Thinning Florida Panthers pool still has many viable prospects

By Brian Fogarty
Rocco Grimaldi - Florida Panthers

Photo: Forward Rocco Grimaldi is amidst his rookie season of professional hockey. Grimaldi was a second round pick from the 2011 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)

 

The Florida Panthers organization looks much different now than it did even two years ago. General Manager Dale Tallon’s rebuilding of the prospect system and the relative patience that his staff has shown in allowing those prospects to mature has started to bear fruit. Several players have moved through the pipeline to become NHL regulars or AHL players on the verge of graduating to the big leagues.

As a result, the system that had been a constant at the top of organizational rankings now has begun to thin out. However, there are still many solid players throughout the system, predominantly in the form of collegiate players.

Left Wing

The left side of the forward corps is led by current NHL player Brandon Pirri, who started the season as a healthy scratch but made an impact once he cracked the lineup. Pirri has a strong scoring drive, and for the four games he played before taking a Keith Yandle (PHX) elbow to the head, Pirri had been one of Florida’s most dangerous scoring threats.

Quinton Howden‘s season is off to a rough start after suffering an injury in San Antonio’s opening game. However, once the speedy winger returns to the ice, he should slot into the Rampage’s top six forwards again and try to get his offensive game on track. In Howden’s absence, Garrett Wilson has been getting a good amount of premium ice time, and the big, blue-collar forward has been taking advantage of it. With 14 points in 17 games, Wilson continues to show that he can be a multipurpose player in professional hockey, and with more seasoning at the AHL level could prove himself to be a solid bottom-six NHL player.

Behind those three, the depth at left wing starts to look a bit more complicated. Junior scorer Christopher Clapperton can put the puck in the net, but size and skating will be an issue for him as his begins to move into higher levels of play. Recent draft picks Juho Lammikko and Miguel Fidler are also playing junior hockey (Fidler in the USHL in anticipation of moving on to Ohio State next season). Lammikko-selected late in the second round of last summer’s draft-is producing well in Kingston. Fidler is more of a project, but he will have time to develop as he moves through his college years.

Connor Brickley is finding his way in the AHL after graduating from Vermont last year. He has the skillset to become a shutdown forward in the AHL and perhaps the NHL. John McFarland continues to tease with his speed, but with every expiring game clock, his chances of making it to the NHL seem to tick away.

Finishing up the on left are Russian players Yaroslav Kosov and Alexander Delnov. Kosov, long considered to have the makings of a good two-way NHL player, is still playing in the KHL, and although he is beginning to see more ice time he, too, is looking like a player that might have a hard time getting to the NHL. Delnov returned to Russia this year after playing two years for Seattle in the WHL. After playing a few games in the KHL, Delnov was relegated to the MHL juniors, where he has been enjoying some scoreboard success. However, having left North America for his Russian homeland, chances are slim that Delnov will return.

Center

No other position in the Panthers system has the talent and depth that is seen at center. Recent graduates Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are already the core of the NHL squad, and behind those two are several talented young prospects. Vince Trocheck, after starting the season in the AHL, has once again made the trip to south Florida, and with his recent play the second-year forward might be there to stay. Through nine NHL games this year, Trocheck has a goal and five assists, and his tenacious and tireless play allows him to fit into any on-ice situation.

Rocco Grimaldi, in his first year as a professional, has already been back and forth between the AHL and NHL a couple of times, including a rare double header in which he played an afternoon AHL game before catching a flight to Los Angeles to join the Panthers and play an NHL game that same night, replacing an ill Barkov. Other than the rare double, Grimaldi’s impact at the NHL level has been mostly energetic play and some dazzling stick-handling. He has yet to register a point, but his talent, strength and blazing speed could soon earn him a full-time role for Florida.

Kyle Rau is a high-energy player with scoring abilities. The captain of the Minnesota Golden Gophers leads his team in scoring with 12 points in 10 games. Jayce Hawryluk plays a key role for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL, and is likely to earn a spot on Canada’s World Junior Championship team this fall. The recent draft selection plays a similar style to Rau: a tough, fast-paced, forechecking game that creates turnovers and capitalizes on them. Whether or not their style can translate to the NHL at their size remains to be seen, though at 5’10 and nearly 200 pounds, Hawryluk is closer to typical NHL size.

