Blue chip talent prevails in Panthers prospect awards

By Brian Fogarty
Photo: Third-round pick Vincent Trocheck was among the top performing prospects for the Florida Panthers this season. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Putting together the inaugural prospect awards for the Florida Panthers organization was no easy task given their extraordinary depth of talent. The final results were chosen by the team writer with input from the rest of the Hockey’s Future staff. Most categories could have had more than one winner.

Prospect of the Year: Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Huberdeau missed a significant amount of time for Saint John this year, partially due to a broken foot he took while blocking a shot, and due to time spent playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. However, when taking in the season as a whole, it is tough to deny that he was the system’s top prospect in 2011-12. Starting with an outstanding NHL camp in the fall (he nearly broke camp with the NHL squad), Huberdeau ran off a sequence of 28 points in 13 games for Saint John before his foot injury. He returned to the ice in the WJCs, and rattled off nine points in six tournament games while leading the team in assists. Back in the Q, Huberdeau managed to somehow improve his game while scoring 44 points in 24 games. In the first 13 games of the playoffs, Huberdeau dropped another 18 points while helping to lead his team to first- and second-round sweeps. All told, in 56 major junior and international games, Huberdeau has posted 99 points.

Most Improved prospect: Wade Megan, C, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)

After freshman and sophomore seasons in which he scored only 13 goals in limited, supporting-role ice time, Megan took a huge step forward in his junior season. A wide variety of departures of the team’s top scorers opened the door for Megan to assume more responsibilities, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Megan scored nearly as many goals in the 2011-12 season (20) as he had in total points from his first two seasons for the Terriers (25). Not only did he score, but he took on a leadership role on the ice, played a physical possession game, and used his size and strength to create chances in transition. Once considered a long-shot project, Megan’s improvement has put him back on a professional hockey career track.

Best Defensive Prospect: Alex Petrovic, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

With the graduation of Erik Gudbranson to full-time NHL status, the award for the Panthers top defensive prospect came down to two players. This award could have gone to AHL All-Star defenseman Colby Robak and his two-way abilities, but for pure defensive capability and edgy destruction in his own zone, Alex Petrovic earns the award. Petrovic’s size (6’4, 205 pounds), controlled physical presence and devastating hits make opponents tremble when crossing the blue line into Red Deer territory, and his 141 regular season penalty minutes attest to his willingness to dish out punishment.

Fastest Skater: Quinton Howden, LW, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

Not only is Howden the fastest skater in the Panthers system, he may be the fastest skater in all of major junior hockey. In a system full of good skaters, Howden’s straight ahead speed, quickness, and acceleration are unmatched.

Hardest Shot: Alex Petrovic, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

Petrovic has a cannon shot from the blue line, and he uses it to great effect as seen in his 29 WHL goals over three seasons with the Rebels. Many of his assists have come as a result of the opposing goaltender’s inability to smother or contain his slapshot from the point, resulting in easy rebound goals for his forwards.

Overachiever: Kyle Rau, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)

Rau may not seem like the most likely candidate for this award, considering he came to the Gophers squad as the reigning Mr. Hockey (the top senior high school player in the state of Minnesota), and after scoring one of the most dramatic, championship-winning, overtime goals in state history. Fans and observers eagerly anticipated Rau’s arrival on campus, but Rau did more than just fulfill expectations. Rau launched his initial NCAA campaign by scoring his first goal just 56 seconds into his first shift. He was named NCAA Rookie of the Month twice, and made Inside College Hockey’s Freshman All-American team. Rau posted 43 points in 40 games. He played for the USA in the World Juniors, and notched three goals and two assists in six games for the national team. Rau was also instrumental in the Golden Gophers appearance in the Frozen Four.

Underachiever: John McFarland, LW, Ottawa 67s (OHL)

McFarland had another disappointing season in the OHL. After a lukewarm training camp with the Panthers, the forward returned to the OHL hoping to erase the stigma of an underperforming, formerly-highly-regarded prospect. McFarland played in 33 successful games, scoring 40 points on 19 goals and 21 assists for Saginaw before being traded to an Ottawa team looking to bolster its roster for a Memorial Cup run. However, in just 13 games for the 67s, McFarland scored only four goals before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery.

Hardest Worker: Vincent Trocheck, C, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)

Trocheck is a perpetual motion machine. He may not shine in any one particular area, but he is always the hardest working player in the rink. He is continually up and down the ice, winning faceoffs, forechecking, backchecking, blocking shots, stealing pucks, scoring goals, and winning games. Trocheck seems to always be on the ice, always near the puck, and always making something happen. He scored 29 goals for the Spirit in 2011-12, and assisted on 56 others.

Highest Risk/Reward prospect: Rocco Grimaldi, C/LW, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (NCAA)

Grimaldi is the epitome of the high risk/high reward player. At 5’6, he falls well below the norm for NHL players, and for that reason, many commentators have disregarded his potential as an NHL player. Few players have ever managed successful NHL careers at that height. However, few players have combined such a startling array of scoring ability, strength, work ethic, and skating into such a small package. Grimaldi has a lethal wrist shot with a quick release and laser accuracy that he can get off from almost anywhere on the ice. Down low, he has the knack of finding loose pucks and planting them in the back of the net. He is quick on his feet and smart. But perhaps the most remarkable attribute at his disposal is his seemingly effortless athletic ability. At his draft year combine, Grimaldi had the lowest measured body fat at 6.8 percent, was fourth in pushups, and fifth in vertical leap. If he makes it to the NHL, it will be because of his work ethic. Once he gets there, his scoring ability could make him an All-Star.

Breakout player for 2012-13 season: Rocco Grimaldi, C/LW, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (NCAA)

Grimaldi looks to be the best choice for the breakout player in 2012-13 after missing almost all of the 2011-12 season with a knee injury. Grimaldi’s explosive play and offensive skills package was put on hold in order to get surgery to repair damage sustained during training camp. As such, the hockey world was forced to wait another year before seeing what he can do in the NCAA. Once his rehab is completed and the Sioux hit the ice again, Grimaldi should be among the team’s top go-to offensive weapons.