The Florida Panthers minor league system is teeming with NHL-prospects who are waiting for opportunities on the Florida roster. Florida General Manager Dale Tallon hinted in the past few weeks that he may be looking to trade some of the more veteran forwards on the squad in order to facilitate some of that upward movement. Until then, the AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage are reaping the rewards of having top-notch talent playing throughout their lineup.
Vince Trocheck, C, 21
Trocheck has played in only a handful of games for the Rampage between extended stints in the NHL (where he is playing currently and looks as if he has earned a permanent spot). In eight games, Trocheck scored two goals with four assists, and was clearly one of the best skill players for San Antonio.
Quinton Howden, LW, 22
Howden spent most of the first two months of the season on the injured list after leaving the team’s opening game with an unspecified injury. However, since his return in early December, Howden has provided speed, energy and solid play at both ends of the ice. His six assists in 10 games are slightly misleading production totals as he recorded four of those assists in the Boxing Day blowout of the Texas Stars. The time Howden missed hurts his chances of getting a good crack at the NHL this year, but he could get some time on the bottom lines if the Panthers do make some moves. His penalty killing and terrific speed will make him a valuable player in a checking role once he is ready.
Alex Petrovic, D, 22
Petrovic played a key role in the Rampage red hot November. During the last half of the month, Petrovic went on a major run of his own, putting up eight points in six games, with a blistering 21 shots on goal over that span. The offensive contributions are just one sign of Petrovic’s continuing improvement. His play in his own zone still shows some inconsistency, but in general his overall game makes him look like a player who is ready to take the next step. His reads look better, and his decision making-most of the time-is quicker than at this same time last year. With Colby Robak (ANA) traded out of the system, Petrovic looks to be the first defenseman in line for an injury replacement at the NHL level.
Jonathan Racine, D, 21
Racine’s development looks to have stalled a bit. Never an offensive force, his game has been centered on patrolling his own zone and delivering tough, physical, smart play. Unfortunately, Racine’s decisions have been prone to error on too many nights, and his team-leading 77 penalty minutes are evidence of his game sliding towards brawling instead of intelligent positioning. Given hockey’s general drift away from fighting, Racine needs to revert back to the fundamental defense that made him a more promising prospect that he currently appears to be.
John McFarland, LW, 22
The up-and-down journey of John McFarland’s hockey career has continued its extremely bumpy ride this year. Injuries have again derailed McFarland’s season, and after nine promising games and four points scored, he is sidelined until January at the earliest.
Michael Houser, G, 22
In his second season at the AHL level, Houser’s year thus far is best described as erratic and below par. An example of his inconsistency can be seen by looking at his four games against Oklahoma City. He faced them in his first outing of the year and stopped 92 percent of the shots that he faced in a two-goal, overtime win. A week later, he allowed four goals against the same squad, and stopped less than 85 percent of the shots against him. He started against the Barons again at the end of November, and posted an average result in a four-goal overtime loss. Then, in his most recent game, he stopped 95 percent OKC’s shots in another overtime loss. He still looks like a promising young netminder, but he will need to smooth out his results before he will be relied upon to make regular starts at the highest levels of the game.
Houser currently has a 5-4-2 record and a 3.37 goals against average in 12 starts.
Garrett Wilson, LW, 23
Wilson continues to impress with his effort and effectiveness in every aspect of play. Getting good ice time in all situations, Wilson has shown that he is up to the task, and his team-best 97 shots on goal are testimony to his offensive growth. He has developed into a two-way workhorse, and if he can continue the kind of improvement he has shown in his professional career so far, he should soon get another chance to impress at the NHL level, too.
Logan Shaw, RW, 22
Shaw has been used mostly as a middle-six role player so far this year, but he has had some good performances that hint at a more offensive role in the near future, especially as some of the team’s prospects move up to the NHL. Shaw has a knack for making opportunistic plays and his 13 points, nine goals and four assists has already eclipsed last year’s total despite a relatively quiet December. He uses his size well, and could work his way into a bottom-six NHL role if everything breaks his way.
Connor Brickley, LW, 22
In his first year of professional hockey, Brickley has turned heads with his non-stop energy and aggressive forechecking. Those attributes were hallmarks of his career at the University of Vermont, so seeing him play that same style at the AHL level comes as no surprise. However, his 19 points in 31 games has been a welcome and unexpected rate of production that only his best bursts in collegiate hockey hinted at.
