While the fans of the Florida Panthers may finally believe that they have a solid team in the making, the immediate beneficiaries of the burgeoning prospect talent that Dave Tallon has been collecting, are the fans of the San Antonio Rampage. The Rampage finished seventh in the West Division last season, and at the season’s end their parent club, the Phoenix Coyotes, signed an affiliation agreement with the Portland Pirates. The Panthers, who had just ended their affiliation with the Rochester Americans, signed an agreement with San Antonio, and brought their amazingly deep and talented set of prospects with them.
Fall camp in south Florida gave the Panthers staff a chance to see the prospects in action, and many of the players that will be playing in San Antonio took advantage of the opportunity to show off what they can do. Most were sent back to juniors (the Florida prospect pipeline is incredibly young, fueled by a multitude of picks in the last two entry drafts). Several, however, who fought long and hard for roster spots with the big club, will continue that fight at the AHL level.
The Rampage will be a young team, but a big, talented one with some strong leadership on and off the ice and a good bit of NHL experience. The Rampage can be expected to be tenacious up and down the ice with a core group of two-way, speedy players led by a young, exuberant and winning coach. The playoffs are once again within reach for the Rampage.
Michal Repik, tops in points per game for the Americans last season, will lead the Rampage attack. Repik scored 11 goals with 34 assists in just 53 games last season, and should take similar if not better numbers to San Antonio. Repik spent the remainder of last season with the Panthers, getting valuable experience at the NHL level. However, after the Panthers acquired multiple free agents in the offseason in an effort to reach the NHL salary minimum, roster spots became hotly contested, and Repik was one of the last cuts from the Florida roster. He did make an impression in camp, though.
Joining Repik up front will be skilled forwards Anthony Luciani, AJ Jenks, Angelo Esposito, and Jonathon Hazen, as well as solid two-way players such as Tim Kennedy, Scott Timmins, Eric Selleck, and AHL veterans Matt Cullen and Bracken Kearns. This group will have some scoring punch, speed and skill, but will also have a solid foundation of defensive-minded forwards who could make life hard for opposing teams. Esposito has the skills and talent to be an NHL forward, but has been slowed in recent years by injuries. He will look to prove once again that he still has the ability to play at a high level, and if he does, could have a breakout year. This group should be potent on the top line, and steady throughout.
The possibility remains that one or more forward prospects still in the Panthers camp end up in San Antonio. Players like Evgeni Dadonov and Shawn Matthias are battling for positions, and even though it seems certain that they will be in Florida to start the year, they may find themselves getting games and ice time with the Rampage.
The defensemen will be the San Antonio club’s greatest source of size, strength and depth. Leading the blue line pack is Colby Robak, a big, mobile defenseman with offensive skills who played 76 games with Rochester last season. Adam Comrie will be expected to take the next step in his progression this fall after splitting time between the ECHL and AHL last year. Roman Derlyuk was signed out of Russia this offseason, and should become the Rampage’s key, stay-at-home defender. He is 6’4, and a steady, reliable force on the back end. The Rampage will also have the services of defenders such as Keith Seabrook who has played 141 AHL games, and Evan Oberg, a promising offensive-defenseman who was injured shortly after joining the Panthers organization last year.
Veteran defenseman Nolan Yonkman will be counted on to anchor the blue line with experience and leadership. He made a run at a Panther roster spot, but was recently assigned to San Antonio. Yonkman has more than 460 games and 820 penalty minutes in the AHL, was three times captain of his Milwaukee Admirals team, and is one of the few players returning from last season’s Rampage squad.
On the whole, there is a ton of size and athleticism in this group. They will be physical, solid in their own end, and skilled enough to lend support to the offensive attack.
The goaltending situation in San Antonio is in a state of flux as the season begins. Last year’s starter for the Americans, Jacob Markstrom, has won a spot in the NHL (at least until the expected backup for the Panthers, Scott Clemmensen, returns from knee surgery). Currently, Tyler Plante is expected to see most of the starts for the Rampage. Plante has played 62 AHL games over the last two seasons, posting a combined .911 save percentage and a 2.92 goals against average. Markstrom’s play in the early parts of the NHL season will be key in determining who will join the Rampage once Clemmensen recovers from his surgery. If Markstrom makes the case to stay in Florida, Clemmensen—a long-time NHL veteran and journeyman goaltender—could be sent to San Antonia. More likely, however, is that Markstrom will be assigned to the Rampage to get additional ice time and experience.
The Rampage also signed veteran netminder Manny Legace to add extra depth and shore up the goaltender position while Clemmensen is on the injured list. Legace has played a lot of professional hockey and won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2002. He spent last year in Germany playing for Iserlohn, where he finished with respectable numbers (.919 save percentage and 2.51 goals against average). His professional hockey career may be winding down, but he should add some stability and experience in the crease and on the bench.
Chuck Weber begins his second season as a head coach in the AHL after leading many of these same players in Rochester last season. Prior to moving up to the AHL level, Weber coached the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL (the Florida affiliate at that level) to four conference finals and two Kelly Cup championships in five years. Weber is a young (he is just 38 years old), up-and-coming coach who brings energy and excitement to the bench.
Joining Weber behind the bench is assistant coach Jason Cipolla, who spent the past four years as assistant for the Rochester Americans. Prior to becoming a coach, Cipolla played 299 games as a center in the AHL, with another 300 plus games in various professional leagues in North America and Europe.
This summer’s first round draft pick, Jonathan Huberdeau, had a sensational camp. He put on a display of skill and scoring ability, and led the NHL with three preseason powerplay goals. Huberdeau also showed that he can get up and down the ice and play some defense, too. However, the Panthers brass decided that it would be in his–and the team’s–best interests to send Huberdeau back to his junior club to give him another year to get stronger and bigger. At just 173 pounds, Huberdeau simply is not strong enough to compete against forwards and defensemen who outweigh him by 40 to 50 pounds, at least not for a full season.
Another highly touted prospect with early expectations of a possible roster spot, Quinton Howden, was also sent back to his junior club. Howden suffered a head and neck injury early in camp, and was unable to participate for the rest of the fall training. Howden will go back to Moose Jaw to heal up, get additional experience, and get an opportunity to play in the World Junior Championships this winter.
Eric Gudbranson, the hulking defenseman from Kingston, made the Florida squad, and will line up next to mentor Ed Jovanovski. There is still a chance that the Panthers could return him to juniors after a nine-game exhibition, but it appears that Gudbranson will stick in the NHL.