Not only has Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon turned a perennially underachieving NHL club into a playoff contender in just over two years, but he built an enviable stable of prospects, many of whom are close to NHL ready.
Saint John captain Jonathan Huberdeau will almost certainly join the NHL club when, or if the season starts. Centerman Nick Bjugstad was given every opportunity to forego his college eligibility to sign a professional contract before he decided to return to the University of Minnesota. Junior hockey stars Alex Petrovic and Quinton Howden are both rookies in the AHL this year, as is former Denver University captain Drew Shore and former top bantam pick John McFarland.
Leading the left wingers in the pipeline is professional rookie Quinton Howden. As with most 20-year-old players fresh out of junior hockey, Howden has been having some difficulty making it onto the scoresheets in San Antonio through his first handful of games. Yet the speedy winger has a bright future ahead of him, and should improve as the year plays out.
Yaroslav Kosov is developing into a force. The young Russian has been gaining invaluable experience playing the KHL and has been receiving significant ice time in international competitions for the Russian national teams. He plays a hard-nosed, gritty game with quickness and scoring ability and should become an NHL regular.
There are others with potential to contribute at the NHL level, though their odds of making the big league are longer than those of Howden and Kosov. John McFarland is trying to put his troubled OHL career behind him, and thus far still has a toehold in the AHL. Recent draft pick Francis Beauvillier is a project, but could one day become an NHL regular, though he is unlikely to become a scoring forward at that level.
Connor Brickley has seen his scoring production drop dramatically since his lacerated calf injury last year. Playing for an underwhelming Vermont team, Brickley has struggled to find the net this season, with just one goal in the year’s first seven games.
Alexander Delnov is still mostly an unknown variable in the Panthers system. His early play for Seattle in the WHL has been solid, but unspectacular. He needs some more time to adjust to the North American game, but could develop into a workable player.
The Panthers’ prospect depth, talent and skill at the center position remains among the league’s best. Leading the system is top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau, who is considered a center even though there is a good chance he will line up at wing once he hits the NHL. Huberdeau possesses the kind of all-world talent that could make him an All-Star once he gets the opportunity. He has top line passing, shooting, and puck handling-skills, and thinks the game as well as anyone. Creative as a passer, he has the ability to consistently find open players and get the puck to them in a position where they can be effective. When the passing lanes are closed, Huberdeau can also put the puck in the net with an accurate and deceptive shot. He still needs to get stronger, but there is simply no denying that he will be a Panther in the near future.
Nick Bjugstad would hold the top center position in most other teams’ depth charts. The Minnesota native is an early favorite to become a Hobey Baker finalist, and although he has cooled off slightly from a hot start to the year, he is one of the college game’s best players. His size, shooting ability, strength with and without the puck, and possession skills will one day make him an effective first or second-line center in the NHL.
After leaving Denver University as the team’s captain and leading scorer, one the main questions facing Drew Shore was whether or not he could carry that production to the professional level. So far he has shown that he can contribute, but the current San Antonio team has had trouble scoring as a group. Through the first 13 games of the AHL season, Shore leads the team in scoring with 10 points. Although he does have scoring upside and has a knack for finding the puck in the offensive zone, Shore will be better suited for a third-line role with second-line spot duties. His intelligent positional play and energy should become the hallmark of his play for the Panthers in a year or two.
Vincent Trocheck’s star continues to rise as he plays out what will likely be his last year of junior hockey. Trocheck is a good skater with two-way sensibility who has the ability to consistently push the offensive attack. His work ethic is beyond reproach and his energy never seems to wane. Trocheck currently holds a spot among the top-10 scorers in the OHL with 35 points in 23 games and has missed only three games in his OHL career.
Rocco Grimaldi is another player officially listed at center but who will probably line up at the wing in the NHL. After missing almost all of his freshman year at North Dakota, Grimaldi has returned with a vengeance, and is now among the scoring leaders for the Sioux. Questions regarding his size will continue to follow him until he either hits his ceiling or proves his doubters wrong.
Further down the depth chart, players like Corban Knight, Kyle Rau, and Steven Hodges, who all have NHL potential but remain long-term prospects at this point. Knight is an extremely tough player to go up against, and leads the North Dakota team by example. Rau is a feisty and instinctual player with great hands and a tremendous intelligence for the game. Hodges plays in the WHL and looks to take another step forward this year after being drafted by the Panthers last summer.
The Panthers are still looking for highly skilled prospects on the right wing. Help could become available as both Kyle Rau and Rocco Grimaldi have been playing the right side for their respective college squads, but otherwise the field looks meager among the listed right wingers in the Florida organization.
