Panthers Top 20 prospects, Fall 2009

By Ian Bross

Goaltender Jacob Markstrom assumes to prime position at the top of the rankings. 2009  first-round selection Dmitry Kulikov debuts at No. 2. 

Top 20 at a Glance

1. (3) Jacob Markstrom, G (8.0C)
2. (NR) Dmitry Kulikov, D (8.0C)
3. (2) Shawn Matthias, C (7.5C)
4. (4) Michal Repik, RW (7.5C)
5. (5) Keaton Ellerby, D (7.5C)
6. (NR) Drew Shore, C (7.5C)
7. (6) Jason Garrison, D (7.0C)
8. (7) Colby Robak, D (7.5D)
9. (9) Evgeni Dadonov, RW (7.5D)
10. (NR) Josh Birkholz, RW (7.0C)
11. (NR) Alexander Salak, G (7.0D)
12. (8) Michael Caruso, D (6.0B)
13. (10) Matt Rust, C (6.5C)
14. (11) Adam Comrie, D (6.5C)
15. (12) Matt Bartkowski, D (6.5C)
16. (13) Marc Cheverie, G (6.5C)
17. (14) Brian Foster, G (6.5C)
18. (NR) Garrett Wilson, LW (6.5C)
19. (NR) Corban Knight, C (7.0D)
20. (15) Kenndal McArdle, LW (6.5C)

1. Jacob Markstrom, G, 19

Acquired: 2nd Round, 31st Overall, 2008

Swedish goaltender Markstrom climbs to the top of the list. The 19-year-old was heavily relied upon game in and game out with the SEL’s Brynas IF in 2008-09, and rose to the task almost without fail. Markstrom participated in and starred in the World Junior Championships, helping lead Sweden to a silver medal.

It was upon his return to regular season play that he began to show traces of his humanity. He surrendered his previously unchallenged hold on the No. 1 spot between the pipes to Anders Lindback (NAS) heading into the post-season. Markstrom finished the regular season with a .917 save percentage, and 2.38 goals-against average, fourth-best in the league among goaltenders appearing in as many games (35).

Markstrom demonstrated a rare level of consistency and poise, accentuated by his talent and athleticism. His current contract in the SEL expires at the end of this upcoming season.

2. Dmitry Kulikov, D, 18
Acquired: 1st Round, 14th Overall, 2009

Kulikov was a good value pick at 14th in this summer’s draft. In the 2009 draft class, Kulikov is considered to be the most gifted puck-moving defenseman. With Drummondville of the QMJHL, Kulikov had 12 goals and 50 assists in 57 games last year. 

His game is well developed, or perhaps even NHL-ready. The Russian displayed good faith by enlisting with the Voltigeurs last season. The 18-year-old has set his sights on the Panthers blue line for the fall, but the historical odds are against him sticking so soon.

3. Shawn Matthias, C, 21
Acquired: via trade, February 2007 (Detroit)

Matthias was expected to have little difficulty making the jump from juniors to the pros, so his setbacks appeared all the more pronounced. Matthias, in his first campaign with the recently unsuccessful Rochester Americans, cracked under the pressure. Hope were probably too high for the now 21-year-old’s arrival.

Matthias scored 10 goals and 10 assists in 61 games and posted a team-worst  -34. Even in spite of his apparently disappointing output this year, Matthias was called up to the Panthers for a total of 16 games. He had two assists. For reasons unknown to anyone but Matthias, his level of enthusiasm in Rochester fell short of that in Florida. With veterans now in the fold, there should be less pressure next year with the Amerks.

4. Michal Repik, RW, 20

Acquired: 2nd Round, 40th Overall, 2007

Repik also moved up Rochester this past season. He coped well, and was a relative bright spot for the Amerks, as they failed to make an appearance in the playoffs for the second straight year. Repik ended play with 49 points in 75 games, 19 goals and 30 assists. He was in all likelihood the team’s most talented player.

