The 2014-15 season may not have ended the way the Florida Panthers wanted it to, but they boast a wealth of prospects who are on the cusp of breaking through with the big club. Among them, Aaron Ekblad is an obvious choice to win a number of awards, but I’m limiting him to one category—allowing others the opportunity to shine.
The Panthers system is stocked with quite a few collegiate players. In particular, a pair of Boston College defensemen shined this year, as did a surprising name from the University of Michigan. On the professional end, the Panthers had a few players who split the season between the NHL and AHL level, with Vince Trocheck and Alex Petrovic earning quality minutes over the course of the season. Finally, a pair of CHL players will carry some intrigue with them heading into next season.
Hardest Worker: Vince Trocheck, C, Florida Panthers/San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
As a former captain of the Saginaw Spirit in the OHL, Vince Trocheck knows all about hard work and what it takes to succeed. It’s been a long two years since then, but Trocheck’s ascent to the NHL came from a deliberate focus on doing the little things coaches always preach about. Stuck behind a deep group of centers, Trocheck had to deviate from his usual self, a nearly point-per-game producer at the AHL level.
The change didn’t come easy at first; in San Antonio, he ironed out the finer points of his game, especially in the defensive zone. He became a more complete player and learned that he needed to compete every shift. He was rewarded with two long stints in Florida, where he suited up for 50 games.
Most of his goals came the hard way, by getting to the net and outworking the other team. In totoal, he registered seven goals and 15 assists in the NHL. That’s a positive sign for the Panthers, who hope that Trocheck’s offense will carry to the NHL level, as he builds off the success from this year.
Hardest Shot: Ian McCoshen, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
The crowded Boston College backend features three NHL draft picks taken no later than 42nd, and a sure-fire 2015 top ten pick in Noah Hanifin. Still, Ian McCoshen outshines his peers in one key category—his devastating shot. The big goal totals may not be there, but McCoshen has been a threat on the man advantage due to his low, accurate, hard shot.
The Faribault, Minnesota native also joined Team USA at the World Junior Championships for the second consecutive season. He failed to register a point, but was lauded for his success in the defensive zone.
McCoshen should return to Boston College for at least one more year of hockey. It will be interesting to see if he can improve his point totals while remaining defensively responsible.
Best Defensive Prospect: Mike Matheson, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
McCoshen’s teammate at Boston College, Mike Matheson has been a staple on the Eagles blueline. Since departing the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL, Matheson has steadily improved his overall game over the last three years—culminating with his captaincy this season.
Matheson again put up points this year, finishing with three goals and 22 assists over the course of 38 games. It was his third consecutive season with at least 20 points, a great sign for a developing player. He is a strong skater, who handles the puck admirably well, and has a keen sense of what to do with the puck in pressure situations.
Lauded as more of a point producer, Matheson’s ability to defend improved over the course of the season, resulting in BC’s legendary head coach Jerry York giving Matheson more responsibility.
At the conclusion of the season, Matheson signed his entry-level contract with the Panthers and was assigned to the San Antonio Rampage for a brief five game stint. Moving forward, the former first-round pick will be a key player to watch as the Panthers look to surround their franchise prospect Aaron Ekblad with talent.
Fastest Skater: Quinton Howden, LW, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
The only thing that can slow Quinton Howden down is injury, and unfortunately for Howden, two injuries curtailed what was to be his breakout season. He missed 19 games at the beginning of the season, returned for a handful, and was sidelined for an additional 23 due to a separate ailment.
When he’s on the ice, Howden is an explosive straight-line skater. He doesn’t have a ton of finesse, but when you have the ability to cut the corner on a defenseman, not much is needed. Howden finished the season with three goals and 15 assists in 33 games, slightly behind where he was one calendar year ago.
The NHL is evolving into a speed game, something Howden has plenty of. The Panthers have given the former Moose Jaw Warriors standout 34 games at the NHL level, and provided he is healthy, the track to return to the NHL will be laid out in front of him.
Prospect of the Year: Aaron Ekblad, D, Florida Panthers (NHL)
Hockey Canada got it right when they granted Aaron Ekblad exceptional status, allowing the defenseman to enter the OHL one year early. The extra year with the Barrie Colts helped prepare Ekblad for the rigors of day-to-day life in the NHL.
Most full-time NHL defenseman take a few years until they look at home, but Ekblad looked poised and confident. He did it all this season, from working on the powerplay to killing penalties—logging significant minutes for the Panthers.
Ekblad finished his freshman campaign with 12 goals and 27 assists, good for eighth among NHL rookie skaters. He logged nearly 22 minutes per night, most of that alongside NHL veteran Brian Campbell, who had to elevate his own game just to keep up with Ekblad.