Zachary Hyman has the best upside potential along the right side. A sophomore at Michigan, Hyman has good speed, and has been developing his defensive game with the Wolverines. When he has the puck, Hyman shows natural creativity and elusiveness, and can dish or go to the net. An intelligent player, he still has a long way to go before he develops into an NHL caliber player.
Anthony Luciani and Jonathan Hazen both patrol the right side in the minor leagues, and both have struggled to find a permanent spot in the AHL lineup. Hazen saw three games of action with San Antonio before being returned to the ECHL. Luciani has been on the injured reserve list and has yet to play this season.
QMJHL forward Logan Shaw has been thriving this season in Quebec, playing alongside Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF). Shaw has been seeing a lot of time on the power play and has a respectable 23 points in 19 games. The big winger has good hands and speed, but looks to have more of a third-line future in the professional ranks.
Iiro Pakarinen is an intriguing prospect playing for HIFK in Finland. He has increased his production from a year ago, and has a good mix of size and mobility. Joe Basaraba is playing out his college career with Minnesota-Duluth, but looks to be a marginal professional prospect.
Defense is another area of true strength for the Florida organization. At the NHL level, the team has a good mix of wily veterans and tough, talented young players. Erik Gudbranson played 72 games in his rookie season. Dmitry Kulikov is an up-and-coming offensive defenseman, and Keaton Ellerby, though still young and developing more slowly than originally expected, gives the NHL squad a talented seventh defenseman.
Among the prospects, Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak stand out as two players who have the best chance to find NHL success. Robak was an AHL All-Star last season, and Petrovic won the Bill Hunter trophy as the WHL’s top defenseman. Robak has good size (the Panthers pipeline has excellent size up and down the blue line) and plays a solid two-way game. He enjoys getting involved in the offensive play, but is a responsible player in his own end. Petrovic is a physical beast of man who plays the game with snarl and an edge. He also has a big shot from the point that makes him a dangerous weapon on the powerplay.
Mike Matheson was drafted in 2012 with the Panthers first-round selection. The organization hopes that he can become the type of offensive defenseman that the system has lacked for a while. He has an easy stride and skates with the fluidity of a forward, but he also has excellent lateral mobility and agility. He possesses fine offensive instincts and makes crisp passes in transition. He still needs work on the defensive side of the puck, but he will have plenty of opportunity to develop those skills while playing for Boston College.
Rasmus Bengtsson and Jonathan Racine are two defensive-minded blueliners in the Panthers system who both have the look of NHL defenders. Eddie Wittchow is a big body playing his freshman year at Wisconsin.
Jonatan Nielsen was drafted in the seventh round last summer, and he brings great size and the intelligence and knowledge of the game that comes from being a coach’s son. Nielsen was recently loaned to Sodertalje in Sweden’s second-tier league after he put up seven points in 12 junior-league games to start the year.
Josh McFadden was signed as a free agent to add depth. Benjamin Gallacher transferred out of Ohio State and is currently playing in the USHL for Green Bay. R.J. Boyd continues to try to find a path to the NHL, and is currently playing for Michigan State after two seasons in the USHL.
The depth at goal became both more stable over the off-season with the addition of Michael Houser, but also more shaky with the early play of Jacob Markstrom in the AHL. Markstrom is easily the best of the Florida netminder prospects. A 6’6 goaltender who has fantastic post-to-post quickness and solid butterfly technique, Markstrom leaves little of the net available for shooters. The start of the 2012-13 season has not gone as smoothly as he would have liked. In seven starts, Markstrom has stopped just 88 percent of the shots he has faced, and has allowed 3.61 goals per game. Those numbers are far out of line with what is expected from one of the best goaltending prospects in the game.
Sam Brittain is once again backstopping Denver University. The junior started the year as he finished the last by making stellar saves in crucial moments and protecting the net with mental toughness and composure. He will be splitting weekend games for most of the season as the Pioneers have three scholarships goaltenders on the roster. However, come crunch time at the end of the season, look for Denver to rely more and more on Brittain.
Michael Houser was signed as a free agent last summer after ending his junior career surrounded by a pile of accolades. Houser is smaller than the current prototypical NHL-sized goaltender. What he lacks in height however, he makes up for with effort, energy, and sometimes dazzling and electric saves. He was named the OHL Player of the Year last season, and although he will need to work hard to carve out an NHL career, hard work appears to be his lifeblood.