Florida Panthers own several quality prospects in NCAA and Europe

By Brian Fogarty

Yaroslav Kosov - Florida Panthers

Photo: Forward Yaroslav Kosov is one of four prospects the Florida Panthers have who are currently playing in Europe. (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Although a couple of the Florida Panthers prospects have moved on from the collegiate ranks and begun their professional careers, the organization still has several valuable players in the NCAA and in Europe, including a Hobey Baker finalist. At least two and perhaps as many as four or more players may have already played their final seasons in college. The prospects currently playing in Europe may be a thinner crop, but there are a couple of them who look ready to move to North America.

NCAA

Nick Bjugstad, C, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, in 2010

When Bjugstad decided to return for another year with the Gophers, he did so with his eyes on the National Championship. Unfortunately, after a year in which he led Minnesota in goals and drove his team to a top seed in the Frozen Four bracket, his season came to a disappointing end at the hands of a red-hot Yale squad. Should Bjugstad falter in his development over the next couple of years, there will be critics who claim that his decision to return to college hurt him. Although he might have benefitted from playing against older and better competition had he signed his contract and played in the AHL, his season was not a loss. He developed his defensive game and continued to work on his skating and two-way play. His physical dominance was never truly challenged, and that could eventually be a set-back for him as he was unable to gain important experience in that arena. Either way, everyone should find out soon enough. Bjugstad signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers, and looks to make his NHL debut before the end of the season.

Corban Knight, C, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, in 2009

Knight is another player who received an unceremonious early exit from the NCAA playoffs as his North Dakota team also fell to the Yale Bulldogs. Knight, a senior center for North Dakota's top line, experienced what was arguably his best collegiate season this year. He finished eighth in the nation in scoring with 49 points in 41 games and was one of college hockey's best in the faceoff circle. His persistence and patience in the offensive zone combined with his high compete level and hockey smarts earned him national recognition and a spot among the finalists for the Hobey Baker award. Now that his final college season is completed it will be only a matter of time (perhaps as little as a few days) before he signs on the dotted line and embarks on his professional career.

Sam Brittain, G, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, in 2010

Brittain's season unraveled quickly. A year after a knee injury caused Brittain to miss most of the 2011-12 season, he looked poised to have a standout year backstopping the Pioneers. He stopped 36 out of 37 shots in his first game of the season, and another 26 out of 27 in game two. Those were only two of three games Brittain played this season where he allowed fewer than two goals. In fact, in his next nine starts Brittain would allow 32 goals (a goals against average of 3.55) with a save percentage of .886. As a result, Brittain lost the starting role to sophomore goaltender Juho Olkinuora. Brittain sat out most of December, January and February, but saw three games of action that may prove to be a confidence boost for his off-season. In those three starts, Brittain allowed only seven goals on 85 shots he faced. Going into his senior season, Brittain will need to build off that end-of-season success and try to regain the form he showed as a freshman.

Kyle Rau, C/RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, in 2011

Statistically, Rau's sophomore season at Minnesota looked a lot like his freshman season: 40 games played, 15 goals and 25 assists. The difference between this year and last for the feisty winger and former Mr. Hockey does not show up in the numbers though. Instead, one must look closer at his play to see that Rau has improved his on-ice presence, his defensive awareness, and his leadership. His skating is solid, but he has learned how to better measure out his effort and become more efficient in his movements. His physical play remains top-level for a 5'8 player, and he does not shy away from contact, either to make a play or to punish opposing puck carriers in the corners. The master of the late game goal, Rau's instinctive ability to put himself in the right spot on the ice continues to be a key to his success. He will likely return for a junior season for the Gophers, and with the departure of top scorers Bjugstad and Zach Budish (NAS), he will be called on to carry a lot of the team scoring next season.

