Panthers junior prospects update

By Chris Leary

In the absence of a minor-league affiliate dedicated solely to the development of Florida Panther prospects, the organization is now more dependant than ever on the experience offered to their prospects in the Canadian junior ranks. And with a relatively high percentage of their top 20 prospects currently suiting up in either the QMJHL, OHL and WHL (three of the top five and six of the top 12 prospects will earn significant ice time north of the border this season), the short-term needs of the organization will most likely not be addressed from within. The core of the 2010 Panthers, however, may very well be serving out their internships in one of the three Canadian junior leagues this season. Highlighted by the North American debut of the 10th overall selection from the 2006 draft, dynamic Czech forward Michael Frolik, there is good cause for optimism in the amateur ranks this year for Panther fans, even if the current minor league landscape of the organization is still in a state of flux.

QMJHL

Michael Frolik, C — Rimouski
First Round, 10th Overall, 2006 NHL Entry Draft
6’1, 185 lbs.

A tantalizing prospect as a teenage phenom in his native Czech Republic, the player dubbed “Baby Jagr” made the jump across the pond in the summer of 2006 and into the Rimouski Oceanic lineup. Selected with the tenth overall selection of this past June’s draft after a downward-trending 2005-06 campaign with Kladno that dropped him out of a projected top-three spot in the draft, Frolik’s debut has shown glimpses of the player that attracted so much attention just last year. In just 23 games this season, Frolik has tallied 11 goals and 18 assists, totals which place him amongst the top five debut performances so far this season in the Q.

Still only 18 years old, the Panthers have some time to allow the youngster to establish an identity on North American ice before rushing him up the organizational ladder. The pressure of finding answers in the Panther lineup may force the front office’s hand into promoting the youngster into the professional ranks sooner rather than later. Should Frolik continue to improve his game on this side of the Atlantic, he might find himself headed south as early as October of 2007.

WHL

Kenndal McArdle, LW — Vancouver
First Round, 20th Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft
5’11, 195 lbs.

There are worse ways to finish off an impressive junior career than as a top-line power forward with the defending WHL champs. Such is the case with Panther prospect Kenndal McArdle, who was traded just last week from his only junior team in Moose Jaw west to the Vancouver Giants. A rugged, physical winger who has developed a sound two-way game, McArdle has impressed scouts and coaches over the past several years with his acumen at both ends of the rink. In 224 regular-season games with Moose Jaw, McArdle accounted for 83 goals, 98 assists and 389 penalty minutes, highlighted by a 37-goal campaign in 2005-05. His talents have not gone unnoticed, as the matriculating senior has been targeted for a variety of all-star and top-prospect competitions, including the 2005 CHL/NHL Top Prospects game in Vancouver, where he was named Most Valuable Player for Team Davidson.

With the trade to the high-profile Vancouver franchise that recently graduated top-flight pivot Gilbert Brule (CLB) into the NHL, McArdle seems poised to close out his junior career in style. The native of Vancouver not only gets to showcase his skills in front of his friends and family, but will get significant ice time in critical situations as the Giants host the Memorial Cup this season and are therefore guaranteed a spot in the tournament. While he has yet to make a significant dent on the score sheet in his first three games with the Giants (three assists and four penalty minutes), the gritty forward should find the touch soon in the new uniform. An extended audition at the AHL level would appear to be the next logical step in 2007.

Brady Calla, RW — Everett
Third Round, 73rd Overall, 2006 Entry Draft
6’, 190 lbs.

One of the quickest players in a league noted for world-class speedsters, Everett Silvertip right wing Brady Calla is still attempting in his third lap around the WHL to find the offensive tools to go with his high-end agility. Coming off of a pair of above-average seasons with Everett prior to his selection in the third round of the 2006 draft, the 18-year-old forward was tasked by the organization with developing his offensive capabilities in his third full season in the WHL. Any strides made have yet to manifest tangibly on the scorer’s sheet, however, as Calla has managed to post a meager three goals and five assists in 25 games this season. Those slim totals are even more revelatory when compared to the already-low point production earlier in his career (only 19 goals and 35 assists in 137 regular-season games coming into this season).

In light of Calla’s continued struggles in the offensive zone, his future in the organization would seem to depend upon his ability to utilize his speed at both ends of the rink while hoping that his hands eventually catch up with his skates. Still only 18, Calla will most likely get another full year in the WHL after this season, with an expectation that he will eventually progress into being the type of player who can exploit the opportunities created by his world-class speed. Ultimately, it is a near-impossible trick to teach the kind of end-to-end quickness and first-step burst possessed by Calla, and the Panthers are still banking on being able to develop his other tools to complement his NHL-ready speed.

Tyler Plante, G — Brandon
Second Round, 32nd Overall, 2005 Entry Draft
6’3, 202 lbs.

Once a prized goaltending prospect after an impressive WHL debut at the age of 17, Tyler Plante’s regression over the past two seasons with his hometown Brandon squad is cause for concern. Coming off a freshman campaign that saw him post eye-opening statistics and earn recognition as the WHL Rookie of the Year and Eastern Conference Goaltender of the Year, last season’s sub-par performance was seen in some quarters as nothing more than a sophomore slump. Enter the 2006 season, and with it the heightened expectations of a return to the form which propelled him into the top of the second round of the 2005 Entry Draft.

The early returns have not been indicative of significant improvement over last season, as Plante has posted a 12-9-1-2 record with a mediocre 3.11 goals against and .901 save percentage, totals which place him amongst the bottom quarter of the league’s netminders. The investment of a second-round selection on the lanky Manitoba native means that Plante would have to suffer a complete collapse in his abilities not to be signed by the Panthers. As that is an unlikely scenario given the flashes of brilliance he has shown in the past two years, Plante will need to grow into his large frame and establish himself in the minors next year, most likely in the ECHL.

OHL

Dan Collins, RW — Plymouth
Third Round, 90th Overall, 2005 Entry Draft
6’1, 185 lbs.

A lanky forward built to maximize opportunities in the slot, Plymouth forward Dan Collins made great strides in 2005-06 despite suffering a severe back injury that limited him to just 44 games on the season. Therefore, it has been a pleasant surprise to see the Syracuse, New York native back contributing to a talented Whaler squad this season, even if the same level of point production seen last year has yet to fully return. Coming off a 26-goal, 23-assist effort in just 44 games with Plymouth last season, Collins has produced at a slightly lower level in 2006-07, posting only nine goals and 12 assists through 26 games this season. Of even greater importance to the Panther organization, however, Collins has shown the ability to bounce back from the debilitating back injury of last season to assume a consistent role on the top two forward lines for Plymouth, an indication that the lingering effects of the injury have not impeded his development.

Michael Caruso, D — Guelph
Fourth Round, 103rd Overall, 2006 Entry Draft
6’2, 191 lbs.

The fact that Guelph defenseman Michael Caruso is currently Hockey’s Future’s top-ranked blueliner in the Panther system speaks more to the paucity of quality defensive talent than to the perceived upside of Caruso. Blessed with an attractive combination of size and defensive acumen, Caruso projects as a top-six defensive partner for a more mobile offensive defenseman, should he continue to improve as the Panthers expect. Not known for his prowess in the offensive zone, the 18-year-old defenseman has already surpassed his career goal output in this, his junior year with the Storm. On the season, Caruso has accounted for three goals and seven assists in 29 games, well ahead of the pace set in his first two years in the league. His ultimate contribution to the Panthers is expected to manifest itself in the defensive zone, however, and the continued refinement of his defensive technique in the OHL will most likely extend into 2007-08 before an extended audition in the AHL.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.