After a year in which several prospects left the Panthers system, the summer brought new faces to Florida. Among them is the first overall pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, Aaron Ekblad, a towering, talented defenseman who could be just one of several prospects earning full-time NHL roster spots this fall.
The first waves of players that general manager Dale Tallon starting amassing when he joined the Panthers in 2010 are starting to make an impact at the upper levels of professional hockey, and soon could become hockey household names.
1. (1) Aleksander Barkov, C, 8.5B
Drafted 1st round, 2nd overall, 2013
Barkov has spent most of the spring and summer rehabilitating injured knee and preparing himself for his second season of NHL hockey. The second-overall pick in the 2013 draft made a significant impact in his first NHL season as one of the youngest to have ever played the game at that level. He had established himself as an effective player in both the NHL and the international game before an Olympic knee injury shortened his season. Although he was held out of most of the on-ice activities at the Panthers rookie development camp earlier in the summer, Barkov showed that he should be ready for the start of the NHL season this fall.
2. (NR) Aaron Ekblad, D, 8.5B
Drafted 1st round, 1st overall, 2014
Aaron Ekblad played major junior hockey like an over-ager last year. His size and physical development as an 18-year-old look out of place among his peers, and after having received the OHL‘s second-ever age exemption, he has already seen 175 games in three years with the Barrie Colts. He captained the team last season, and has captained two of Team Canada’s international tournament teams, including last season’s Ivan Hlinka gold-medal winner.
Aside from his physical ability and leadership attributes, Ekblad is a tremendously calm and smart player on the ice. He moves well for his size, and although he may not have blazing straight-line speed, he has a quick first step and remarkable agility in pivots and placement. Coming into his draft year, two key development areas were in his skating and his offensive contributions. He vastly improved in both of those aspects of his game. On defense, he uses his body and strength well in the corners and in keeping opponents out of dangerous scoring areas. On offense, he may not have some of the dynamic skills as other defenders in the Florida system, but he has a huge, accurate one-timer that is particularly dangerous off of the faceoff. He loves to set up on the inside blue line on a right side faceoff, drift laterally towards center ice, and rip lethal one-time slapshots off of faceoff wins. With his high level of awareness and shot, he should see plenty of time on the Florida powerplay as early as the upcoming season.
3. (2) Mike Matheson, D, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2012
Matheson’s decision to return to Boston College for his junior season gives him another year to develop his patience with and without the puck, and improve his positional play in his own end. Although the Panthers would have been happy to get him involved in the professional game, another year of contract-free experience in one of the nation’s top collegiate programs will do the talented young defender no harm. His offensive abilities from the blue line are the best in the Panthers organization, and his speed could allow him an opportunity for a smooth transition to the NHL, likely at the end of this season.
4. (5) Vince Trocheck, C, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2011
Trocheck made the most of his opportunity to play in the NHL last season, and barring a disappointment in training camp, he will be in the NHL lineup this fall. Florida has talent down the middle at the NHL level, including Barkov and big centerman Nick Bjugstad (leading scorer for the Panthers last year), but Trocheck’s versatility and endless energy makes him a valuable player for incoming coach Gerard Gallant. He plays a quick, relentless style with solid offensive skills, and he contributes at both ends of the rink and in every aspect of the game.
Brandon Pirri is yet another prospect ready to take on a full-time role in the NHL. Last year’s trade to the Panthers from the deep Chicago Blackhawks system allowed Pirri a more direct route to the big leagues. He played 21 games for the Panthers last season, and his 14 points in those games (though not a useful base for projecting points totals) gives an indication of the type of contribution Pirri can make on offense.
6. (3) Alex Petrovic, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2010
Petrovic struggled over the first part of the season with injuries and inconsistency, but over the second half of the season he played solid and improving hockey for San Antonio. Although he seemed at times to be lacking the top-end work ethic required to be an NHL defenseman, he was suffering from concussion symptoms over the early part of the year. Petrovic has an NHL body at 6’4 and 201 pounds, and should continue to get stronger and add weight over the near term. He plays with a nasty edge, but more importantly he has improved his positional play in his time with San Antonio, and could be ready to take the next step as early as this year.
