart is a quartet of professional defensemen.
Jordan Henry made significant strides improving his game last year though the Amerks struggled. Henry put in a commendable effort on a consistent basis. The 23-year-old has an outside chance of an NHL career. Luke Beaverson went pro from the NCAA, but didn’t stick in Rochester and was demoted to ECHL. Beaverson bears the burden of proof to establish himself as a player who can play at the highest level. Peter Aston, like Henry, progressed fairly well last year on a bad Amerks team. But still, the odds are against Aston to surpass the AHL level, if nothing else, due to the depth ahead of him.
Lastly, Roman Derlyuk continues to be property of the Panthers. He is for all intents and purposes, however, not a legitimate NHL prospect.
Jacob Markstrom is the crown jewel of the system, and his anticipated arrival to North America may be just over the horizon. Currently in the last year of a multi-year deal with Brynas IF of Elitserien, Markstrom will certainly be pursued by the Panthers this coming offseason.
This past offseason, the Panthers lured 22-year-old Czech netminder Alexander Salak to local soil. Salak was also a standout in Europe, with TPS Turku of the SM-Liiga. Salak is currently a member of the Rochester Americans. Between he and Markstrom, the Panthers have a pair of European goalies who could take the helm as NHL starters one day.
The Panthers also have a tandem of NCAA goaltenders with promise. It was a coming out of sorts for the University of Denver’s Marc Cheverie, who has emerged as a solid prospect. He was second in the WCHA with a 2.34 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. In four games this year, he has a 2.00 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Also, the University of New Hampshire’s Brian Foster posted a 2.68 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in his first year as the No. 1 in net last season. He will look to finish his college hockey career strong this year as a senior.
Sergei Gayduchenko is the wildcard at the position. A tall, talented goaltender, Gayduchenko is being groomed in the KHL. He is starting to earn playing time as the backup, with nine games played to date. He has a 2.84 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.