Panthers Top 20 prospects, Spring 2010

By Ian Bross

The Panthers organization is well-stocked in goal. Joining No. 1 prospect Jacob Markstrom in the top five is free-agent acquisition Alexander Salak.

Top 20 at a glance

1. (1) Jacob Markstrom, G (8.5C)
2. (2) Dmitry Kulikov, D (8.0B)
3. (5) Keaton Ellerby, D (7.5C)
4. (4) Michal Repik, RW (7.5C)
5. (11) Alexander Salak, G (7.5C)
6. (3) Shawn Matthias, LW (7.5C)
7. (8) Colby Robak, D (7.5D)
8. (6) Drew Shore, C (7.5C)
9. (7) Jason Garrison, D (7.0C)
10. (9) Evgeni Dadonov, LW (7.0C)
11. (10) Josh Birkholz, LW (7.0C)
12. (13) Matt Rust, C (6.5C)
13. (12) Michael Caruso, D (6.0B)
14. (14) Adam Comrie, D (7.0D)
15. (16) Marc Cheverie, G (7.0D)
16. (15) Matt Bartkowski, D (7.0D)
17. (18) Garrett Wilson, LW (6.5C)
18. (NR) A.J. Jenks, LW (6.5C)
19. (NR) Sergei Gayduchenko, G (6.5C)
20. (19) Corban Knight, C (7.0D)

1. Jacob Markstrom, G, 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 31st overall, 2008

Markstrom indicated when drafted his desire to play out the entire duration of his SEL contract with Brynas. When the 2009-10 season officially concludes, he will have made good on that wish, and from then on, he will be able to sign with Florida if he chooses and is deemed ready. More than likely, readiness will be a non-issue, given Markstrom’s success over the years, particularly this one.

The 20-year-old Markstrom is the Elitserien’s leader in each of the most significant statistical categories with a 2.02 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. He has done it – with  consistency – on what is arguably an otherwise weak club. Though he has earned criticism for an inability to perform well on the international stage, Markstrom demonstrates on a near-nightly basis poise beyond his years and an ability to carry his team on his back.

2. Dmitry Kulikov, D, 19
Acquired: 1st round, 14th overall, 2009

Last June, after being taken by the Panthers, Kulikov expressed an interest in joining the team as early as this year. He could either make the team or be sent back to his junior club, the Drummondville Voltigeurs. The 18-year-old made the cut and hasn’t looked out of place in the NHL.

Kulikov’s only significant setback was a knee injury that kept him out of action for 14 games. His main contribution has been his prowess on the power play. Kulikov has a goal and nine assists with the man advantage this year. In total, he has scored three goals and assisted on 10 others in 47 games.

Certainly, Kulikov has gone through his share of growing pains defensively. Considering his rapid integration into the lineup, however, there is little doubt in the legitimacy of his talent and potential.

3. Keaton Ellerby, D, 21
Acquired: 1st round, 10th overall, 2007

Ellerby has continued to grow with Rochester as a second-year pro. Drafted as a project, he is becoming a complete defender. There have been bumps in the road as of late for the Amerks, but the team could not have rebounded this year if not for the progression of their young players, Ellerby included.

With 51 games in the books this season, Ellerby has six goals and 13 assists as well as a +3 rating. Appearances in two NHL games have made it evident that Ellerby will need to finish out at least this year in the AHL before he can make the jump full time. Ellerby possesses excellent mobility. He is most effective when he utilizes his skating, which he could afford to do with greater frequency.

4. Michal Repik, RW, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2007

The diminutive, speedy winger is finding his scoring touch at pro level. In his sophomore season with the Rochester Amerks, the team’s leading goal scorer a year ago, Repik is on pace to easily surpass those totals. With 41 games played, Repik has 19 goals and 17 assists. He is second on the team only to Jamie Johnson, who has played in 14 additional contests.

Repik missed time in the Rochester lineup to skate with the Panthers. With Florida, he has skated in 14 games and earned four points. Repik could very well play a more prominent role with the Panthers next season, but first he will have to round out his game – improve his play away from the puck, and his defensive coverage. And of course, at 5’10 180 lbs, he will always have to overcome his size disadvantage against progressively bigger opponents.

5. Alexander Salak, G, 23
Acquired: Free Agent (2009)

A free-agent signing this offseason, the European import, Salak, stood tall in goal for TPS Turku of the SM Liiga in 2008-09. He has done the same this season with the Rochester Americans. Salak is one of the biggest reasons for the Amerks’ resurgence this year. At one time, the Czech netminder owned a 15-1 record. Currently, the 23-year-old has a 2.65 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage, and 23-10 record.

With his highly unorthodox style, Salak has demonstrated his exceptional athleticism and talent. He has made his fair share of jaw-dropping saves, and has stolen games for his team. Salak, with his success -– which has been somewhat of a surprise -– has become part to a burgeoning goaltending pipeline any team would love to have.

