Florida Panthers maintain deep prospect pool despite substantial graduations

By Brian Fogarty

Aleksander Barkov - Florida Panthers

Photo: Selected second overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, forward Aleksander Barkov made an immediate impact for the Florida Panthers. Barkov suffered a knee injury during the 2014 Olympics and has been on injured reserve ever since. (courtesy of Rich Graessle/Icon SMI)

There have been several notable changes since the fall when the Florida Panthers last Top 20 list was compiled. Nick Bjugstad and Drew Shore have graduated, and Florida added high-potential center prospect Brandon Pirri at the trade deadline. Several players have begun getting extended opportunities in the NHL as the regular season winds down and the Panthers playoff hopes slip quietly to the side.

1. (2) Aleksander Barkov, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 2nd overall, 2013

Barkov's rookie year had been spectacular until a knee injury knocked him out of the Olympic games and ostensibly ended his season. Through his first 54 games with the Panthers, the youngest player in the NHL had become the team's top player and first-line center, and he had been playing the game like a veteran. Barkov learned the NHL game quickly and his play was elite enough for the Finnish men's team to make him their top-line center for the 2014 Olympics.

Although his scoring totals were not comparable to Calder front-runner Nathan MacKinnon (COL), Barkov has all of the tools to become an elite scorer in the NHL. He has great size and strength and is able to absorb physical play from his opponents without any effect to his game. He sees the ice well, and plays a cerebral game that allows him to make difficult plays look commonplace. Perhaps his greatest attribute is his calmness on the ice.

2. (9) Mike Matheson, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2012

Coming into the season, the primary concern regarding Matheson's future NHL potential was his ability to turn his known strengths – fluid skating, quickness, and stick skills – into a defensive toolset that would allow him to utilize his offensive talents at the NHL level. This season with Boston College has been a proving ground for Matheson, and he has shown his coaches and doubters that he is quite capable of playing a defensive game. He is a solid, albeit quiet, leader on the ice, and has become one of Boston College's top defensemen. Last season, Matheson showed a propensity for poor choices in his own end, a problem he has corrected. His decision-making has shown solid improvement, and his choices between playing the body, playing the puck, and playing a positional defense have all improved so quickly that there is little doubt that he will adapt to professional play. The only question remaining is whether or not he will return to the Eagles for another season.

3. (6) Alex Petrovic, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2010

Petrovic played the first half of the season in San Antonio, and his play seemed to improve with each game. He became more confident at both ends of the ice, and his physical play had started to become more intentional and effective rather than just disruptive. He played his own end with purpose and with a high threshold for panic under pressure. In late December, the Panthers called Petrovic up to the NHL, where he played five games before suffering an upper body injury that kept him out of action for most of January. He returned to action in March, but was recently derailed with an upper-body injury, and is once again on injured reserve.  

4. (NR) Brandon Pirri, C, 7.0C
Trade with Chicago Blackhawks, March 2nd, 2014

Brandon Pirri has long been considered a solid prospect in the Blackhawks system but has been unable to win a permanent roster spot on the Stanley Cup championship squad in Chicago. The Panthers made a deal to bring Pirri to Florida, and inserted him immediately into their lineup. In the 15 games since he joined the Panthers, Pirri has scored four goals with four assists and has been averaging around 12 minutes of ice time per game. The 22-year-old Toronto native plays with a smart quickness that makes him a good contributor to the offense, but also allows him to play a fundamentally solid two-way game. Pirri will be a good fit for the Panthers as they transition quickly from an older, free-agent veteran team to a group of young and skilled players that they have been developing over the last few years.

5. (11) Vince Trocheck, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2011

Few players can match Trocheck's energy level on the ice, and fewer still can match his rapid ascent from a third round draft pick to a NHL center earning nearly-and some nights more than-20 minutes per game. That Trocheck has been playing a ton of minutes in all game situations is not surprising given his substantial ice time in junior hockey, but that he is doing it successfully at the NHL level in his rookie year of professional hockey is startling. Before his call to the NHL, Trocheck led the San Antonio Rampage in scoring. He made his NHL debut on March 7th, and it seems as though he has not left the ice since.  

6. (10) Rocco Grimaldi, C, 8.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011

Grimaldi has been sensational for a North Dakota team that began the season ravaged by injuries. With 39 points in 41 games, he has led UND in all scoring categories, and is top-ten in NCHC scoring. He has scored in all but 12 of North Dakota's 37 games thus far, and will lead his team into the conference tournament. He has continued to show the kind of leadership on the ice, the skating and scoring ability that could someday win him a chance to play in the NHL.

7. (7) Quinton Howden, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2010

Howden has finally begun to show the scoring touch that had been eluding him throughout the beginning of the season. After scoring just 12 points in his first 34 games, Howden went an extended hot streak in which he tallied 15 points in the next 20 games. For his efforts, Howden received a chance to return to the NHL, where he has been fairly productive. The speedy winger has three goals and one assist in 10 games.

8. (8) Colby Robak, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2008

After entering the season looking for an extended role with the Panthers, Robak instead found himself back in the AHL but the big, two-way defender has used the disappointment as an opportunity to continue to improve his game. He has been the Rampage's best defender this season and has developed from an offensively minded defender into a solid blue line presence with above-average offensive capabilities. Like most of the Panthers AHL prospects, Robak has recently been called up to the NHL. He has played in 10 NHL games without scoring a point, but has been a reliable defender and has been seeing a lot of ice time.

