Florida Panthers Depth Analysis, Fall 2011

By Brian Fogarty
Photo: Jonathan Racine is one of over a dozen strong defensive prospects in the Panthers pipeline. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Panthers have been extremely active in the draft and on the phone lines over the past two years, and the result is a deep and talented group of players that now provide the Panthers with depth unlike anything the organization has known before.

GM Dale Tallon came to the Panthers from the Chicago Blackhawks during the spring of 2010 after helping to build a Stanley Cup-winning team for the windy city. Since joining the Florida front office, Tallon has overseen the selection of 23 draft picks, numerous trades, and multiple solid personnel moves intended to make the Panthers a bigger, faster, younger, and more skilled squad.

Last summer, Tallon signed a series of significant free agent contracts in a plan to build a team that could meet NHL minimum salary requirements, bring veteran skill to the lineup, and give the prospects time to properly develop. As such, many players, including 2011 third overall draft pick Jonathan Huberdeau and other top prospects, were returned to their minor or junior teams for more seasoning. Panthers management consistently states that they are determined to allow time for the proper development of prospects, and their actions thus far support that position.

The result is a tremendous amount of depth at every position and throughout multiple levels of the hockey hierarchy.

Left Wing

Left wing might be the softest spot in the Panthers depth chart, yet the position still boasts a top-tier prospect and three others who can be found in the Top-20 prospect ranking. In years past the left side has been a relative wasteland for Florida prospects where talent and skill was difficult to find. Players such as Mike Duco (VAN) and Kenndal McArdle (WPG), neither of which are burning up the charts for their new teams, topped the prospect lists at this position just two years ago.

Quinton Howden heads the depth chart now. The highly regarded Moose Jaw winger seemed to be in line for a NHL job this fall until an upper body injury brought a premature end to his training camp and a return trip to the WHL. Howden embodies the Tallon approach to building talent in the organization. He is big at 6’3, strong at both ends of the ice, and an excellent skater with scoring touch.

John McFarland gave a boost to the depth chart after sliding over from his normal center position. The move could prove beneficial to McFarland as well, as it gets him away from the clogged center position and allows him to step easily into the number two spot at left wing. McFarland is off to a good start for Saginaw in the OHL, scoring at a 1.1 points-per-game pace with a team-leading 11 points in the first ten games of the season.

A.J. Jenks plays in the AHL for San Antonio, and is likely the top call-up candidate at this position with both Howden and McFarland playing in juniors. Jenks has been developing nicely since the Panthers drafted him in 2008, and is AHL Head Coach Chuck Weber’s go-to player for shootouts. Jenks is a smooth skater with a power-forward skill set.

Garrett Wilson had his best junior season last year, captaining his Owen Sound squad to the Memorial Cup before a concussion brought a disappointing end to his junior days. Wilson signed an entry-level contract in June, and is currently assigned to the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL where he opened his professional career with a goal in his first regular season game.

Sergei Shirokov was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks in July in a trade for Mike Duco, after Shirokov had signed a three-year contract with CSKA Moscow of the AHL. Shirokov accumulated decent AHL numbers (103 points in 152 games) during his time at that level, but had little scoring success in limited NHL action. Thus far in the 2011-12 season, Shirokov has scored seven goals with five assists in 13 KHL games. He would be higher in the Panthers depth chart if there was anything more than a chance of his return to North America.

The Panthers selected the 6’3, 220 pound Yaroslav Kosov in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Kosov has cracked the KHL squad for Magnitogorsk, though he is scoreless in four games of limited ice time for the upper-level team. A decision on whether or not Kosov will make the move to North America is still a year or more away.

Rounding out the left wing depth chart are Corey Durocher, Eric Selleck and Jake Hauswirth. Durocher remains in juniors, playing for Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL, where he has six points in ten games. Eric Selleck is playing in San Antonio (scoreless in the first two games), and Hauswirth has been assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees of the Central Hockey League.

Center

The Panthers are loaded at center. So much so that as mentioned above, the 33rd overall pick in 2010 John McFarland shifted to the left side just to find some room in the Panthers organization. There is size, offensive and defensive skill and two-way players everywhere you look.

Last summer’s third overall pick, Jonathan Huberdeau, leads the pack up the middle. The highly skilled pivot was recently returned to his junior team after a solid camp that had many thinking that he had made the Panthers final roster. In the end, the team made the decision that Huberdeau would be better off with another year of growth before taking on the rigors and behemoth defensemen of the NHL. They did, however, sign Huberdeau to an entry-level contract, so there will be nothing to hold him back from going pro at season’s end.