Rocco Grimaldi, C/W, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, in 2011

Grimaldi bounced back from a surgery-shortened freshman year (he was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and so remains a technical freshman this season) to become a major component of one of the nation's top lines. Grimaldi scored 13 goals and 23 assists for North Dakota, and ranked among the top freshman in the country, and was named to the WCHA All-Rookie team. Grimaldi played for Team USA in the World Junior Championships, and although the first half of the tournament was extremely disappointing for him, he made his mark in the gold medal game by scoring two goals including the game winner. His speedy and fluid skating make him impossible to track down on the ice, and his laser-quick hands and pinpoint shot give him the opportunity to score from almost anywhere in the offensive zone. At times this season it looked like Grimaldi was forcing passes instead of taking shots, but as his confidence grew so did his decision-making. As with Kyle Rau and the Gophers, Grimaldi will see his two linemates leave the team this year (Danny Kristo has already signed with Montreal) and he, too, will be counted on as a team leader and goal-scorer next season.

Zach Hyman, RW, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, in 2010

Hyman is redefining his game. After a freshman year of trying to adjust to a bigger and faster competition at the NCAA level, Hyman took on the role of a shutdown, physical bottom-line winger for the Wolverines. His speed is an asset and he has good size. He has continued to add strength and weight to his 6'0 frame, and upped his physical play this season. Hyman has shown that he is willing to do whatever is asked to him by Coach Berenson and the Michigan staff, even if that means relinquishing time in the offensive zone. Going into his junior season, he should start to get more opportunities on the powerplay and on the top two lines, and if he can round out his game and show that he can score consistently at the NCAA level, he will have a bright future in the Panthers system.

Connor Brickley, LW/C, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, in 2010

Connor Brickley should stay away from sharp objects. After missing a significant part of the 2011-12 season because of a skate blade cut to his calf muscle, Brickley suffered yet another cut, this time to his forearm, causing him to miss most of the middle part of the 2012-13 year. As a result, he never got his game on track, and he drudged through a forgettable year with the Catamounts. His injuries, although certain to slow his development, do not limit his potential. He is a smart, aggressive player on offense and a determined defender. Although he did not make much of a mark on the scoreboard this season (he scored just three goals with five assists in his 24 games), Brickley does have a nice scoring touch and offensive abilities. The Vermont team as a whole had trouble generating offense this season, and a lack of firepower did nothing to help Brickley generate scoring chances. He will likely return to Vermont for his senior year.

Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, in 2012

Matheson's freshman year with Boston College was truly a tale of two ends of the ice. On the offensive end, Matheson possesses the kind of skills and skating that will make him a powerplay specialist and an imposing offensive blueliner in the NHL. He skates without effort and has remarkable quickness and agility. He controls the puck with deftness and can make difficult passes look simple. But his shot and offensive awareness are his bread and butter. He has a quick wrist shot and can rip one-timers from the point that goaltenders simply cannot catch up with. His 25 points in 36 games put him in the top-twenty in collegiate defensemen scoring, and third only to Jacob Trouba (WPG) and Nolan Zajac for scoring by freshmen defenders. He needs a lot of work in his own end, however. At times he tries to do too much, and will rely on a poke check instead of playing the body, and will often get caught out of position because of it. He will hit and play a physical game, but at this point his defensive play needs a lot of improvement to catch up with his offensive dexterity.

R.J. Boyd, D, Michigan State Spartans (CCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 183rd overall, in 2010

R.J. Boyd has taken a long, twisting path to get to the Spartans bottom pairing, first having played half a season of college hockey for Sacred Heart, then a year and a half in the USHL on two different squads, and finally a sophomore year at Michigan State. Boyd plays a mostly stay-at-home game, though he will join the rush and can be effective on the attack. He eked out two goals this year in 42 games, and added nine assists. He does not bring a lot of flash to the ice, and his decision-making is at time suspect, but if he can stay the course and develop his skills and positional play, the 22-year-old blueliner may get a chance at a professional contract in a year or two.

