With arguably the best group of prospects in the NHL, the Florida Panthers and their fans have a lot to be excited about coming into the 2012-13 season, at all levels of play. In fact, the argument could be made that the Panthers have players who are among the very best of prospects in the CHL, NCAA, and AHL. That means, despite the lockout that currently has hockey fans looking beyond the NHL to fill their passion for the sport, there are plenty of intriguing Panthers' prospect stories playing out all over North America and beyond.
Top Pro Prospect
Jacob Markstrom, G, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Markstrom is the prototype NHL goaltender prospect. He plays a smooth, butterfly style with a calm and composed presence in the net. For a short while last year, Markstrom became a bit of an internet sensation as he danced his way through a stoppage in play, which not only displayed a lot of youthful exuberance, but also shows just how relaxed he is in the heat of battle. Markstrom has the quickness to challenge shooters and the technique to recover his position when necessary and at 6'6, he is tall enough to take the top part of net away from shooters when he is down in the butterfly position. Delays in development caused by injuries (major knee surgery two seasons ago and a smaller, non-related knee injury last season) are the only things holding him back from a spot in the NHL this year. Make no mistake, he is a starting NHL goaltender in waiting, and if either of the Panthers NHL netminders falter once the season begins, Markstrom will again be suiting up in South Florida.
Top Pro Rookie
Alex Petrovic, D, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Although fellow rookie prospects Drew Shore and Quinton Howden will make an impact this year, Alex Petrovic's first professional season should be immensely interesting to watch. Petrovic plays the game with nasty intent and he has the size and strength to dominate the defensive zone. Last year's WHL Defenseman of the Year, Petrovic combines physical play with good skating and a rocket shot from the point. His addition to the San Antonio powerplay in last spring's playoff run elevated the Rampage special teams unit from a below-average group to one of the most powerful in the league and there is no reason to believe that his success from the blue line will end there. Although he will likely play a mostly stay-at-home role, look for Petrovic to push his game up ice from time to time, and strike fear into opponent shot blockers and goaltenders.
Make or Break
John McFarland, LW, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
The longtime poster child for unfulfilled junior expectations, McFarland will be going pro in 2012-13, either in the AHL or even the ECHL. McFarland has a lot to prove, and if he is planning a campaign to win a route to the NHL, he needs to truly bounce back from a disappointing junior career and a season-ending shoulder injury suffered last spring. McFarland has the tools to be an NHL sniper-an above-average shot, great wheels, and vision-but he has lacked the consistency necessary to make a sustained impact thus far in his hockey career.
If not for the NHL lockout, Huberdeau would likely have found his name in a Calder Trophy competition for the NHL's top rookies. Instead, for the time being, he will have to settle for being among the elite players of the CHL and one of the top prospects in the hockey world. Huberdeau has nothing to prove in the junior level, except perhaps that he can still dominate games and lead his team despite having seen many of his cohorts from last season go pro. Huberdeau has top-line skills and excellent hockey sense and vision that should eventually lead him to NHL stardom.
Steven Hodges, C, Victoria Royals (WHL)
The Panthers drafted Hodges 84th overall in the 2012 draft as a speedy, tough-nosed center with a lot of potential who just needs some time to develop. Hodges's numbers last year were not exactly remarkable, but playing on a mediocre Victoria team did not help his totals at all. Now, as the 2012-13 season gets underway, Hodges looks well-positioned to drastically improve his output from a year ago. He should see plenty of time on the team's top powerplay unit as well as significant offensive minutes and responsibilities.
New Team in 2012-13
Jonathan Racine, D, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
Just a few days after celebrating a Memorial Cup victory to end his season, Racine was traded from Shawinigan to Moncton to complete an earlier trade that sent top prospect Brandon Gormley (PHX) to the Cataractes. Racine will take his athletic prowess, sound positional game and terrific hockey sense to the Wildcats, for what should be his final year of junior hockey.
Top Amateur Prospect
Nick Bjugstad, C, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Bjugstad flirted with the Panthers this summer, and came close to signing a professional contract before deciding to return to the Gophers for one more year. With his return, Bjugstad becomes an early pick for Hobey Baker award consideration, and was named the preseason player of the year in the WCHA. Bjugstad continues to develop into not only one of the top NCAA players, but a top hockey prospect in general. The big, strong center has good hands and a quick release on his shot. Although he can snap off goals from the top of the circle on the powerplay, Bjugstad gets most of his glory down low and in the corners, using his body to shield the puck and muscle his way to the net.
Connor Brickley, LW, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
It would be easy slap a bounce-back label on Rocco Grimaldi after he missed practically the entire 2011-12 campaign with a knee injury, but the real bounce-back player to keep an eye on is the versatile Connor Brickley. The second half of Brickley's sophomore season was derailed by a lacerated calf muscle suffered at the World Junior Championships. Though he tried to play through the injury, he missed all of January's play and was mostly ineffective when he did make his way back to the lineup.
Freshman to Watch
Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
The Boston College freshman was taken twenty-third overall in the 2012 draft following a successful year in the USHL. Matheson will join the Eagles as one of the top blue line skaters in college hockey. His mix of speed, fluid agility, and crisp passing makes him a dangerous threat from the back end. The Panthers are hoping that Matheson's defensive game will improve in the NCAA without limiting his offensive abilities. As Boston College makes another run to the Frozen Four, keeping an eye on Matheson's progression throughout the year should be entertaining.
Top European Prospect
Yaroslav Kosov, RW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Kosov enters his second KHL season just as some of the NHL's best players join the squad with him. Evgeni Malkin (PIT), the NHL's most valuable player last season and Magnitogorsk hometown hero, and potential future Hall of Famer Sergei Gonchar recently signed with the Russian team while they wait for a resolution in NHL labor negotiations. Kosov is a rising star in his own right, though. He was among the youngest players in the KHL last season to get a regular shift for any team, and looks to continue to develop into a powerful forward who is difficult to play against but can still put the puck in the net.