Few top-tier Florida Panthers prospects below the NHL level

By Chris Roberts
Photo: After a sparkling 2014-15 season, Samuel Montembeault is a good bet to join the Canadian team at the World Junior Championships this winter. (Courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Photo: After a sparkling 2014-15 season, Samuel Montembeault is a good bet to join the Canadian team at the World Junior Championships this winter. (Courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

 

 

The Florida Panthers have been fortunate—or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it—enough to draft high in the recent NHL drafts. Players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have quickly made the leap to the NHL, leaving the organization with few high-profile prospects, outside of recent first-round pick Lawson Crouse, who was returned to junior. Yet, the Panthers have strong organizational depth, particularly at left wing and defense. Most wingers are capable of playing both wings, but the fact that the Panthers have just three primary right wing prospects is a bit concerning.

Left Wing

The Panthers have a couple left wingers ready to contribute at the NHL level. Quinton Howden has already appeared in several games this season and should graduate from prospect status if he can stay healthy and contribute consistently. Meanwhile, it’s another close-to-ready prospect that might prevent Howden from staying in the lineup; Connor Brickley, a former second-round pick, has made the Panthers out of training camp and already has his first career goal. Brickley is a little smaller than Howdenj, but has decent size and, at 23, is still improving.

Howden, also 23, has had his development stall in the past two seasons as he has battled inconsistencies and injuries. Garrett Wilson also provides the organization with another left winger than can step in and fill a gap in the Panthers lineup if an injury should occur. He has played five NHL games in the past two seasons, but is in Portland of the AHL to begin this season.

Crouse, arguably the Panthers’ top prospect, is back with Kingston of the OHL after being one of the final cuts at training camp. He is a budding power forward who should be an integral part of Canada’s U20 team at the World Junior Championships this December, and likely will arrive in the NHL for the 2016-17 season. He has an average shot, but his size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and strength allows him to get to the scoring areas; for him, that’s primarily a few feet outside the blue paint.

Another Panthers prospect, Juho Lammikko, is once again playing with Crouse in Kingston. The Finn was set to play in Liiga this season but was loaned to the Frontenacs, who are happy to have his services. Last year, Lammikko finished fourth on the team in scoring with 44 points; he has eight points in 10 games thus far this season.

Outside North America, the Panthers have Yaroslav Kosov, a big winger who has a similar skillset to Crouse but without the goalscoring ability. Kosov is skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL for his fifth full season with the team and has never scored more than four goals.

Former Seattle Thunderbird Alexander Delnov is in his second consecutive season in Russia. The 21-year-old has some goal scoring skill as evidenced by his 29 goals in 71 games with the Thunderbirds in 2013-14, but has been held pointless through six games with Khabarovsk Amur of the KHL this season. At this point he’s both more skilled than Kosov and more likely to sign a contract with the Panthers.

Miguel Fidler, the Panthers fifth round pick in 2014, is a freshman at Ohio State University this season. He plays an aggressive brand of two-way hockey and will have up to four years to continue developing his offensive abilities.

Center

Though undersized at the position, the Panthers have some impressive depth at center. The most skilled and most ready prospect, Rocco Grimaldi, is just 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds but has already played in seven NHL games and scored his first career goal. He began this season in Portland of the AHL, but should again see time with the Panthers. Grimaldi could be quickly passed on the organization’s depth chart by Pirates rookie forward Kyle Rau, however. The diminutive Minnesota native posted 40-plus points in each of his four seasons with the University of Minnesota, and is off to a good start in his rookie campaign.

Greg McKegg and Corban Knight provide depth to the Portland Pirates, but are unlikely to contribute much at the NHL level. Knight perhaps has a higher ceiling, but the High River, Alberta native has been a healthy scratch so far. Knight just turned 25 and has struggled to consistently contribute at the pro level since his rookie season in 2013-14, but carries an impressive three-year pedigree from the University of North Dakota where he recorded more than 40 points a season from 2010-13. McKegg, meanwhile, was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs for the rights to Zach Hyman. He recorded a career high 47 points with the Toronto Marlies (AHL) in 2013-14 and, like Knight, is trying to rediscover his scoring touch.

Centers under the age of 20 will have plenty of time to develop in the Panthers system, and that should certainly benefit Jayce Hawryluk and Denis Malgin. Hawryluk is a 19-year-old who has a decent chance of representing Canada at the World Junior Championships. After a 65-point season in 54 games last year, the Manitoba native is off to a torrid start this season with 17 points in eight games. He’s the first-line center on a dominant Brandon Wheat Kings team and has shown equal ability to score and set up teammates. Malgin, like many of the aforementioned prospects, is a diminutive pivot, listed at just 5-foot-8 and 163 pounds. He is playing for the Zurich Lions this season, a team that features Auston Matthews, who is favoured to go first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. Outside of Matthews, Malgin is the youngest player on the team.