Next on the depth chart is the University of Minnesota’s top-line center, sophomore Nick Bjugstad. Bjugstad had a solid freshman season, scoring 20 points in 29 games over the last part of the season. Bjugstad is another big player, and he uses his size well on both offense and defense. Bjugstad appears to have upped his game even more over the summer. He has added weight, and looks much better on his skates, showing smoother and quicker acceleration and better straight-line speed. He has a good shot and hockey sense that seems to put him in all right places on the ice. Bjugstad will probably get another chance at gold for the US squad at the World Juniors this winter.

Just behind Bjugstad is the 33rd overall pick from the 2011 draft and another collegiate player, Rocco Grimaldi. Though he has seen limited game time for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux due to a lingering leg injury, Grimaldi was named the preseason pick for the WCHA Rookie of the Year, and will likely be another player that the US team counts on at the World Junior Championships. Grimaldi has an amazing speed, skill, a terrific shot, and has made an impact at every level thus far in his career.

Drew Shore, yet another collegiate centerman, is next on the depth chart for the Panthers. Shore plays at the University of Denver, where he had a breakout year last season. Shore led the Pioneers in scoring last season, and will be counted on to do the same this year as their top-line center.

University of North Dakota’s top center and alternate captain Corban Knight is an unassuming, nice kid off the ice, but a terror to play against. He is bigger than he looks, and plays bigger than that by using his body all over the ice, disrupting plays, forechecking, creating turnovers and pestering opponents. Offensively, Knight is smooth and skillful, and his hockey sense is top notch.

Vincent Trocheck was chosen 64th overall in the 2011 draft, and has done nothing but improve his stock ever since. He was a standout at the US development camp over the summer, then at the Panthers rookie development camp after that. He is currently tied for first in scoring for the Saginaw Spirit, along with fellow Panther McFarland, with 12 points in his first 11 games.

Kyle Rau started his freshman year at the University of Minnesota on the top line with friend Nick Bjugstad, scored a goal on his first shift, and was named WCHA Rookie of the Week after posting three goals in two games against Boston College. Rau is not big, or particularly speedy, but his hockey instincts and compete level are top grade, and he scores his goals down low. Always buzzing around the net and in the corners, Rau finds ways to get to where the puck will be, then finishes well when it gets there.

Connor Brickley played 35 games as a freshman for the University of Vermont last year, in which he scored four goals and nine assists. Brickley is a two-way center with good size and defensive awareness, and could eventually contribute in a checking role in the NHL.

David Pacan is playing an overage year for the Niagara Icedogs in the OHL, and is off to a good start. He has scored nine goals in the first ten games, with two added assists.
Scott Timmins played 19 games with the Panthers last season, but failed to make the club out of camp this fall. With the addition of several free agent veterans, there just was not a spot on the NHL club for his style of play. Timmins is a defense-first, checking line center who makes the most of his abilities.

Few players have the combination of skill and bad fortune of Angelo Esposito. Originally drafted 20th overall in 2007 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, then later a key piece of the trade that sent Marian Hossa from the Thrashers to the Penguins in 2008, Esposito’s back-to-back knee injuries and inability to live up to his potential is the main headline for his story these days. He is currently playing in the AHL with San Antonio.

Rounding out the center depth in the Florida organization is Wade Megan, a junior at the Boston University. Though he may not have progressed as much as had been hoped for after the Panthers drafted him in the fifth round in 2009, Megan has seen early success this season for the Terriers, scoring at a point-per-game clip in the first few games. He is still a project player at this point, but the Panthers will have at least one more year to observe his play before they have to make a decision regarding his professional future.

Right Wing

The Panthers also have considerable depth along the right wing side. Although the prospects at right wing tend to be smaller as a group than their other forward cohorts, they are a highly skilled and speedy bunch, and Tallon and crew added more size over the summer.

Evgeni Dadonov tops the prospect depth, and was a bubble player for the Panthers at fall camp. Dadonov scored eight goals and nine assists with the NHL club last year, and actually broke camp with the Panthers. But after spending the first two games in the pressbox, Florida assigned Dadonov to the AHL to get games and ice time. He is a skilled though smaller player, and will be back in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Michal Repik, the 23-year-old Czech winger, also spent time in the NHL last season. Repik was used primarily on the fourth line in a role not quite suited to his game. The result was a rather poor showing in counting statistics, and he finished the year with just two goals and six assists. After clearing waivers this fall, Repik was assigned to the Rampage where he will try to get better and more frequent scoring opportunities.