Repik kept his energy level up all year. The 20-year-old Czech forward earned a chance to skate with the Panthers in December and again in March. Overall, he had two goals in five games played. With Rochester next season, he should take on a more integral role.

5. Keaton Ellerby, D, 20

Acquired: 1st Round, 10th Overall, 2007

Ellerby has developed surprisingly quickly. As a 20-year-old rookie defenseman, he survived very well during a season of tumult in Rochester. He recorded three goals and 20 assists in 75 games. By year’s end, Ellerby was in fact already the team’s steadiest defender. He is well-rounded and capable, intelligent and mobile.

A simple, controlled style of play has hastened Ellerby’s integration to the pros as a rookie rearguard. It also has him in the running for a spot with the Panthers in training camp. Though on the surface it would seem unlikely, for the Strathmore native, it is far from impossible.

6. Drew Shore, C, 18

Acquired: 2nd Round, 44th Overall, 2009

Shore is the first forward to be taken by Florida in the second round since Repik in 2007.

Shore tallied 17 goals and 32 assists in 62 games with the U.S. Under-18 team. He has promising size at 6’3 and 190 pounds, suited to play a power forward type of game. He has good hands around the net, and also shows good two-way instincts. And yet his effectiveness on the ice has been inconsistent. What has been consistent is the way Shore has carried himself with maturity, and is an exemplary leader.

Shore will head to the University of Denver where he will join two other Panthers prospects, defenseman John Lee and goaltender Marc Cheverie. He will likely be a member of the next U.S. WJC squad.

7. Jason Garrison, D, 24
Acquired: Free agent 2008

Garrison transitioned smoothly from the NCAA into professional hockey without modifying his game. A free-wheeling defender who is comfortable carrying the puck through open ice, he also commands the offense well from the point on the power play. Garrison was never shy on the ice, nor did he falter when given responsibility. He scored eight goals and assisted on 27 others in 75 games as a rookie.

Garrison also skated in one NHL game in the month of October when the Panthers blueline was thinned by injury, logging nearly 12 minutes. Not quite as green as other hopefuls at 24, and because of his demeanor and offensive sensibility, Garrison will be another contender to crack the Panthers defensive corps.

8. Colby Robak, D, 19
Acquired: 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2008

Robak recently completed his third full season with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL. The skillful defenseman posted improvements in his goal, assist, and point totals from last year. He ended the 2008-09 regular season with 13 goals and 29 assists in 65 games. Robak was even better during the post-season. His production was stellar, with six goals and eight assists in a dozen contests.

Naturally talented, Robak can take over the play, and slow down the pace. He has exceptional vision, makes tape-to-tape passes, and above all, his skating is superb. Robak skates effortlessly with tremendous agility. Most important going forward will be honing his defensive technique, working on gap control and utilizing his 6’3 frame. Robak returns to Brandon for the final time in the fall.

9. Evgeni Dadonov, RW, 20

Acquired: 3rd Round 71st Overall, 2007

Dadonov showcased his ability for Russia at the WJC where he was teammates with Kulikov. Dadonov had seven points, two goals and five assists, for the bronze medal winning Russian team.

And in regular season play with the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk, Dadonov scored 11 goals and added four assists in 40 games in 2008-09. Not necessarily evident when looking at pure statistics, Dadonov made progress in areas that will be crucial to his NHL future including improved poise in high-traffic areas.

There was a period of uncertainty about where he would play in 2009-10 upon expiration of Dadonov’s most recent contract with Chelyabinsk. It seems, however, as though Dadonov will indeed pursue an NHL career. An unheralded talent among names of young fellow countrymen like Nikita Filatov (CLB) and Evgeny Grachev (NYR), the ultimate test for Dadonov will be proving his skills will translate in North American hockey.