6. Shawn Matthias, LW, 21
Acquired: via trade, February 2007 (Detroit)

Matthias has been a frustratingly slow starter, but the soon-to-be 22-year-old has shown signs that he could yet turn into a player. Though not living up to expectations, Matthias has indeed seen improvements in his play. With Rochester, he has skated in 23 games and is credited with four goals and seven assists.

Matthias has been called up to the Panthers five times during the season. In a fourth-line role, he has managed five goals and three assists in 34 appearances, which has built up a running total of 54 career games in the NHL. He is therefore closing in on graduating as a prospect. Still, Matthias hasn’t yet been able to firmly establish himself as a regular with the big club. Finding a scoring touch and maintaining high work ethic will be the keys to Matthias’ success.

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

Robak is having a stellar year with the Brandon Wheat Kings, one of only five Panthers prospects playing in junior this season. The Wheat Kings have been a powerhouse team this season, tops in the WHL, with the league’s most potent offense. In 60 games, Robak has produced 13 goals and 42 assists.

Robak is excelling on the power play, the penalty kill and at even strength. He is a vital member of the Brandon blueline corps because he logs time in all situations, and because he effectively, efficiently defends his zone. Robak has a league-best +44 and a mere four penalty minutes.

8. Drew Shore, C, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 44th overall, 2009

After a terrific showing in the first half of the season with the University of Denver, Shore has slowed down a bit as of late. Even so, Shore has been one of the better members of the WCHA rookie class, skating in all Pioneer games this season. He has scored four goals and 11 assists in 30 games. Only Matt Donovan (NYI) has more points as a freshman on the DU roster.

Shore has helped bolster the depth of the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, the team’s third center. He has also had his name penciled into the top six on occasion as well. Early on, Shore seems to be providing the total package. With good size at 6’3 190 lbs, Shore brings energy and grit, but also has good speed and hands. He has put all of these tools to good use this season.

9. Jason Garrison, D, 25
Acquired: Free agent 2008

Garrison has become the Panthers’ first choice for a defensive call-up from Rochester. He’s made sporadic NHL appearances throughout the year thus far. He dressed for one game with Florida last year. This year, he has dressed for 18, in which he has one assist and an even plus/minus rating.

With the Amerks, Garrison has three goals and 13 assists and a +12 rating. Being given more responsibility, he has been able to adapt well as a two-way defender, reining in some tendencies toward high-risk play. Nevertheless, there is still more offense in him that has not shown up at the next level. 

Fair or not, at the age of 25, Garrison will have to continue to adjust at an accelerated rate in order to compete with younger up-and-comers.

10. Evgeni Dadonov, LW, 20
Acquired: 3rd Round 71st Overall, 2007

With the expiration of his KHL contract, Dadonov elected to leave his home country for a shot in the NHL. He is getting more and more familiar with North American hockey every day since his arrival from Russia this season. After a slow start to the year with the Americans, Dadonov came on in late December and early January, with 10 points over an 11-game span. To date, he has managed a commendable 10 goals and 15 assists in 54 games.
There was a definite, noticeable learning curve for Dadonov early on, playing a quiet, understated game. Over time, his skill began to show through. Now Dadonov is well on the right path, along with Repik, one of the most skilled players in the Panthers’ system. He will finish out the season in the AHL.

11. Josh Birkholz, RW, 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2009

Birkholz’s transition to the NCAA is being handled with care. A true freshman, the 18-year-old forward has been worked slowly into a Golden Gophers lineup loaded with upperclassmen. As one of only two rookie forwards on the Gophers roster, the other being Zach Budish (NSH), Birkholz hasn’t gotten much playing time, but has come on as the season has progressed. He has tallied three goals in 27 games.

Out of the USHL‘s Fargo Force, Birkholz is a speedy winger with good skill and two-way presence, using his quickness well on the forecheck and backcheck. As he continues to learn to make proper use of his assets, he will become an increasingly prominent player in the coming years.

12. Matt Rust, C, 20
Acquired: 4th round, 101st overall, 2007

As a junior, Rust is going strong with Michigan. Rust centers what has been Michigan’s best line this year, making up one half of a strong offensive tandem with winger Carl Hagelin (NYR). Currently, Rust is second on the team in scoring behind only Hagelin with 28 points. In 33 games, Rust has scored 10 goals and 18 assists. A rough patch suffered by the Wolverines earlier in the year can partly explain Rust’s somewhat unexceptional numbers.

Despite not being a high-end offensive talent, Rust’s toughness, skating ability, and hockey IQ are still enough make him a viable prospect. He is doing more than just filling a checking, energy role. Rust has already set new career highs in assists and points this season. He is on the cusp of surpassing his previous bests in goals as well.

13. Michael Caruso, D, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 103rd overall, 2006

In his second season in the AHL, Caruso has continued to establish himself as a relatively serviceable stay-at-home defenseman. Mobile and sturdy physically, Caruso is sometimes guilty of confused positional play. More of a concern is a lack of skill with the puck that has been increasingly troubling for the rearguard.

Caruso doesn’t contribute much offensively, with eight points this season (all assists) and 10 points a season ago. His simplistic approach is both a pro and a con. As of now, without much two-way potential, Caruso looks as though he is fated to be buried on the organizational depth chart. He must become more consistent in his own zone, and hone his puck-moving skills.

