The Dale Tallon rebuild of the Florida Panthers is entering its fourth season, and the results of the process – stockpiling young, smart, two-way players with talent and size – is readily coming to fruition. Several prospects are coming into their own, whether as young NHL players, first and second-year professionals in the minor leagues, or leaders in the NCAA and major junior ranks.
Top Pro Prospect
Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers (NHL)
Barkov has an outstanding opportunity to bring a second consecutive Calder Trophy to Florida this year. He may be the youngest of all of Florida's prospects, but he already has years of professional and international hockey experience. His remarkable draft-eligible season in Finland's top league earned him acclaim and a second-overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft. Barkov has upper-echelon hockey intelligence and vision, and could become the perfect complement to Jonathan Huberdeau's outstanding scoring touch. Barkov is not just a setup center however. He has a heavy, accurate wrist shot which his strength and balance allow him to fire off even when heavily defended.
Robak had an opportunity to break training camp with a place on the final roster for the Panthers, due in part to his NHL size at 6'3 and 194 pounds, his quickness and strength on the boards, and his booming point shot. However, the Panthers decided to return the AHL All-Star player to San Antonio where he is currently playing on the top defensive pairing with fellow prospect Alex Petrovic. Robak plays a steady, two-way game with good skating and lateral agility, especially for a player of his size. He still needs to adjust his game to NHL speed but he has shown in the past that he adapts quickly when stepping up against tougher competition and already has several NHL games of experience, including 16 games from last season. Robak should get another extended-if not permanent-call up to the NHL at some point this season.
Quinton Howden, LW, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Howden's rookie season in the AHL started slowly. Through the first three months of the season, Howden scored 14 points in 33 games. As the calendar turned to the new year, the quick forward began to find more offensive success, and managed 16 points in his next 24 games before being called up to the Panthers for the remainder of the season. He will once again start the season in San Antonio. Howden will be counted on to provide offense for the Rampage, and with his startling speed and offensive skills, he could find himself among the team scoring leaders by season's end.
That Hodges is currently considered the Panthers top junior prospect is an indication of Tallon's focus on college-bound players and the graduation of some of the system's top CHL performers. Hodges enters what will likely be his final junior hockey season with an injury that has kept him out of the lineup. Once he is cleared to play, he will return to the defense-first, offensively challenged Royals lineup that desperately needs his hard-edged, all-around game. Hodges does bring the energy and a determination to make a difference on every shift that could eventually help him find his way to a checking role in the NHL in the next three or four years.
Alexander Delnov, C, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Delnov has all of the skills to be a solid NHL player, including a scorer's instinct and skills to get the puck to the net. At times last season, Delnov led the WHL in rookie scoring, but a lack of consistency has been his biggest drawback to overall success. This season, Delnov will get plenty of first-line opportunities to prove that he can score and drive play into the offensive zone on a nightly basis.
Beauvillier had a chance to move into the professional leagues this summer, but chose instead to return to the QMJHL for an opportunity to line up with his little brother, Anthony. Beauvillier needs to make a statement this year and show that his decision to stay in junior hockey does not impede his development. He has tremendous speed and skating ability, but needs to learn to play a more controlled game in all three zones in order to become an effective two-way threat.
Top Amateur Prospect
Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Matheson had a tremendous rookie season for the Eagles last year, despite being less-than-stellar in the defensive zone. However, his positioning and awareness improved throughout the season. With the puck on his stick or joining the rush up ice, Matheson can seem like an entirely different player. Confident, aggressive, and skillful, Matheson makes good passes while at full speed and has high-end vision. His shot is accurate and hard, and he is among the best skaters in the NCAA. Although he has publicly stated his desire to stay with the Eagles, this could be Matheson's final year of college hockey, especially if he continues to develop his defensive play.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Connor Brickley, LW, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Brickley has the potential to be a solid two-way forward in the NHL, but he has suffered through a remarkable sequence of bad-luck injuries over the past couple of seasons that could jeopardize his future career. The injuries themselves (two skate cuts included) are not the problem, but rather the lengthy amount of time spent off of the ice while healing and rehabilitating has hindered his progression as a player. In fact, Brickley has played in only 49 games since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. He will need to have a solid year, and get back on the forward curve that saw him picked 50th overall in the 2010 NHL draft.
Freshman to Watch
Ian McCoshen, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
McCoshen is a player similar to Matheson in many ways and will line up with Matheson at Boston College this season. An elite skater with great offensive instincts, McCoshen looks like the type of player that could develop into a quality middle-pair or better defenseman in the NHL. The 6'3 defender from Faribault, Minnesota brings a lot of skill to the ice, and should compete for the top spot among freshmen blueliners in NCAA scoring this season.
Top European Prospect
Yaroslav Kosov, RW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Kosov struggled through a difficult season of minimal ice time in a defensive capacity last season for Metallurg. He was limited in his offensive opportunities, and as such saw his point production cut almost in half, to just seven points in 40 games. Kosov plays hard every shift and competes up and down the ice, but his lack of productive ice time threatens to stifle his development. Still only 20 years old, he could well make the transition to North America at the end of the year.
Sergei Gayduchenko, G, Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
Gayduchenko has reached a crucial turning point in his hockey career. The 6'5, 227-pound netminder is playing in his sixth KHL season, and his two-year contract expires at the end of the year. Although he has seen some success in the early part of the season, newcomer Mikko Koskinen-selected by the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2009 NHL draft-has taken over the starting job for Sibir. If Gayduchenko wants to play in North America, he has a great opportunity to do so given the relative lack of depth in the Florida goaltending system. However, he needs to prove that he can be a consistent, high-level performer in order to make the transition.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Jonatan Nielsen, D, Troja/Ljungby IF (Allsvensken)
The 6'3 defenseman has good mobility and is a disciplined, well-coached player. Although he can at times initiate offense or join the rush, he is a defender first and foremost. As the son of a long-time coach in the Swedish professional leagues, Nielsen has been taught how to play the game from an early age, and his on-ice intelligence is readily apparent. The Panthers selected Nielsen with the 194th-overall pick in the 2012 draft and have yet to sign him to a contract, so he will need to do something this season to make Tallon and his staff interested in bringing Nielsen over to North America. Nielsen is currently on loan to Troja-Lungby in Sweden's second-tier league.