Next on the depth chart comes Joonas Donskoi, the 99th overall pick in 2010. The young Finn was among the rookie leaders in the SM-Liiga last season for Karpat Oulu, and is off to a good start this fall. Donskoi is under contract with Karpat for this season, but the Panthers are hopeful that next year he will bring his skilled two-way game to North America.

Zachary Hyman is a bit of an enigma still, though he is already adding some clarity to his ultimate skill level in the first few games of his freshman year at the University of Michigan. Hyman dominated the Junior A ranks in the previous year-he scored 102 points in 43 games and was named the OJHL Player of the Year-where the relative competition level is difficult to judge.

In an effort to add size along the right wing, the Panthers drafted Logan Shaw 76th overall in last summer’s draft. Shaw is 6’3, 198 pounds, and plays the type of rugged, physical game desired in a player that big. But Shaw can also skate and will use his good hockey sense and willingness to occupy ground in front of the crease to his benefit.

Another 2011 draft pick with good size is Iiro Pakarinen, a feisty and skilled player who would rather go through an opponent than around him. Pakarinen is a project player with a superb compete level and good hands and feet.

Jonathan Hazen is currently making the transition from juniors to professional hockey in San Antonio. He is a good skater and an offensive threat who hopes to bring his scoring ability to the next level.

The Panthers signed Anthony Luciani as a free agent last spring after he had completed his season with the Erie Otters of the OHL. Luciani is just 5’8, but at 203 pounds has the type of frame that can handle playing against bigger opponents. He is currently assigned to Cincinnati in the ECHL.

Joe Basaraba is a smooth skating and quick sophomore at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who likes to hit. He plays a defense-oriented game, and although he is still a marginal prospect, may one day become a reliable checking-line player at the AHL or even NHL level.

Josh Birkholz is making a serious effort at resurrecting his flagging career in his overage season at Everett. He has started the season off right, scoring six goals and five assists in his first nine games, a huge step up from his meager output a year ago. If he continues on that pace, and competes hard each shift and every game, he may find himself climbing up the depth chart, because he has the raw talent, size, and natural abilities to be a solid professional player.

Defense

It may be difficult to believe after looking through the depth at other positions, but defense is easily the deepest, biggest, and most consistently skilled position in the Panthers pipeline. However, despite the presence of some offensive capabilities among the defense prospects, at this time the Panthers are lacking a true, high-end offensive-defenseman.

Leading the blue line corps is Eric Gudbranson, who likely makes a final appearance in a prospect analysis of this sort. Gudbranson has secured an apparently permanent spot on the Panthers roster, and has been averaging around 13 minutes per game on a pairing with veteran Ed Jovanovski. The former third overall draft pick in 2010 is seeing some time on the powerplay and has already racked up 24 penalty minutes, but will mainly be counted on as a shut-down defenseman with a two-way presence.

Alexander Petrovic was returned to his junior squad in Red Deer for what is expected to be his last year at that level. Petrovic is another big, tough and physical player, who plays his position with an edge and has started to show offensive skill, as well. Drafted 36th overall, Petrovic looks to have a bright NHL future in front of him.

Colby Robak is one of the old-timers among Panthers defensive prospects, and has been effectively climbing through the organizational hierarchy since being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft. In many organizations, Robak would be considered a top defenseman. At 6’3, 197 pounds, Robak is a fluid skater and an intelligent player who can control game tempo and flow.

Rasmus Bengtsson was drafted 59th overall last summer, and has maybe the best offensive skill-set amongst the Panthers blueliners. Bengtsson has good size at 6’2 and 196 pounds, though he is not a particularly physical player. Instead, what Bengtsson does well is play a steady game in his own end and move the puck up ice. He has the potential to develop into a powerplay quarterback with a good shot and vision.

Jonathon Racine might be the best pure athlete in the entire prospect pool, and is a rock in the defensive zone. He is not flashy, not overly skilled, but he has good positional hockey sense and he uses his body and his reach to his advantage. The true salient aspect of Racine’s resume was his physical dominance at the rookie combine. Racine posted top results in multiple categories, from the brutal Wingate tests to longest wingspan to vertical jump. Racine is currently playing for Shawinigan in the QMJHL.