9. (13) Ian McCoshen, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2013

McCoshen continues to show promise through his freshman season at Boston College. Although his point totals have not been inspiring, he has displayed a hunger for competition and development that has him projecting into a solid middle-pair defenseman with offensive upside. He moves well, and although he has made freshman blunders in the Boston College defensive zone, he has improved throughout the year. In fact, at this point he seems to be following a similar development track as did fellow Panthers prospect and occasional defensive partner Michael Matheson. The two players have several complimentary attributes and could become a respectable NHL pairing in the future.

10. (12) Kyle Rau, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011

Rau stepped into a leadership role this fall with the Golden Gophers. After some of the bigger offensive names left the program after last season, Rau became the de facto offensive threat and top-line center for the nation's best team. Although some of his additional duties have required him to take on more defensive responsibilities and have restricted some of his offensive freedom, he has not let that deter him from making an impact. He scored several important goals throughout the season, buy none bigger than his overtime goal that clinched the Big 10 conference title. He has 34 points in 37 games, just off his production pace from last year when his linemates were Bjugstad and Zach Budish (NAS).

11. (NR) Sam Brittain, G, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010

After suffering through the worst season of his hockey career, Brittain entered the 2013-14 determined to make a difference and once again establish himself as a legitimate goaltending prospect. Brittain has put in a senior season that has him in contention for the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in NCAA Division 1 hockey. His 2300-plus minutes played is third-most in the nation, and despite the heavy workload, he also has posted the nation's second-best saves percentage by stopping 92.9 percent of the shots he has faced.

12. (15) Jonathan Racine, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2011

Although injuries have bothered the 6'1 defender this season, Racine's steady progression into a smart shutdown blueliner continues. Racine has just six assists through 48 games this season, but his plus-nine rating is best on the team. As Racine develops, he could well build himself into a reliable, penalty-killing defenseman who can soak up defensive-zone minutes in the NHL.

13. (17) Michael Houser, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, July 11th, 2012

Houser's first season at the AHL level has seen him post a .905 saves percentage in 20 games played while mostly backing up the recently-traded Jacob Markstrom (VAN). Houser was terrific in net during February, winning all three of his starts while allowing just four goals on 83 shots. March was not as friendly for the young goaltender as call-ups to the NHL have left the San Antonio team playing without most of its top players. In 23 AHL games this season, Houser has a 10-11-1 record, a 2.88 goals against average, and a .909 save percentage.

14. (NR) Mackenzie Weegar, D, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 206th overall, 2013

Weegar came into the season as a still relatively unknown. He has made a name for himself in Halifax, however, and has become one of the Moosehead's top offensive threats from the blue line. He finished the regular season fourth overall in QMJHL scoring by defensemen after posting 59 points on 12 goals and 47 assists.

15. (18) Christopher Clapperton, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2013

Clapperton finished the season as Blainville-Boisbriand's top scorer with 62 points in 53 games, and has added another five points in six playoff games. Clapperton's scoring ability is unquestioned, but several obstacles remain, primarily size and defensive play, that he must overcome before having a true shot at transferring that productivity to the professional game.

16. (19) Evan Cowley, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2013

Because of the stellar play of Sam Brittain and a lingering lower-body injuy, Evan Cowley played in just five games this year for the Denver Pioneers. However, Cowley made the most of his five games. He stopped 94.9 percent of the shots fired against him, and allowed just six goals. With Brittain's impending graduation, Cowley looks to take over the starting role next season.

17. (NR) Ryan Martindale, C, 7.0D
Trade with Edmonton Oilers, January 17th, 2014

Martindale has good size at 6'3 and nearly 210 pounds, and he has been trying to parlay his scoring and skating ability into an NHL debut with the Panthers by playing solid hockey at the AHL level. Although not prolific in his 25 games with the Rampage, he has been effective. Through 29 games with the Rampage, he has five goals and seven assists and has been a minus-one.

18. (NR) John McFarland, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2010

The 2013-14 season might be the one that sees McFarland put the questions, inconsistent and lackluster play firmly, in the past. He has made the most of his latest crack at the AHL roster, and appears to have finally won a permanent spot at that level. His skills have never been in doubt. He is a good skater with explosive quickness and stickhandling ability, but he has never been able to package everything into game-after-game effectiveness. In his latest run with San Antonio, he has displayed a willingness to engage in all aspects of the game and work hard at both ends of the ice while still maintaining good amounts of scoring. It is the first positive sign seen from McFarland in quite a while.

19. (NR) Zach Hyman, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010

Hyman has stepped up his offensive game over the second half of the NCAA season. He started the year on Michigan's third line, playing good defense, killing penalties and trying to generate possession for his team. Since late January, however, Hyman has been playing mostly on the team's second line and getting far more offensive opportunities than at any other point in his collegiate career. He responded by accumulating 14 points in his last 15 games.

20. (NR) Garrett Wilson, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2009

There are players in the system that have more star appeal, and several that have more skill, speed, and talent, but few have displayed the kind of tenacity and consistency mixed with the will to improve as Wilson has shown. Wilson has been steadily working his way up the professional ladder, having spent the majority of his initial season in the ECHL, then splitting time between the AHL and the ECHL the following year, until earning a full-time, multi-purpose role in the AHL this season. He was recently rewarded with a handful of NHL games.