To say that the Florida Panthers began to rebuild this off-season would be wrong because the club has been perpetually rebuilding and hasn’t made the playoffs in ten years. It certainly feels like a fresh start though, with many promising new prospects coming into the organization thanks to the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
With the firing of Randy Sexton and the hiring of Dale Tallon, the Panthers are going in a new direction. Tallon has already made a significant impact on the club’s prospect pool. He stockpiled draft picks this summer, similar to the way he did with the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks team, which he was partly credited for building. The organization’s farm team, the Rochester Americans, also saw changes made with Chuck Weber replacing Benoit Groulx behind the bench.
Left wing was a position of weakness for the Panthers prior to the draft but the addition of Howden helps. Howden is a two-way player depended on for the defensive side of his game and his ability to kill penalties. He spent last year playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors where he’ll return for another season.
A.J. Jenks is another important left-wing prospect for the team. Jenks is a power forward who still needs lots of seasoning but could surprise people in a few years.
Garrett Wilson is a hard-working, gritty player who can play well at both ends of the rink. He projects to be a bottom-six player but continues to impress with his development.
The other new additions along the left side are Corey Durocher, who they also drafted this past summer and Eric Selleck. Durocher, a sixth round pick, plays alongside fellow Panthers prospect Eric Gudbranson with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. Selleck had attended two Panthers training camps prior to this season and was finally rewarded with a contract to play for the Amerks.
Kenndal McArdle won’t be considered a prospect for much longer but he was recently waived and sent to Rochester where so far he has three goals in three games.
Bjugstad, selected 19th overall, played high school hockey last season and could have been doing so again this year had he not advanced his academics and graduated early. Instead, he is playing for the U. of Minnesota. Bjugstad is a big, hard-working, talented player with a hard shot. He was impressive at the US WJC Camp.
McFarland is considered to be a project for the Panthers. As a first-overall selection in the OHL draft, McFarland began his junior career with very high expectations. Touted for his high skill-set, he disappointed some people by not putting up points the way many thought he would and failing to make up for it in his own end. At one point he was considered to be a potential top five pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft but his stock fell considerably. McFarland may not develop into the scoring threat it looked like he could become a couple years ago but he has begun to work on his two-way game and made a great deal of progress last season.
Connor Brickley was another player selected in the second round of this summer’s draft, 17 spots after McFarland. Brickley is a gritty forechecker with an offensive touch as well. He is playing as a rookie for the U. of Vermont.
Drew Shore got off to a weak start in his NCAA career last season playing for the U. of Denver. He scored just five goals and 19 points in 41 games and was criticized for disappearing at times. Already though, he has four goals and five points just six games this season.
Scott Timmins, who won the Memorial Cup the past two seasons with the Windsor Spitfires, put up modest numbers in junior. He began his pro career with the Amerks this season.
Corban Knight and Wade Megan, two college sophomores, account for the remaining center prospects. Knight is currently playing for the University of North Dakota while Megan is skating with Boston University.
When the Panthers made the trade with Vancouver to acquire Michael Grabner, they thought they were adding a highly skilled sniper to the organization. Grabner failed to earn a spot with the club though and was lost on waivers to the New York Islanders.
Fortunately there are still a few good prospects at the position.
Michael Repik, a strong skater with the talent to put up points consistently, leads the way. Each year he has gotten better and better and although it’s early in the season, he has been scoring at a point-per-game pace for the Amerks so far.
Evgeni Dadonov surprised people last season, not only with his point production but with his defensive play as well. In his sophomore campaign in the AHL, he is off to a strong start, posting two goals and three assists in eight games.
There are lots of questions about Josh Birkholz. He was suspended by the U. of Minnesota for violating team rules. He decided to move on and join the Everett Silvertips of the WHL for this season. Questions about character aside, Birkholz is a big body with speed and skill, who battles hard for the puck.
Right wingers acquired in this past summer’s draft include Zachary Hyman, Joe Basaraba and Joonas Donskoi. Hyman will be particularly interesting to follow as some wonder if his decision to play in the CCHL rather than the OHL allowed him to slip under the radar, causing him to fall in the draft.
The Panthers are quite deep at defense. It starts with Gudbranson, taken third overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Gudbranson nearly made the Panthers this season but instead was returned to the Frontenacs where, early on, he appears to be developing his offensive game. His strengths lie in his ability to play a big, tough, reliable stay-at-home game.
Keaton Ellerby has been a disappointment for some who may be expecting more from him since he was drafted in 2007. Stay-at-home defenseman tend to take longer to develop though and so there’s reason to still have hope that Ellerby will catch on at the NHL level.
Colby Robak is a rookie this season in the American Hockey League. He’s a mobile defenseman who sees the ice well and makes smart plays. He’ll consistently provide offense as well. Robak, who’s stock seems to rise with each passing year, looks like he’ll develop nicely into a top four defenseman.
After taking Gudbranson in the first round of the 2010 draft, the Panthers selected Alexander Petrovic in the second round. Petrovic is another tough, mature, stay-at-home defenseman. This season will be about putting last year’s embarrassing loss to Dylan McIIrath in a fight during the CHL prospects game, behind him as he had trouble getting back on his game after the fight.
After spending half of last season with the Panthers and the other half with the Amerks, Jason Garrison has emerged as a reliable defender and earned a spot on the Panthers squad this season.
Like Robak, though not as skilled, Adam Comrie is a mobile, two-way defender who is making the jump from junior to pro to play for the Amerks.
Roman Derlyuk is a 24-year-old defenseman currently playing in the KHL.
The Panthers have what most would agree is the best goaltending prospect in hockey right now in Jacob Markstrom. Selected 31st overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Markstrom has been developing in the SEL playing for Brynas up to this point. This is his first year playing in North America. He’s currently Rochester’s starting goaltender.
The Panthers have several other notable goaltending prospects. Alexander Salak was loaned to Farjestads of the SEL because of the amount of depth the Panthers have in net. Rather than have him compete for time with Markstrom, Panthers’ management decided it would be wise to have him play overseas and get as many games under his belt as possible.
The Amerks instead have Tyler Plante backing up Markstrom. Plante was once thought to have a decent amount of potential but he has failed to develop as well as the team had hoped. Plante isn’t likely to see much ice-time unless Markstrom suffers an injury.
Marc Cheverie is serving as the Cincinnati Cyclones’ goaltender at the moment. This is also his first year of pro after a solid NCAA career.