Adam Comrie spent a lot of time last year traveling back and forth between Cincinnati and Rochester, finally ending up with the majority of his games played in the AHL. He is, like most of the blue line prospects, big and physical, and he has a heavy shot. Right now, Comrie is assigned to Cincinnati, but will doubtless see a lot of travel time again this year.

At 23 years of age, Michael Caruso is entering his fourth year at the AHL level and nearing prospect graduation. He is an effective leader and a stay-at-home type of defender who plays a simple, positional style, but he will have to up his game to have a chance at climbing through the depths of the Panthers defensive pool.

Keith Seabrook, whose older brother Brent plays with the Chicago Blackhawks, was acquired over the summer from the Calgary Flames. Seabrook is offensive-minded, but needs to improve his play on defense in order to have an opportunity to play in the NHL. He is currently assigned to Cincinnati.

Ed Wittchow is playing in his first year in the USHL, and plans on playing in the NCAA, though he has not yet committed anywhere. He was a standout defenseman in the Minnesota High School system in his draft year, and grabbed the attention of Panthers scouts with consistency, size, and spirited play.

Roman Derlyuk signed a contract with the Panthers this summer, and made the long trek from Moscow to San Antonio via the Panthers fall training camp. Derlyuk is a typical stay-at-home defenseman who has steadily progressed over the last few years.

After finding relative success in the Junior A ranks, Ben Gallacher has begun his freshman year at Ohio State. The 5’11, 185 pound Gallacher has a good point shot on the powerplay, but is known mainly for his feisty edge and ill-tempered play.

John Lee and Evan Oberg round out the defensive corps. Lee is playing his senior year for the Denver Pioneers, and Oberg is manning the blue line for the Rampage. Both are at least a couple of years away from challenging for an NHL spot on the bottom pair, if either reach that potential.

Goaltending

The Panthers have one of the top goaltending prospects in the world in their organization, and good depth behind him. Though the field thins out a bit after top prospect Jacob Markstrom, there is NHL potential in the pipeline that should see the Panthers adequately supplied with netminders for the foreseeable future.

Jacob Markstrom got his first NHL start early in the season, and faced 32 shots from the potent Washington Capitals offense, but allowed just two goals in what can only be seen as a stellar starting debut. Markstrom was huge when the Panthers drafted him at 6’3, and he has grown since then, and uses his 6’6 frame to occupy a lot of space in front of the goal. Unlike many big men, however, Markstrom possesses incredible agility and quick lateral movement as well as solid technical skills. Markstrom has also shown rapid adaptability and has learned well how to cover the sharper angles and kinetic environment of North American rinks. Originally expected to play another (and ostensibly last) year in the AHL, an injury to Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen opened the gate for Markstrom to start the year as an NHL backup. He should see at least one more start before Clemmensen returns and forces the Panthers leadership to make a decision on who goes to the AHL.

The University of Denver found a pleasant surprise in freshman Sam Brittain‘s exceptional performance last year. Brittain led the team to 19-9-5 record in the 33 games he started, and posted a .921 save percentage and meager 2.28 goals against average. His play backstopping the Pioneers helped take them all the way to the frozen four, even after a knee injury sustained in the WCHA conference tournament slowed him down. That injury would later keep Brittain from participating in the Canadian goalie evaluation camp and eventually required surgery that will prevent him from playing games until January at the earliest. However, Brittain says his rehabilitation is progressing well, and he will be ready to go once fully recovered. Brittain is a solid though young netminder who is taking a long-term, steady route for his development, but should be one to keep an eye on.

Tyler Plante has been in the Panthers system for a while, and continues to progress even as his prospect eligibility is running out. Plante got a big break last season after Markstrom suffered a knee injury, and he turned that opportunity into 35 games at the AHL. This fall he battled Markstrom in Panthers camp to win Clemmenson’s spot, but ultimately was assigned to San Antonio where injuries have prevented him from getting any ice time.

In the absence of Jacob Markstrom and Tyler Plante, and the trade this fall that sent fellow goaltending prospect Marc Cheverie to Phoenix, Brian Foster has emerged as the starting goaltender for the Rampage. Foster is a product of the University of New Hampshire, who then played his rookie professional campaign last year splitting time between the CHL and the ECHL. Foster was expected to the main netminder for Cincinnati before the confluence of injuries, but he has stepped up to the AHL challenge admirably.

Sergei Gayduchenko rounds out the depth at goaltender with a big body and a decent but less-than-stellar resume. He is 6’5, 227 pounds and though he has talent, he is still a long-range prospect. He is currently playing in a backup role for CSKA Moscow in the KHL.