The Florida Panthers prospect system continues to be heavily weighted towards the NCAA and minor professional leagues, with a lot of talent concentrated at those levels. However, the talent pool as a whole is still substantial despite recent graduations, and should continue to provide the Panthers with a steady stream of high-quality prospects for the next few years.
Top Pro Prospect
Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers (NHL)
Before injuring his knee playing for Finland in the Olympics, Barkov had already proved himself as a capable, impact player at the top levels of hockey. He has an ability to dictate the terms of the game around him. He commands attention in the offensive zone, especially with the puck on his stick. His presence on the ice and his intelligence with and without the puck makes him a danger for opponents, and yet he seems able to always make something happen around him. He plays a surprisingly responsible defensive game considering his youth, and as he makes improvements, he will quickly become a very productive player in the NHL.
Elkland’s inclusion in the Panthers starting six defenders is all but a certainty. If league agreements would allow for him to play in the AHL, there could be a chance that Florida would assign him to San Antonio to get some professional experience before joining the NHL squad, but there is only a slight probability that they would send Ekblad back to the OHL. He is simply too big, too good, and too advanced to get any positive development in junior hockey. The next question then is whether Ekblad is ready for big-league hockey. There will be a lot for him to learn about defending in the NHL, but he appears to be physically and mentally capable of taking on the challenge.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Alex Petrovic, D, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
The upcoming season could be a crucial one for Petrovic’s career. This year marks the end of his entry-level contract, and his ability to make his way onto the NHL roster will be a good indicatory of his future contract value and status. To call it a “make or break” year would be a bit extreme (another year in the AHL would not likely derail his career), but he needs to prove that he is ready to take the next step in order to earn a solid contract and cement his place as an NHL defenseman.
Given that Aaron Ekblad will not be playing junior hockey this year, the running for Top Junior Prospect comes down to Juho Lammikko and Jayce Hawryluk, both of whom were Panthers selections in June’s NHL draft. Although Lammikko has talent and speed, and could prove to be the better choice, on potential and all-around game, the nod goes to Hawryluk. The top-line center for the Wheat Kings will have every opportunity to take his game to the top of the junior lists, and his style of play-gritty, hard-working, and skilled-will cause a lot of headaches for opposing players and coaches throughout the year.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Joshua Brown, D, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Brown, undrafted in his initial year of eligibility and a sixth-round pick by Florida in 2013, will be playing as an overager this season for the Generals. He wore the captain’s ‘C’ last year, and once he returns to the Generals, will look to take on further leadership responsibilities. However, he will need to put together an impressive year in order to get an entry-level contract from the Panthers.
New Team in 2014
Juho Lammikko, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Lammikko comes to North America for his first year of Canadian major junior hockey after having played in Finland’s junior league last year. Although he had a decent showing for his draft year (42 points in 37 games) for Assat, he could have a stellar offensive year playing on a talented Kingston team and in a fast-paced environment that should suit his play. He could turn some heads before the year is out, and already posted three points in his league debut.
Top Amateur Prospect
Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Matheson returns to Boston College this fall as one of the top defensemen in the college game. Easily the most gifted offensive talent among the blueliners in the Florida pipeline, Matheson will continue to hone his defensive craft with another year to get better, stronger, and smarter in his own end. He was recently named captain for the Eagles, and should once again be the team’s top-scoring defenseman.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Kyle Rau, C/RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Now a senior at Minnesota, Rau will have one more crack at a national championship and a final opportunity to improve his game before entering the professional ranks. Rau will captain the Gophers this year, a natural fit for the determined and fearless player who has been a leader on the ice for most of his collegiate career. Rau plays smart and fast, and will center the top line on the perennial Gopher powerhouse team.
Zach Hyman, RW, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Hyman should finally get the offensive role he has been playing toward in his years at Michigan. Having seen a promotion to the team’s second line at the end of last season, Hyman responded with his best production as a collegian, and he earned a chance for more ice time in the top six and an alternate captaincy for this year’s squad.
Top European Prospect
Yaroslav Kosov, RW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Panthers fans have been waiting for Kosov to come to North America since the winger was drafted in 2011. Those fans will have to wait at least another year, but in the meantime, everyone might get to see what Kosov can do with improved ice time in the KHL. Though he has started the season averaging just under eleven minutes per game in the Mike Keenan-led squad, with six points in those games, he might force Keenan into giving the scrappy winger better minutes in the offensive zone. If so, Kosov may be able to finally show off some of his scoring talent.
First-Year Pro to Watch
Hugo Fagerblom, G, Frolunda (SuperElit)
Fagerblom might not have made the jump to the top professional league yet, but he has a solid chance of doing so this year. Fagerblom was mostly an unknown player on this side of the Atlantic, but after his selection by Florida late in the 2014 draft, he will garner more attention this year.
Playing in Sweden’s third-tier league is not the best way to get a contract for play in the NHL. Unfortunately, that is where Nielsen finds himself after his team was relegated from the Allsvenskan second-tier league last season. Nielsen’s quiet, fundamental game also makes it hard for him to stand out, especially for a Panthers system that holds other higher-end defensemen like Ekblad and Matheson