Rocco Grimaldi, C, 21
Grimaldi is a young man of constant movement and creativity. In his rookie season as a professional, he has impressed coaches and staff in both the AHL and the NHL, and despite his low scoring totals during his time with the Panthers (one goal in his seven games) he proved that he can be a threat on every shift with his insistent focus on moving the puck up ice. In San Antonio, the scoring has come more easily (20 points in 28 games). What the statistics do not yet depict is the amount of pure excitement he can generate with his speed and vision and simple tenacity. Grimaldi looks to be a gem in need of just a little more polishing.
Ryan Martindale, C, 23
Martindale has been a disappointment this year, and he gives the impression of a player whose hockey career has hit its ceiling. With just seven points in 25 games, and a team-worst minus-11 rating in his fourth AHL season, Martindale’s chances of becoming an NHL player are limited and fleeting.
Steven Hodges, C, 20
Hodges is struggling through his initial season in the minor leagues, playing mostly on San Antonio’s bottom lines. His lack of offensive ice time is apparent in his two points scored on the season, but he displays the kind of hustle and energy that suggest a brighter future as he learns the AHL game.
Mackenzie Weegar, D, 21
Weegar entered the season as a much-hyped dark horse out of the QMJHL‘s Halifax Mooseheads, where in a single, post-draft year he had gone from a practically unknown defender to a player that Dale Tallon gushed over in Florida’s fall training camp. His growing pains have been obvious at times, but the playmaking ability has also been evident as the season has progressed. Weegar tallied only a single point through the first six weeks of the season, but in his last eight games, he has registered a goal, three assists, and 13 shots on goal. Weegar looks primed for a solid second half.
Jesse Blacker, D, 23
Blacker’s time as a prospect is winding down with whimper. Traded to the Panthers early in the year in return for Colby Robak (who could not be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers), Blacker has provided a boost to the Rampage. After getting off to a slow start with San Antonio and being scratched at times, he has been contributing more consistently but with several young defensemen on the way he will be challenged to retain a spot in the organization.
Joe Basaraba, RW, 22
After starting the year in the ECHL, Basaraba moved up to the AHL in early November. He has played a defensive role, and has been adequate in doing so. He is a long shot to ever make an impact in the NHL.
Andrew Yogan, C, 23
Yogan is a journeyman minor leaguer in the making, who has split time this year between the AHL and the ECHL. He is currently playing in San Antonio, where he has threegoals and no assists in 14games.
Shayne Taker, D, 24
Taker, at 24 years of age, is playing in his first year in the minor leagues after a solid collegiate career at Notre Dame. He is mainly a stay-at-home blueliner and is steady in his own end. He has good size at 6’4 and 207 pounds, and looks like a player capable of logging heavy minutes in the minors.
Sam Brittain, G, 22
After struggling through the first month or so of his rookie season, Brittain seems to have steadied himself in Cincinnati. He has posted a .932 saves percentage in December, and was recently named as the league’s goaltender of the week. Brittain needs refinement to his game in order to make better, quicker adjustments to the speed of professional play, but his rebound control already looks improved through just first couple of months of the season. Although he has at least a few years of minor league play in front of him, Brittain has the size and fundamentals of an NHL backup netminder.
Non-Minor League Prospect Update
Jayce Hawryluk continues to put up respectable numbers for Portland in the WHL. He currently rides a five-game scoring streak, and has scored a goal in each of his three games since missing out on a spot with the Canadian World Juniors team. In fact, in the last two months, there have been just five games in which Hawryluk has failed to record a point.
Vincent Trocheck has been making it impossible for the Panthers brass to send him back to San Antonio. His on-ice awareness seems to improve with each game, and his reads and decisions have him making difficult plays look easy. He has 13 points in 26 games with the Panthers, despite shooting at only a 6.8 percent success rate.
Ian McCoshen made Team USA’s squad for the World Juniors, and although the Boston College sophomore did not score in five games, he was a reliable member of the team’s blue line corps.
Florida Panthers Prospect of the Month
Aaron Ekblad continues to shine as the system’s top prospect-though he will not keep his prospect status for much longer-and he has established himself as one of the NHL’s top rookies and arguably one of its best young defensemen. Ekblad plays like a seasoned, NHL defender despite being only 18 years old and having just 37 games of professional experience. He is currently third among all rookies in scoring, forwards and defensemen, and the only blueliner to crack the top ten. In 14 December games, Ekblad posted three goals and six assists while averaging more than 22 minutes of ice time per game. He continues to drive the play up ice, and he has shown a remarkable sense of when to join or even lead a rush out of his own zone. His confidence and intelligence in all three zones has been mesmerizing to watch, and he is undoubtedly one of the Panthers best players night after night after night.