Joe Basaraba, RW, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, in 2010

Basaraba played another season in a supporting role for the Bulldogs, and although he plays a steady, two-way game, he simply does not get a lot of offensive opportunities. He racked up just 17 points this season, one more than in his sophomore year, but did score 10 goals. He is not the fastest skater, nor does he have the softest hands, but he plays with good effort each night, and he has the kind of size at 6'3 and just under 200 pounds that NHL teams like. He will have to turn in a breakout kind of year during his upcoming season, though, to garner enough attention to warrant a professional contract in what is becoming a crowded Florida Panthers forward pool.

Ed Wittchow, D, Wisconsin Badgers (CCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 154th overall, in 2011

Every team needs solid, tough, and reliable defensive specialists to patrol their own end and make life miserable for attacking forwards. The Panthers have just such a prospect in Wittchow. The 6'4, 205-pound freshman at the University of Wisconsin plays a simple game based on strength and positioning. He hits when he needs to separate the opponent from the puck, and he will take a hit to make a safe play. He does not have a lot of offensive upside, and tallied just three assists and no goals in his first 29 college games. He can make a good breakout pass, however, and he makes relatively few mistakes in his own zone. Wittchow is still a project that will be several years in development, but he has the basic skill set and abilities to one day become a valuable stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL.

Wade Megan, C, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, in 2009

Wade Megan finished his Boston University tenure as captain for the Terriers, and he put up 16 goals and 13 assists in an effort to engineer a national championship. When that fell short, he signed a try-out contract with the San Antonio Rampage, and potted a goal in his professional debut. Megan has shown that he has the leadership skills on and off the ice, and he has some offensive talent to go along with them. He will never be a scoring-line forward in the NHL, but if he is diligent and spends his time in the AHL preparing and working hard on his game, he may find himself with a steady but unspectacular NHL career as a bottom-six forward.

Europe

Yaroslav Kosov, LW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, in 2011

The 19-year-old Kosov struggled to find ice time and production in his second year with Metallurg in the KHL. Playing on a team that was loaded with NHL talent for half the season, Kosov was relegated to fourth-line duty and averaged just over eight minutes per game without much opportunity in the offensive zone. The result was low production (just seven points in 40 games) and potentially delayed development. In five playoff games, he saw only about three minutes per game, so it comes as no surprise that he was unable to tally any postseason points. Kosov did score three goals in seven games at the World Junior Championships while playing mostly third line minutes. Kosov plays a two-way, physical style of hockey, and given the proper ice time and learning environment, he could still evolve into a solid third-line checking forward in the NHL. It could be that his best opportunity for getting to that level would be to come over to North America this summer and get valuable experience in the AHL.

Sergei Gayduchenko, G, Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, in 2007

Gayduchenko had his best year yet in the KHL, playing a backup role to veteran Jeff Glass. Gayduchenko saw 19 games of action, and posted a career-best .926 saves percentage and 2.40 goals against average. He uses his size as a tool to take up space in the net, and his overall technique is improving. At this point, it is still undetermined whether or not he will be willing to try his hand in North America. 

Iiro Pakarinen, RW, HIFK Helsinki (SM- Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 184th overall, in 2011

Pakarinen continues to improve his game and mature into an effective winger with good size and some scoring touch. Although he missed time this year because of injury, he was still able to put together five goals and seven assists in 33 games in the top Finnish league after joining HIFK over the summer. He average just over 13 minutes of ice time per game in the regular season, but saw his time increase to over 16 minutes per game in the playoffs. He is still a long way from making any impact in North America.

Jonatan Nielsen, D, Sodertalje (Allsvenskan)
Drafted 7th round, 194th overall, in 2012

Nielsen is a big, defensive-minded defenseman who will chip offensively and join the rush when the time is right. His tall 6'3 frame needs more muscle and strength (he currently weighs just 183 pounds), but he makes up for his lack of strength with solid positioning and mobility. He started the season with Linkoping's junior team, got a six game stint with the big club, and finished the year on loan to Sodertalje where he scored four goals and four assists in 28 games. He is still a raw project defenseman, but the foundation is in place for a good career and potential NHL bottom-pair blueliner.