Role players heavily populate minor-league system for Florida Panthers

By Brian Fogarty
Photo: Jacob Markstrom is the one true blue-chip prospect currently playing in the Panthers’ minor-league system. In his brief time in injury relief for NHL backup Scott Clemmensen, Markstrom looked sharp, managing a .928 save percentage in six starts. (Photo courtesy of Ken Denardo/HF)

The start to the 2011-12 season has not been kind to the San Antonio Rampage. Injuries at the NHL level have left the forward ranks depleted of top-end skill, the veteran players have been less than productive, and the defense has been spotty. However, goaltending has generally been a strong point, and a recent stretch of success may indicate better fortunes for the remainder of the AHL season.

As for the Panthers minor-league players, the group as a whole is a tale of two types: a few promising, talented prospects with legitimate shots at the NHL, and a group of mostly bottom-line or bottom-pair players working hard to make their way up the organizational ladder.


AHL

Jacob Markstrom, G, 21

Markstrom proved that he has the skill to play at a high level in the NHL. After NHL veteran netminder Scott Clemmensen was lost to knee surgery just before the start of the season, Markstrom got the nod from the coaching staff, and dressed for the first month of Panthers games. Markstrom played five games during that stretch, in which he earned two wins, a .944 save percentage, a goals against average of 2.05 and plenty of talk about his ascendancy into the ranks of future NHL netminders. Soon thereafter, Clemmensen returned from injury, and Markstrom was sent back down to San Antonio. Since then, Markstrom has been recalled twice, but has played in only one additional game, a dismal five-goal affair against rival Tampa Bay Lightning.

Back in San Antonio, Markstrom struggled. He allowed four goals four times in five appearances after returning from his stint with the Panthers. Since then, however, and perhaps in part to some spectacular goaltending by Rampage signee Dov Grumet-Morris, Markstrom has elevated his performance. In his last four AHL games played he has allowed only five combined goals and has stopped 106 out of 111 shots.

Markstrom uses his tremendous size, quickness and agility to cover a lot of net, and has adjusted his positioning and angles to the smaller North American ice surfaces. For a 6’6 goaltender, Markstrom shows surprising lateral quickness and flexibility, plays with athleticism and challenges shooters. The only remaining question is when he will be in the NHL for good.

Colby Robak, D, 21

Twenty-one-year-old defenseman Colby Robak is another player out to show that he is ready for prime time. In his second season of professional play, the big, smooth-skating Robak has doubled his offensive output and currently has five goals and 13 assists, good enough for second overall among Rampage skaters. Perhaps more telling is Robak’s team-best plus-15 rating in 29 contests, a far cry from the minus-12 of his rookie season. Furthermore, Robak has grown, and now stands at 6’3, 210 pounds.

Robak has a big shot that he likes to use. His mobility and willingness to join the offensive play demands the respect of the opposing team, which gives opportunities for forwards to find extra space, tip Robak’s point shots, or corral rebounds for easy put-back goals. Opponents should not be fooled by Robak’s offensive abilities, however, because he is solid in his own end, and a more than capable and intelligent defender.

Michal Repik, RW, 23

The 2011-12 season has been another in a string of mutable efforts for Repik. The smallish but skilled winger from Vlasim in the Czech Republic lingered in the Panthers fall training camp until the pre-waiver deadline passed, was then waived by the coaching staff and assigned to the AHL after he cleared that process. Since that time, Repik has played 22 AHL games with three goals and 11 assists and has been called up to the NHL on several occasions, playing in seven games with Florida and tallying a single goal.

Repik finds himself caught between two worlds in professional hockey, and risks becoming a classic case of the player who does well enough at the AHL level to deserve a shot at the big leagues, but fails to excel in limited, bottom-line ice time in the NHL. Given the depth of the Panthers’ prospect system, Repik could be nearing the point where he needs to prove himself capable of contributing in the NHL or risk being swallowed up by the onrushing wave of younger forward talent.

Michael Caruso, D, 23

Caruso, in his fourth year of AHL play, has suffered what could best be described as an average, journeyman minor-league season. Pointless in 23 games with the Rampage, and having posted an underwhelming minus-six, Caruso is playing out what could be his last contract in the Panthers organization. That is not to say that he is without skill. He has good size at 6’2 and 197 pounds, works hard and is an excellent skater. Still, with the kind of depth at defense that the Panthers enjoy, the 23-year-old Caruso could be on his way out unless he can have a second half that turns the heads of the Panthers brass.

Keith Seabrook, D, 23

Seabrook’s hockey career path continues to twist and turn, but may be finally settling down a bit. The 23-year-old has played on eight teams in five leagues since his foray into the BCHL at the age of 16. He has played at the junior A level, the NCAA, WHL, ECHL, and currently with the Rampage at the AHL level. In 18 games this season, Seabrook has four assists, two of which came against the Toronto Marlies in early November. He has also tallied one goal.

More and more, it looks like Seabrook will be a career minor-leaguer. The low production that the offensive-defenseman has been providing will not help in earning a call-up, and at this point his defense simply is not sufficient to get him to the NHL.