7. (6) Rocco Grimaldi, C, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011
Grimaldi enters a new stage in his hockey career this fall after deciding to leave the University of North Dakota and sign his first professional hockey contract. However unlikely his chances to crack the Florida roster this fall, his high-end offensive skills will give the management staff and coaches a lot to think about. Grimaldi’s size is by far his greatest drawback, but even at just 5’6, his tremendous skating ability and surprising strength both on his skates and along the boards gives him the attributes necessary for a small player to find success in the NHL. The next stage of his career-the transition to the men’s leagues-will be incredibly interesting to watch over the next few months.
8. (9) Ian McCoshen, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2013
Matheson’s return to Boston College keeps the Panthers duo of Eagle defenders intact, which could be a huge boon for sophomore Ian McCoshen. The two were part-time linemates last year, and could form a nasty, double-threat pairing this fall. McCoshen needs continued work on his blue line play and was exposed several times last year. However, his faults are nothing that good coaching cannot correct, and his play improved consistently throughout the season. He plays a physical style, but has a multi-category skill set and skates well. Still a few years away from NHL, McCoshen has plenty of time to polish up his game.
9. (14) Mackenzie Weegar, D, 7.0C
Drafted 7th round, 206th overall, 2013
Weegar has been flying up the prospect ranking and after signing a contract with the Panthers last spring, there have been mentions of a potential NHL roster spot for the offense-first defenseman this fall. That notion could be premature-with only two full seasons of major junior hockey, making that leap seems farfetched-but it belies the fact that Weegar’s star is on the rise. He has a gift for offense, not as a scorer, but as a player who finds the right pass, sees the openings, and is able to get the puck to the scoring forwards. Playing on a team that included high-flying scorers such as Jonathan Drouin (TB) and Nikolaj Ehlers (WPG), he had plenty of chances to show of those skills. Whether or not he can continue that production moving forward remains to be seen, but if he can, he should continue to progress up all of the charts.
10. (7) Quinton Howden, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2010
Howden turned a corner last season and finally started producing the offense that everyone has been waiting for. Through 16 NHL games last spring he scored four goals, the first of his career. He has top-gear speed and good hands, but if he is going to earn a permanent role in Florida he will absolutely need to build on his late-season success. If not, another year in the AHL seems imminent, and perhaps not altogether unwarranted. He could be well-served with additional experience at that level before making another run at the NHL.
11. (10) Kyle Rau, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011
Perhaps no player in hockey since Chris Drury has been able to score timely, championship winning goals like Kyle Rau. Late-game heroics have become his trademark, and he added to the growing list with an overtime winner to seal last year’s Big-Ten Championship for the Golden Gophers. Unfortunately, his team fell short in the Final Four, and so Rau decided over the summer to return to Minnesota for another chance at the title. Rau plays full out on every shift and is willing to throw himself into battles with players much bigger than he is. His high intelligence and hockey sense, however, is what truly sets him apart. Luck might have helped him score his late winners, but his ability to be in the right place at the right time-reading plays well ahead of his opponents and often his teammates-certainly has served him well.
12. (NR) Juho Lammikko, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2014
In the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft, the Panthers selected a young, Finnish winger who could one day be a fan favorite in south Florida. Lammikko plays smart. He is an agile skater with quickness, but he will need to work on his stride and build more power and top-end speed. He has shown good scoring prowess in junior play in Finland and in international tournaments for his national team. Lammikko will play in the top league in Finland next year and perhaps longer, which will give him quality competition against which he can improve his game before transitioning to North America.