10. Josh Birkholz, RW, 18
Acquired: 3rd Round, 67th Overall, 2009

With the pick acquired as part of the deal that sent the rights to defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to the Calgary Flames, Birkholz joined the Panthers.

Birkholz put together a strong rookie campaign in the USHL with Fargo, scoring 21 goals and 15 assists in 55 games. Birkholz’s best asset is his skating, tabbed as one of the fastest players in the 2009 draft. He also has very good vision and hockey sense and uses a keen awareness to play a solid two-way game, applying pressure on the backcheck and forecheck. But, he has shown a tendency to play to the outside, and avoid physicality.

Birkholz has made a verbal commitment to his home state University of Minnesota. He is the first Panthers prospect to attend the University.

11. Alexander Salak, G, 22

Acquired: Free agent, 2009

Salak was signed by the Panthers at the end of May. The 22-year old Czech has spent the last two years in Finland’s SM-Liiga with TPS Turku.

With TPS, Salak was under the tutelage of goaltending coach Urpo Ylonen, after whom the league’s annual goaltender of the year award is named. In the past, Ylonen has instructed such NHL netminders as Miikka Kiprusoff and Antero Niittymaki. This year, TPS enjoyed little success, but would have been worse off had it not been for Salak’s performance. He appeared in 53 games and posted a 2.40 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. 

Salak has been dubbed as “the next Dominik Hasek,” a sort of lofty moniker often (and understandably) met with skepticism. But it’s due to his unorthodox style. Salak has a highly aggressive nature in net which often forces him to make the theatrical save. He has the extraordinary quickness and athleticism to do so.

Following the offseason departure of journeyman Mike Brodeur, Salak should be the frontrunner to take over between the pipes in Rochester for the Amerks.

12. Michael Caruso, D, 21

Acquired: 4th Round, 103rd Overall, 2006

Caruso was part of the trio of rookie defenders in Rochester in 2008-09. He didn’t make as loud a first impression as Ellerby or Garrison, not playing as prominent a role as the former, nor as flashy a style as the latter. Statistically, Caruso accounted for one goal and nine assists in 73 games.

Caruso would fit the category of a pure, defensive defenseman. His play is understated and simple. Though he doesn’t have the same high-end potential as Ellerby or Garrison, he is a good skater with a solid build who should continue to learn, strengthen, and improve.

13. Matt Rust, C, 20

Acquired: 4th Round, 101st Overall, 2007

Rust is the fourth player on the list to participate in the 2009 WJC in Ottawa, the only such representative of the U.S. It was his second straight appearance in the event. Through six games, the NCAA sophomore had three goals and an assist as the Americans placed fifth.

With the University of Michigan Wolverines, Rust’s numbers this season paralleled his freshman year. Through 37 games, he scored 11 goals and added 11 assists, just one goal shy of equaling his exact output a year ago. He posted an improved plus/minus rating of +19, good enough for third on the team.

Rust’s major contribution to his team, though, is always his spirited two-way play, his prowess in the faceoff circle and his ability to match up against the opposition’s best. As a junior, Rust will be challenged to take on a greater role on the offense as he nears a pivotal stage in his development.

14. Adam Comrie, D, 19

Acquired: 3rd Round, 80th Overall, 2008

Comrie now has two years under his belt in the OHL, both of which he has spent as a member of the Saginaw Spirit. Most recently, in 52 games he had nine goals and 21 assists. He was traded to the Guelph Storm in June.

Comrie is a multi-faceted player who can contribute on both ends of the rink. He has a big body at 6’4, but needs to learn to use his imposing stature to his advantage, and not take penalties. Even so, Comrie is under-appreciated defensively. He is able to shadow opposing players with his mobility, jump into lanes, and allow an active stick to do the rest.

Comrie will continue his OHL career with Guelph next year. He is currently participating in the U.S. Junior evaluation camp for the second year, as he vies for an opportunity to compete on the international stage.