The Panthers also have a trio of centers either developing in the NCAA or planning on doing so. Matt Buckles is an underwhelming pivot in his third season with Cornell University. He has size and skill but his offensive numbers have suffered playing for a low-scoring team the past two seasons. Late-round picks Karch Bachman and Patrick Shea have committed to play in the NCAA for the 2016-17 season, meaning the Panthers will have as many as five seasons to monitor their development. Both players are very much long-term projects.

Right Wing

While it isn’t an imminent concern as players can shift from center to the wing, the Panthers are lacking prospects whose primary position is on the right side. There are currently four spread throughout different levels of hockey. Logan Shaw might be the best of the bunch. The Nova Scotia native had a breakthrough season last year, firmly establishing himself in the AHL as a power forward who can occasionally chip in on offense, and he should have another productive year this season. John Mcfarland was once considered a first-round talent but fell to the second round in 2010, and his career trajectory mirrors Shaw’s to this point. He bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL before spending all of 2014-15 with San Antonio of the AHL. Mcfarland is a nice depth option at the pro level.

Chris Wilkie and Joe Wegwerth are in the early stages of their development. Both players are beginning their freshman seasons in the NCAA—Wegerth with Notre Dame and Wilkie with the University of North Dakota. Wilkie has a little more offensive ability (he scored 35 goals in the USHL last season) while Wegwerth provides grit with his 6-foot-3, 232-pound frame. Both players are at least 3-4 years away from making an impact at the pro level.

Defense

Mike Matheson is one of two prized jewels on defense in the Panthers organization, the other being Ian McCoshen. Matheson made the leap to pro hockey this season, foregoing his senior season at Boston College. He recorded 20-plus points in each of his three seasons with the team. The Portland Pirates have a veteran-laden defensive core, meaning Matheson will have to earn his ice time this season. And the expectation is that he will. McCoshen, a former teammate of Matheson, has opted to stay at Boston College for at least one more season. The former second round pick has similar offensive capabilities as Matheson but plays a more physical brand of hockey. Both players are lauded for their skating skills and in years past have been ranked amongst the Top 50 Prospects on Hockey’s Future.

McCoshen isn’t the only one worth watching in the NCAA. Michael Downing is coming off of a 22-point campaign with the University of Michigan and already has a pair of assists through two games in his junior season. Like McCoshen, he also boasts good size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and skating ability. Ben Gallacher is in his third season with UMass-Amherst and has been steadily improving; he is arguably the team’s top defenseman, along with Swede William Lagesson (EDM). Ed Wittchow is a senior with the University of Wisconsin who may or may not receive a contract following the completion of his collegiate career.

Alex Petrovic is soon to graduate from prospect status but the Panthers have a few other depth options in Portland. MacKenzie Weegar is a former seventh-round pick but seemed to secure a spot in the AHL after spending half of 2014-15 in the ECHL. He will likely play a full season with the Portland Pirates this year and will be relied upon to produce on the power play.

Jonathan Racine is another player capable of filling in with the Panthers, but his ceiling is limited. He’s a defensive-minded brute with little to no offensive or puck-moving ability; in fact, Racine has yet to score as a pro in 133 games. Former Oshawa Generals captain Josh Brown has been a healthy scratch for the Portland Pirates early on, but he is someone who could potentially challenge Racine for ice time.

Thomas Schemitsch is the only defenseman in the organization still playing junior hockey but he’s worth keeping an eye on. He is currently sidelined with a broken wrist but upon return is expected to lead Owen Sound’s defensive core in both points and total ice time. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound rearguard recorded 49 points last season as a 17-year-old.

Goaltending

The departure of Michael Houser has left a vacancy between the pipes for Portland, and Sam Brittain will fill that void. Brittain, a former fourth-round pick by the Panthers, will be challenged by veteran Mike McKenna for playing time, but he has the size, athleticism and pedigree to do well in the league. Colin Stevens, a recent free-agent signing out of Union College, was sent to Manchester of the ECHL to begin his pro career.

If neither Brittain nor Stevens pan out the Panthers have goaltending prospects dispersed at different levels who could perhaps fill a role in the future. Samuel Montembeault, a lanky, athletic goaltender is perhaps the organization’s most promising prospect. He posted a 2.59 goals-against average in the high-scoring QMJHL last season and was just the third Canadian netminder to be selected in the 2015 NHL Draft.

The Panthers also selected Ryan Bednard in the 2015 NHL Draft. The Michigan native is committed to Bowling Green State University for the 2016-17 season. Another seventh round pick, Hugo Fagerblom, is developing in Sweden with Frolunda’s U20 program. He’s listed at 6-foot-6 but is still very raw in terms of development. Evan Cowley is an interesting prospect but the third-year goaltender will likely continue splitting time with Tanner Jaillet. Both goalies were great last season.