13. (11) Sam Brittain, G, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010
Brittain signed an entry-level contract at the end of his spectacular senior season in net for Denver. After a college career which saw the big, butterfly goaltender from Calgary go from the heights of a stellar freshman season to the valley of injuries, surgery, and poor play, Brittain finally climbed back to the top of the college game last season. The Panthers made several moves in goal over the last few months, buttressing the top half of their depth chart by signing veteran free agents, so Brittain will likely start the season in the ECHL.
14. (19) Zach Hyman, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010
Every year since he was drafted out of Junior A hockey in 2010 has seemed like the key season for Hyman’s development, and in each year Hyman has shown just enough improvement to keep himself on the prospect radar. Last year, Hyman stepped up his offensive play and began to show some production, and as a result earned more ice time in a top-six role. This season, his senior year, Hyman will again be asked to step forward in his development. He was named an alternate captain for the Wolverines at the end of last season, and will be relied upon to be a leader on the ice. He has evolved into a hardworking, two-way winger who skates and hits, but he must improve his output if he is to be considered a legitimate NHL scoring prospect.
15. (13) Jonathan Racine, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2011
Racine patrols the defensive zone with a snarl. He hits like a train, but plays a solid positional game, using his long reach, strength, and solid skating to force opponents into turnovers. Failing that, he will simply knock them off the puck. Racine has been steadily improving in his time in San Antonio, and although he is not a player on whom coaches will lean for offensive production, he could become an important piece of the NHL squad-killing penalties and playing shutdown minutes on a bottom pair.
16. (NR) Connor Brickley, D, 6.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2008
Yet another college player who entered professional hockey this summer, Brickley may be the most eager to leave his university days behind. Brickley suffered through the last couple of seasons at Vermont after injuries and bad luck anchored his development to a near standstill. However, through those times, Brickley continued to display leadership and on-ice exuberance, playing hard each night and doing whatever he could to help his team. Those attributes will continue to serve him going forward, and even if he remains unable to get the puck in the net, his leadership and gritty play should still buy him at least a bottom-six spot in the NHL someday.
17. (NR) Matt Buckles, C, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2013
Buckles found it difficult to score goals in his freshman year for Cornell, and tallied only four markers in the 29 games in which he played. He was the youngest player on the team and as a result he saw limited ice time in a defense-first role on a low-scoring team. However, Buckles found ways to contribute and flashed abilities that, once developed, give him a decent chance of enjoying a professional hockey career.
18. (NR) Logan Shaw, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2011
Shaw split time between San Antonio and Cincinnati last season, and eventually played in 46 games for the AHL team, scoring one goal with seven assists. He was more productive at the lower level ECHL Cyclones, unsurprising for a player in his first year after juniors. Shaw has great size at 6’3 and he gives the Panthers good depth at the right wing position. Still a year or more away from making any impact at the NHL level, Shaw has an enticing combination of awareness and good stick skills.
19. (NR) Jayce Hawryluk, C, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2014
Perhaps lower on the list of the Panthers top prospects than could be expected by his draft position, Hawryluk’s rank gets deflated by the risk involved. There can be little doubt that he possesses the desire, speed and crafty, hard-edged play that could get him quickly to the NHL, but at 5’10 there is concern that his size and style of play could be a difficult combination to overcome. The question lies in his ability to be effective against NHL opponents, or in his ability to alter his game in a way that will allow him to utilize his talents while evading other players instead of engaging them. If he can do either or both of those things, Hawryluk will soon be closer to the top of the list instead of the bottom.
20. (13) Michael Houser, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, July 11th, 2012
Houser continued to impress last season as his upward development arc carries him closer and closer to the NHL. Goaltending is a difficult position to predict and can be highly effected by chance, but Houser, despite being smaller than the current standard for NHL netminders, has shown that he is capable of handling heavier workloads and adjusts quickly to the next level of competition. He played in 28 games for the Rampage last season, his first AHL experience, and although his statistical output suffered while playing behind an injured and depleted team, he proved that he is capable of playing at that level. He will fight for a starting role for San Antonio this fall.