Steven Hodges and Ryan Martindale are both in San Antonio, Hodges in his first year as a professional and Martindale trying to forge a path to the NHL. Finally, Matt Buckles is centering a line for Cornell, and has vastly improved his offensive production this year, scoring at a half-point per game pace.

Right Wing

With just four prospects officially listed in the position, right wing depth continues to be a problem for the Panthers, as it has been for years. The group is led by Zach Hyman, a fourth-year player at the University of Michigan who has finally begun to show the offense that fans and staff have been waiting for since he led his Junior A league in scoring in his draft year.

Logan Shaw gives the system good size with productivity on the right, and he has been a reliable two-way player at the AHL level. The second-year pro played 46 games in San Antonio last year with just eight points scored. He has been given an opportunity to have better ice time this year, and Shaw has responded with four goals and three assists through just 16 games, nearly tripling his production rate.

Joe Wegwerth is playing in the USHL in preparation for next year’s move to Notre Dame. Wegwerth was not selected as a scorer, but as a player who will give the team size and physicality on the wing.

Joe Basaraba has been playing mostly at the ECHL level in his first year after college, but was recently called up to the AHL as several of the Rampage’s forwards have been getting called to the NHL. He, too, is more of a bottom-six type, but he has been scoring well at the ECHL level.

Defensemen

The Panthers are incredibly deep at defense, led by NHL rookie sensation Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft. Ekblad averages over 20 minutes of ice time per game and is currently third on the Panthers in scoring. Ekblad was expected to be a good player right away because of his size and fluid skating, but what has been most remarkable about his play has been his on-ice awareness. He makes quick, accurate decisions in all three zones and has displayed an ability to make small, almost imperceptible adjustments to his positioning or skating line to put himself in a superior position to make a play. His offense, to this point, has been a bonus above his otherwise startlingly good debut.

Alex Petrovic is currently in the AHL, and has been mostly quiet there so far this year. The big defender is becoming a steady blueliner, even if his offensive game has not been much in evidence so far this year. With seven defenders at the NHL level, Petrovic is playing in San Antonio as much because of his waiver status as for his readiness to play at the top level.

A pair of collegiate teammates give the system one of its top offensive defenders and another who has begun to look more like a two-way blueliner. Mike Matheson continues to improve and currently leads the Boston College Eagles in shots on goal, and his seven points in 11 games has him just one point off the team lead. Teammate Ian McCoshen is also improving his game, but the sophomore has been playing more of defense-first role this year. Matheson is now looking like an NHL-ready player, while McCoshen still needs time to polish his game.

Behind those four defenders comes a sort of second tier of blueliners that make up the enormous depth at the positions. Mackenzie Weegar has been cutting his teeth as a rookie in San Antonio, and although his offensive has not taken off yet, his ice time has been somewhat limited thus far. Jonathan Racine‘s defense-first game has seemed to have stagnated a bit, but he has time to continue to develop. A set of collegians (Michael Downing, Ed Wittchow, Ben Gallacher, and R.J. Boyd) give the system long-term depth, and Downing and Wittchow seem to players with possible NHL futures.

Joshua Brown returned to Oshawa as an overager, and for the second time is captain of the Generals. Jonatan Nielsen is currently playing with the relegated Troja-Ljungby in Sweden‘s third-tier Division 1 league. However, he is getting his first taste of offensive success this year and has 12 points in 14 games against the weakened competition. Finally, Josh McFadden and Shayne Taker round out the group, depth minor-league players with limited chances for the NHL.

Goaltending

The organization has four goaltenders in the fold, Michael Houser, Sam Brittain, Evan Cowley, and Hugo Fagerblom. Both Houser and Brittain have been struggling this year in the minor leagues. Houser is backing up the veteran Dan Ellis, and his .862 saves percentage in six games is the worst of his career at any level. Brittain, too, is putting up miserable numbers so far, having saved just .854 percent of the shots he has faced in four games in Cincinnati.

Cowley, on the other hand, has been enjoying a successful start to the season as Brittain’s replacement for the University of Denver. Through nine games, Cowley has a goals against average of just 1.85, and a saves percentage above 92 percent. His numbers would look even better if not for a horrible game in which he gave up four goals on five shots after suffering through a week of illness.

Fagerblom, a Swedish goalie selected in the recent draft, plays for Frolunda’s junior team. He has tremendous size at 6’6 and 207 pounds, but will need to work hard over the coming years to get his game to an NHL level.