15. Matt Bartkowski, D, 21
Acquired: 7th Round, 190th Overall, 2008

Bartkowski advanced from the USHL to the NCAA, and his arrival with Ohio State was an immediately successful one. As a 20-year-old freshman, Bartkowski was a player of influence on the Buckeyes roster, providing an offensive spark from the blueline that was lacking a season ago. Bartkowski scored five goals and 15 assists in 41 games.

Bartkowski can quarterback the play from the point, and has a big shot that he has no qualms using often. He finished fourth on his team in shots on goal this past season. He can also dish out punishing hits. His physicality and innate aggressiveness make him an already effective defender.

16. Marc Cheverie, G, 22

Acquired: 7th Round, 193rd Overall, 2006

This past season, Cheverie was the biggest reason why Denver saw as much success as they did. After peaking at the top of the WCHA standings, the Pioneers settled at season’s end in second place, two points by North Dakota. As a sophomore, with his first firm hold on the starting job, Cheverie manned the crease in all 40 of Denver’s games. He recorded a 2.34 goals-against average, and a .921 save percentage. He was rewarded by being named the team’s most valuable player.

He was able to either hold the Pioneers in games this year, or steal them against some very formidable opponents. Cheverie has provided stability for the Pioneers team, playing a controlled, deliberate style emphasizing positioning. Still, he has quick reflexes when he needs to use them.

17. Brian Foster, G, 22
Acquired: 5th round, 161st overall, 2005

Like Cheverie, Foster assumed the starting goaltender role just this past season. With few dull moments backstopping the UNH Wildcats’ open style of play, Foster put together a 2.45 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in 35 games. New Hampshire finished tied for third in the Hockey East standings.

The 22-year-old exhibited a great deal of growth, and a great deal of confidence throughout the season. Prior to 2008-09, in sparse playing time, Foster had difficulty with rebound control. He made key progress in this area as a junior. Foster’s overall style is one favoring athleticism to technique. He will be a senior in 2009-10.

18. Garrett Wilson, RW, 18
Acquired: 4th Round, 107th Overall, 2009

Wilson skated for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack last year, who eked their way into the post-season. Wilson managed to register 17 goals and 18 assists in 53 games.

Wilson is a competitor who plays a north-south style. He likes to crash the net and is effective around the goal as well. Already possessing significant size, standing 6’2 and weighing 199 pounds, he projects as a power forward. Wilson’s weakness is his skating – his agility and acceleration.

Wilson is slated to return to Owen Sound for his second full season of OHL play.

19. Corban Knight, C, 18
Acquired: 5th Round, 135th Overall, 2009

Knight spent last season as a member of the Okotoks Oilers of the AJHL. He scored 34 goals and 38 assists in 61 games. His 72 points were good enough to place him in a tie for eighth in league scoring, and the lead among rookies.

Knight is an impressive skater with good offensive instincts and good hands. He has the ability to handle the puck in traffic at high speeds, and has a quick release. He will remain in the AJHL for another year where he will work on his strength. Knight has signed a letter of intent with the University of North Dakota for the 2010-11 season.

20. Kenndal McArdle, LW, 22

Acquired: 1st Round, 20th Overall, 2005

McArdle’s stock continues to fall, now with two professional seasons in the books. The former first-round pick has progressed slowly as his production has essentially plateaued. In 2008-09, through 58 games in the AHL, McArdle had 12 goals and 12 assists to his credit.

The 22-year-old’s talents –- his strength and his hockey sense, not to mention character -– got him to the point he is at now. But mediocre skating ability has been a costly shortcoming, which legitimately threatens McArdle’s ability to have a career beyond the AHL.  McArdle did dress in three games with the Panthers this season, averaging under eight minutes of ice time.

While a full-time member of the Amerks, McArdle will continue to serve as a viable call-up option for the Panthers in the near future. Still at an age where he can come around as a prospect, if able to improve his quickness, McArdle has definite third-line upside.