Following the conclusion of the season, Ekblad was invited by Hockey Canada to participate in the IIHF World Championships, where he had four goals and three assists through eight games. At this point, nothing is surprising, but the Calder-nominated defenseman’s ascent to the top-tier at his position was a quick one, and his ceiling isn’t even in sight yet.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Jayce Hawryluk, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Depending on how things work out with trades and graduations this offseason, Jayce Hawryluk may be thrust into a leadership role in his fourth season in the WHL. It’s that opportunity and suggestion that will offer Hawryluk a chance to breakout as his pedigree and point totals suggest.
The Brandon Wheat Kings made a long run this season in the WHL Finals, falling short in a series sweep to the Kelowna Rockets. Despite the setback, it was a fantastic season for Brandon, and Hawryluk was right in the middle of it. The 2nd round pick finished with one more point than the year before, 65 in total. He also stepped up his game in the playoffs, adding another 19 points, and finishing among the top ten in WHL playoff scoring.
Despite the numbers and appearance of success, Hawryluk didn’t take a major step forward most prospects do in their third junior-eligible season. However, the Wheat Kings will again be a contender next year, and if they hope to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup, Hawryluk will need to breakout in a big way.
Most Improved Prospect: Zach Hyman, C, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
To put it fairly, not much was expected of Zach Hyman’s senior season at the University of Michigan. The owner of a grand total of 35 points over the course of his first three collegiate seasons, the former Hamilton Red Wings captain was lauded as a role player who simply didn’t possess the offensive instincts to compete at the next level.
Well, that changed this year, as an older, wiser Hyman dismantled opponents all season. He finished with 22 goals and 32 assists, good for fourth overall in NCAA scoring. Hyman certainly benefitted from playing with Detroit Red Wings draft pick Dylan Larkin, who also enjoyed a ridiculous season.
Make no mistake, however—Hyman was plenty productive in his own right. He remains without a contract, and questions loom over his intentions to sign with Florida. As the most improved prospect in the Panthers system, pursuing Hyman should be a priority this offseason.
Overachiever: Alex Petrovic, D, Florida Panthers/San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Since departing the Red Deer Rebels in 2011-12, Alex Petrovic has quietly ascended through the Panthers system and become a reliable bottom-pairing option. He was afforded a handful of NHL games over the last two seasons, but never stuck as anything more than a depth option in case of suspension or injury.
However, Petrovic earned 33 games with the Panthers, and did not look out of place after previously being labeled as a depth defenseman. There might be something more lurking here though, as Petrovic has slowly but surely added a bit of offense to his game, finishing the year with 3 goals and 17 assists through 41 AHL games.
He has been a tough customer, dropping his gloves willingly when called upon. Not only has he fought for his teammates, but he has worked on his game and earned a share of regular playing time at the NHL level moving forward.
Underachiever: John McFarland, RW, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
As a former second round pick, John McFarland has toiled through the Panthers minor league system and hasn’t been particularly impactful. He split each of the last two seasons between San Antonio and the Panthers ECHL affiliate in Cincinnati.
The only good news about McFarland’s season was that he was not demoted to the ECHL, yet he still hasn’t found a suitable role in the AHL. He doesn’t compete particularly hard—especially away from the puck—but he does have the ability to score consistently. Nightly effort has been elusive for McFarland though, who finished the regular season with just 10 goals and nine assists in 46 games.
He fought through a couple minor injuries this season, but was also a healthy scratch on occasion. He will need to become more than just a goal scorer if wants a chance at playing for the Panthers, or anywhere else at the next level.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Juho Lammikko, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Before looking back at the season Lammikko just had, it’s important to note that no less than four teams are in a battle to vie for his services. That’s for good reason, as Lammikko recently finished his first full season in North America with the Kingston Frontenacs.
Originally billed as a player who may not put in a consistent effort, Lammikko excelled playing in Kingston’s defense-first system. He displayed good work ethic on most nights, and contributed in all three zones. Not only was he solid away from the puck, but Lammikko was difficult to contain once he got it. He finished with 18 goals and 26 assists in 64 games, good for fourth on the Frontenacs in scoring.
Most parties are fairly certain that Lammikko will not be returning to Kingston next season, and it has been widely speculated that he will return to professional hockey in Liiga with Asset, his previous team. Interestingly, the Madison Capitals of the USHL took a late round flyer on him, and his KHL rights were recently traded to SKA St. Petersburg. Among all this speculation, one team in particular is missing—the Florida Panthers. While it has yet to be determined where Lammikko will spend next season, it is concerning that a number of teams are in pursuit.