The Florida Panthers are defense and center-heavy in terms of prospects, and this season will provide those players a chance to vault themselves ahead on the depth chart. The organization’s prospects are spread fairly evenly across all four levels—pro, junior, amateur and overseas—with intriguing prospects at each.
Top prospect Mike Matheson will make his pro debut, likely in Portland of the AHL, while the team’s recent first round pick Lawson Crouse should return to junior and play a pivotal role with the Canadian World Junior team. The Panthers also have a goaltender worth following at every level this season; the hope is that one can rise above the others to top-prospect status.
Mike Matheson, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)
There’s certainly more seasoned prospects at the pro level (Rocco Grimaldi, Connor Brickley, etc.) but the Panthers are excited to have former Boston College captain Mike Matheson in the fold this season. Matheson opted to forego his final season of NCAA eligibility to join the Panthers. In three seasons with BC, the 6-foot-2, smooth-skating rearguard recorded 71 points in 122 games. He has stayed healthy as well, despite playing a physical brand of hockey.
At the end of last season Matheson got a taste of pro hockey by playing in five games with the Panthers previous affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. The rookie would have to impress significantly in training camp to begin the season in Florida, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to see time there throughout the year.
Rocco Grimaldi, C, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Grimaldi spent the majority of last season in San Antonio of the AHL, but the diminutive center has a legitimate chance to open the 2015-16 season in Florida. He dressed in seven games for the Panthers last season and scored his first career NHL goal. In the AHL, Grimaldi finished fifth on the team in scoring with 42 points in 64 games.
The Panthers didn’t add much in the offseason save for Reilly Smith, though they created an opening by dealing Jimmy Hayes to make room. There should be one or two spots open for a player from the AHL to crack the roster up front, and Grimaldi, along with perhaps Brickley, is in prime position to grab one of them. He participated in the team’s rookie camp, which should prepare him well for training camp, and his offensive talents, despite his lack of size, could give him an edge in the battle for a roster spot.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Logan Shaw, RW, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Entering the final year of his entry-level contract, Nova Scotia native Logan Shaw will hope to build off a breakthrough 2014-15 season in which he proved himself a productive AHL player. Shaw spent 20 games in the ECHL in his rookie season after recording just 8 points in 46 games with San Antonio. Last season, however, he spent the entire year in the AHL and finished 10th in scoring on the team with 25 points in 69 games. He was also tied for fifth on the team in goals with 13.
The Panthers are spread quite thin on the right side in terms of prospects, particularly at the pro level, so that might work toward Shaw’s favour in terms of earning another contract. That said, the team won’t keep him around simply to fill an organizational need; he’ll need to improve his standing in the organization with another solid season in the AHL.
Top Junior Prospect
Lawson Crouse, LW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
A physical specimen with underrated offensive skills, Lawson Crouse will lead both the Kingston Frontenacs and the Canadian World Junior team this season. He was quickly signed to an entry-level contract by the Panthers, and could perhaps impress enough in training camp to earn a look, but the Panthers would be better off not letting him eclipse the nine games he is afforded before burning a year from his restricted status.
Last year, scouts argued over whether or not Crouse was as strong a prospect as others made him out to be. Although he may not be a sure-fire first line NHLer, what is certain is his ability to use his 6-foot-4, 215 pound frame to his advantage and finish scoring chances in tight to the net. He led the Frontenacs in scoring last season despite playing just 56 games; another season on the improving team, where he can develop his skating stride and defensive instincts, would not be the worst thing for his development.
Jayce Hawryluk, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
It might be much to suggest Manitoba native Jayce Hawryluk can once again top his offensive production rate—he has done so in his previous two seasons—but the Brandon Wheat Kings are a legitimate WHL powerhouse. And Hawryluk, along with overage Tim McGauley, will provide a solid one-two punch down the middle. He scored 30 goals in 54 games last season and recorded 69 points. He also recorded 19 points in 16 postseason games.
The Wheat Kings boast an impressive crop of young forwards beyond the duo, including potential number-one overall pick in 2017 Nolan Patrick, who has already scored 30 goals in the WHL. It won’t be difficult for Hawryluk to pick up assists next season, and with a strong group of puck-moving defenders, he should be able to top the 30-goal mark once again this season.