Angelo Esposito, C, 22

Esposito’s fall from prospect grace continues. His history of injury has been well-documented, and he has battled injuries so far this fall, too. When healthy, Esposito at times can look good on the ice, and other times ineffective and disinterested, which has resulted in press box time for him as a healthy scratch. The results of his spotty play can be found on the scoresheet, as well, where Esposito has registered points (four total) only three times in his 10 games played. Esposito was recently relegated to the ECHL where he will try to pull his game together after sitting for a month. Thus far, he has one assist in three ECHL games since his demotion. He has since been recalled to the AHL, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for him to continue traveling back and forth between leagues, depending on the needs at the NHL level.

Brian Foster, G, 24

Foster benefitted from several offseason and preseason events, including the trade that sent goaltender Marc Cheverie to Phoenix, the injury to Scott Clemmensen, and the subsequent promotion of Jacob Markstrom to the NHL to start the season. Foster took full advantage of the AHL ice time he saw that first month of the season, playing in 10 games with mixed, but mostly positive results, earning four wins including a 36-save effort against Texas.

Foster is a long way from the NHL, but he has seen mostly positive growth and development in the nets thus far. A year in the ECHL followed by some additional seasoning in the AHL could see him ready to assume a solid backup role in the NHL in a few years.

Roman Derlyuk, D, 25

Derlyuk is playing his first season of North American hockey, with quiet, sometimes shaky results. Derlyuk played in 27 Rampage games, and has posted three assists along with a minus-two rating, lowest among the Rampage defensemen. Derlyuk, a stay-at-home blueliner under a one-year contract, will have to improve on his performance in order to be re-signed by the Panthers.

Scott Timmins, C, 22

There has been nothing unexpected with the start to Timmins’ season. Steady, reliable effort and a scattering of points are the hallmark of his play, and that is just what has been seen so far in San Antonio from the 22-year-old centerman. Four goals and four assists in 22 games puts him at roughly the same scoring pace from the previous season. Timmins battles hard on every shift, and has a future as a penalty killer and bottom-line energy guy. He has yet to see any big-league ice time this season, but could be relied upon as an injury replacement if need be.

James Wright, C, 21

Wright joined the Panthers in early December via a trade with the Lightning. The Panthers assigned him to San Antonio, where he has played in five games with one assist. Wright brings size at 6’4 and 205 pounds, and a rollercoaster past. He won a Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants when he was seventeen. The Lightning drafted him in the fourth round in 2008. In 2009, at just nineteen years of age, Wright broke camp with the Lightning and played in 48 games. He scored two goals and three assists over the first four months of the 2009-10 season before the NHL team sent him back to junior. Wright moved up the AHL the next season, and has played at that level for the two seasons since then, with only a single scoreless game played in the NHL.

The Panthers are hoping that a change of scenery and an opportunity to reset his development schedule will help Wright achieve some of the success originally expected of him.


Eric Selleck, LW, 24

One must look a long way down the Panthers depth chart to find Erik Selleck’s name. Known more for dropping the gloves than filling the net, Selleck does not fit the mold of a new-NHL player. Enforcers at the top level need to be able to play some defense, and chip in on offensive from time to time. Unfortunately for Selleck, the gaps between goals are far too long at the AHL level, which does not bode well for an NHL future. Through 25 games in San Antonio, Selleck has scored one goal and one assist and lingers near a team-low plus-minus at minus-five, but is on pace for around 250 penalty minutes.

ECHL

A.J. Jenks, LW, 21

The start of the 2011-12 season has been a bumpy one for Jenks, who started the season with San Antonio, was sent down to Cincinnati, recalled, and recently sent back down. In the midst of a 21-game scoring drought at both levels of play, Jenks struggles to regain confidence and scoring touch.


Garrett Wilson, LW, 20

Wilson is another former fourth-round draft pick bouncing around a lot this fall. The gritty forward has made five trips between San Antonio and Cincinnati this fall, primarily as a result of injuries and call-ups, but also because he has been producing nearly a point per game in the ECHL. Regrettably, that scoring has not translated into points in the AHL, where Wilson has one goal in seven games. It may be a rocky road for the former Owen Sound captain, but a good learning experience for a two-way forward in his first year of professional hockey.


Anthony Luciani, RW, 21

After going undrafted despite throwing down 146 points in 122 games over his final two years of junior hockey, Luciani signed a free agent contract with the Panthers in 2011. The 5’8, 190-pound winger from Maple, Ontario has spent most of the season in Cincinnati, where he has posted 19 points on eight goals and 11 assists in 20 games.

Jonathan Hazen, RW, 21

Hazen was another free agent signed by the Panthers last summer, and he, too, has played most of the season in Cincinnati, but without the same scoring success. In 16 games, Hazen has just two goals and three assists. The speedy winger was recalled to San Antonio in November, and again in December. He has appeared in nine AHL games during those call-ups, with one goal scored.