One year after a surprising trip to the playoffs, the Florida Panthers fell to the bottom of the league standings. For a team in transition such a drop is disheartening. There is a however a silver lining to the Panthers poor season, as the second-overall draft pick in 2013 can yield a potential superstar.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Jonathan Huberdeau, W/C
2. Jacob Markstrom, G
3. Nick Bjugstad, C
4. Drew Shore, C
5. Quinton Howden, W/C
6. Alex Petrovic, D
7. Colby Robak, D
8. Vince Trocheck, C
9. Mike Matheson, D
10. Rocco Grimaldi, C/W
At the NHL level, the Panthers lack scoring punch from the forwards and only rookie and Calder Trophy frontrunner Jonathan Huberdeau has the kind of electrifying skills that can turn a game on a single possession. Injuries to several veteran players provided opportunities for many top prospects last year (Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore, and Alex Petrovic all made their NHL debuts), and although contractual obligations still exist for most of the NHL roster, there are plenty of spots up for grabs in 2013-14. Team captain and first-line center Stephen Weiss is an unrestricted free agent, and may not return. On defense, all of the starters remain with the team, although 36-year-old defenseman Ed Jovanovski is a buy-out candidate. In goal, starter Jose Theodore will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Backup Scott Clemmensen still has one year remaining on his contract, but inconsistency and age (he will turn 36 this summer) limit his effectiveness.
With one of the deepest prospect pipelines in the league, the Panthers have a wealth of top talent at every position. The core of their organizational strength originates in goal and at the center position, but the Panthers also have size and skill along the blue line.
Up front, Huberdeau is coming off of a rookie season in which he played all 48 games, posted 14 goals and 17 assists, and was the team's second highest scorer. He and fellow rookie Shore combined with right winger Peter Mueller to form the team's most dangerous scoring line. Bjugstad, a big center from the University of Minnesota, joined the team at the end of his college season, and made an immediate two-way impact despite playing 10 games before scoring his first goal.
The Panthers are well-stocked on defense, too. Colby Robak and Petrovic will compete for a roster spot in the fall, and Boston College freshman Michael Matheson displayed tremendous offensive talent with the Eagles. Those three blue line prospects are a solid foundation that team general manager Dale Tallon can build from in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft.
Jacob Markstrom joined the NHL club after Jose Theodore suffered a season-ending injury, and when Clemmensen struggled between the pipes, Markstrom stepped in and became the starter. Although he had some nights where he fought the puck as the defense crumbled in front of him, Markstrom proved why he is seen as a top goaltending prospect. He alone gives the system strength in net.
Goaltending thins out quickly behind Markstrom. Sam Brittain had a miserable year for the Denver, and although Michael Houser and Brian Foster continued to develop and show promise-Houser had a remarkable playoff run in the ECHL-the organization lacks quality depth at various stages of development. Once Markstrom joins the NHL full-time next season, Houser likely becomes the top netminder in the system. He may someday win an NHL role, but right now he is not considered a blue chip prospect.
Matheson's skill with the puck may give Florida that offensive defenseman they have been searching for, but unfortunately he is extremely raw in the defensive zone. Petrovic and Robak have great size and two-way ability, but none of the three look like a clear-cut first-pair defender. Furthermore, after those three, the talent level drops down a tier to players like the Swedish defender Jonatan Nielsen and the big, stay-at-home Wisconsin Badger Ed Wittchow.
The forwards in the group fall into two main classifications: the big, two-way character players like Bjugstad, Corban Knight, Shore, and Howden, and the small, clever and skilled players like Grimaldi and Kyle Rau. All of those players have the tools to become NHL forwards, but none of them stand out as potential top-line scorers for one reason or another.
As a group, the Panthers prospects are currently bunched together either in the NCAA (12 prospects played college hockey last season) or in the minor leagues (16 in the AHL and ECHL combined). Although there is talent in the system, because of the plethora of picks that Tallon has made over the last three seasons, many of the top prospects in the organization are under 20 years of age. As such, the Panthers run the risk of having to find ice time for the key contributors while allowing the others time to develop and hone their skills.
Tallon has completed three drafts with the Panthers, and he has made 28 draft picks in that time. One clear draft-day tendency has been a willingness to deal picks to move up or down the draft order. For 2013, the Panthers have six picks, the 2nd, 31st, 92nd, 98th, 122nd, and 152nd.
In the past, Tallon has shied away from using draft picks on goaltenders. In fact, he has selected only one netminder while in Florida (Brittain with the 92nd-overall pick in 2010). With the lack of goaltender depth in the system, however, the Panthers could break this trend and look for a netminder in the mid-rounds.
Instead of drafting goaltenders, the Panthers have shown a tendency to look for talent and value up front, size on the blue line, and lower-risk picks in the early rounds. In the latter rounds, Florida has taken bigger gambles, such as Alexander Delnov in the fourth round last year. One of the mainstays trends has been selecting players from North America in the early rounds. Rasmus Bengtsson (a second-round pick in 2011) is the only non-North American player chosen in the top three rounds under Tallon's tenure. In the latter rounds, five of 12 picks have been used on European players.
With his leanings towards North American players, it comes as no surprise that the majority of the players Tallon has drafted come from the Canadian junior leagues, but he has also dipped into the US for nearly a third of his picks. By turning to USHL or high school programs for college-bound players, the Panthers have been content to remain patient and maintain rights to the players for two additional years while they develop and mature. With several quality prospects available from the US National Team program this summer, the Panthers may once again look in that direction with their second-round pick.
Hockey's Future Staff Mock Draft Results:
A supremely skilled centerman, MacKinnon would bring instant credibility to the Panthers offense. He also gives the team a number one center of the future and would be a perfect complement to probable Calder winner Huberdeau. The addition of MacKinnon could also soften the potential loss of center Stephen Weiss to free agency.