Top Amateur Prospect
Ian McCoshen, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
With fellow Panthers prospect Mike Matheson opting to turn pro and the departure of Noah Hanifin, former second round pick Ian McCoshen will anchor a revamped BC Eagles defense this season. The junior is coming off an impressive season in his own right and finished fourth amongst the team’s defensemen in scoring with 16 points in 35 games. His six goals also tied for the lead with Teddy Doherty.
McCoshen is a similar player to Matheson, but has a bit more size to his frame and is a little more physical. He led the Eagles in penalty minutes last season with 63. With increased duties that likely will include first-unit power play and penalty killing time this season, however, McCoshen will need to stay out of the penalty box as much as he can.
Matt Buckles, C, Cornell University (ECAC)
Cornell was an underwhelming team last season, having scored just 57 goals in 31 games. One of the few bright spots offensively, considering the limitations of the team, was sophomore Matt Buckles. The 19-year-old Toronto native scored eight goals, which was good enough for second on the team, doubling his total of four from the year prior.
He should account for even more of the team’s offensive production this season with two of the team’s top five scorers departing due to graduation. He has the size and skill—in 2012-13 with the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the OJHL he scored 40 goals in 50 games—to become an effective first-line scoring pivot at the NCAA level, and he should be given every opportunity to do so this season.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Ed Wittchow, D, University of Wisconsin (Big Ten)
A 25-game season in 2014-15 in which he failed to hit the scoresheet doesn’t bode well for the possibility of Wittchow signing with the Panthers once his collegiate career is over. That said, the 6-foot-4, 215 pound rearguard is not known for his offensive ability. If he can provide a steady, calming presence in his senior season for the University of Wisconsin this season, he might get a look.
Wittchow is a former sixth round selection so it’s not as though his status in the organization is secure. He had a decent season in 2013-14 with seven points in 37 games, but was unable to replicate that success last season. Last year the Badgers won just four games; Wittchow will act as the team’s captain this season and his ability to help turnaround the team will affect whether or not he receives a contract.
Top European Prospect
Juho Lammikko, LW, Ässät (Liiga)
It will be interesting to see how Juho Lammikko fares in his return to Ässät after a season away in North America playing for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. The 6-foot-3, 203 pound winger took time to adjust to the North American game but should ultimately become a better player for the experience. Back on the bigger ice surface this season, he should be able to crack the Ässät team and play a pivotal role. in 2013-14, he spent 20 games with the team but recorded just one assist.
The former third round pick is a strong two-way player with adept playmaking and anticipation skills. That alone should help him stick with the team throughout the season, but it wouldn’t be too much to expect a 15-20 point campaign as he develops his offensive game against older competition.
Denis Malgin, C, ZSC Lions (NLA)
Malgin is a classic example of an undersized but supremely talented forward. The 5-foot-8, 163 pound Swiss center could still fill out some, but it’s his offensive ability that could one day lead him to the NHL. He compares similarly to Grimaldi, though obviously not as polished; Malgin is shifty, has great vision and skating abilities, though he could use added strength to improve his shot.
Last year Malgin split his time between the top two leagues in Switzerland. He played 23 games with Zurich of the Swiss A league and scored twice while adding six assists. In 18 playoff games he became a more reliable source of offense, scoring four goals. Zurich was a relatively old team last season with just four of its top 12 scorers under 25. Malgin and defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler (WSH) were the only under-20 players to make a considerable impact on the team. Given his impressive playoff performance and the experience gained last season, it’s hard to imagine Malgin not playing a more prominent role for Zurich.
Unsigned for 2016-17
Alexander Delnov, LW, Zvezda-VDV Dmitrov (VHL)
Delnov is similar to Lammikko in that he came to North America to play junior hockey, but has since returned to his home country of Russia. The 21-year-old winger spent two seasons with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, where he recorded 112 points in 140 regular season games. However, after failing to receive a contract offer from the Panthers last year, he returned to Russia to play in the country’s top junior league, the MHL. He exceeded expectations there by recording 48 points in 42 games, but was able to play in just two games for Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk of the KHL.
Playing in Russia allows both Delnov and the Panthers time to decide on whether or not they will pursue a contract. He needs to work on his conditioning and defensive play before he merits one, and this upcoming season could go a long way in determining that. He will turn 22 in January and if he can’t yet be trusted to log meaningful minutes in the KHL then an NHL career will likely be out of the question.