14. Adam Comrie, D, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 80th overall, 2008

Comrie cultivated a good reputation for himself in the OHL coming into the year. But this season has not been one without its setbacks. It was Comrie’s first full season with the Guelph Storm after he was acquired in the offseason via trade. It’s been reported that Comrie has struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which the 19-year-old has admitted affected him on and off the ice. On the year, Comrie has a -13 rating.

His normal self, Comrie is a shutdown defender at the junior level, who can stick to anyone defensively, has the strength to overpower his opponents, and has an active stick to go along with it. Comrie also has a big, heavy shot, which comes in handy on the power play. He has 12 goals and 20 assists. Potential or not, the onus will be on Comrie to prove he can put all of his tools to use together.

15. Marc Cheverie, G, 22
Acquired: 7th round, 193rd overall, 2006

Cheverie is in his junior season with the University of Denver. He was a standout last year, among the NCAA‘s top netminders. This year, he may very well be the best. The Pioneers are right behind Miami (Ohio) for the top spot in the national rankings. Their success could not have been if not for Cheverie’s excellent performance.

In 24 starts, Cheverie has surrendered 45 goals, giving him a 1.88 goals-against average, as well as a .939 save percentage. Cheverie comfortably leads the nation in both categories. Cheverie also has posted a record of 17-3-3. All season long, Cheverie has been one of the NCAA‘s best players overall. Now in the latter portion of the season, the 22-year-old is still easily in the running for the Hobey Baker award.

16. Matt Bartkowski, D, 21
Acquired: 7th round, 190th overall, 2008

Bartkowski arrived on the the NCAA scene as a freshman for Ohio State last year and quickly made an impact. He ended up being named Most Valuable Freshman and Best Defensive Player by his teammates. He has continued to make his presence felt, a core defender on the Buckeyes team, receiving a substantial amount of ice time. He is having a strong year, especially on the offensive side, racking up points on the OSU power play. In 30 games, Bartkowski has scored four goals and 10 assists. Most of his points have come on the power play. Bartkowski certainly hasn’t lost his edge, having amassed a team-leading 81 penalty minutes.

17. Garrett Wilson, LW, 18
Acquired: 4th round, 107 overall, 2009

Wilson, since being selected in the 2009 draft, is already seeming as though he was something of a steal for Florida in the mid rounds. Wilson admitted to Hockey’s Future that his biggest weakness was his skating. He has demonstrated significant improvements in this area so far this season with the OHL‘s Owen Sound Attack.

With his north-south style of play, Wilson doesn’t hold back. He plays with aggression and with grit, outmuscling his competition. All of these things have led to increased success for Wilson, who has shattered last year’s personal goal total of 17. Wilson has 29 goals and 23 assists through 55 games. He has also registered 74 penalty minutes.

18.  A.J. Jenks, LW, 19
Acquired: 4th round, 100th overall, 2008

Jenks returns to the list in the midst of a bounceback season, his fourth with his junior club the Plymouth Whalers. Jenks was also a member of the 2010 WJC gold medal winners, Team USA. With Plymouth, he is seeing time on the top line. After his development seemed to stall last season, this year, with 41 games played, Jenks is setting new career highs in offense. He has 20 goals and 32 assists.

Jenks skates on the power play and kills penalties as well. In addition to special-teams play, Jenks takes the body and has good forechecking ability. These are the attributes that endeared Jenks to the Panthers two summers ago at the draft, which will make up the foundation of his skill set going forward.

19. Sergei Gayduchenko, G, 20
Acquired: 7th round, 202nd overall, 2007

Gayduchenko is having a quiet but solid season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL, as backup to one of the league’s premier veteran netminders, Georgi Gelashvili. The third-string goaltender a year ago, Gayduchenko has responded to the challenge of his upgraded role. Thus far, he has posted a 2.45 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.

Gayduchenko is a calm, athletic goaltender with great size at 6’5. He has expressed interest publicly in one day playing for the team that drafted him. His place on the Florida depth chart, however, could be a significant obstacle toward realizing that wish.

20. Corban Knight, C, 19
Acquired: 5th round, 135th overall, 2009

A late bloomer, Knight propelled himself into NHL prospect status with an explosive 2008-09 season with the AJHL’s Okotoks Oilers. He was set to return and play out this season with Okotoks, though he had made a verbal commitment to the University of North Dakota for next season. The dismissal of UND forward Matt Frattin from the team opened the door for Knight to join the program a year earlier than planned. Frattin rejoined the Fighting Sioux in the second half.

Meanwhile, under the circumstances, the offense-oriented Knight hasn’t seen a great deal of ice time. He snapped an 18-game goal-scoring drought with a two-goal performance on Jan. 8. Knight also injured his ankle in the game, but has since returned. In 24 games, Knight has scored four goals and three assists. Overall, he has shown his potential: good hands, particularly around the net, and an offensive flair. Knight could be a major player on next season’s Fighting Sioux team.