Florida Panthers 2011 draft review

By Brian Fogarty
Photo: Dynamic forward Jonathan Huberdeau will bring some much-needed elite potential to the Panthers forward ranks. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Continuing full throttle on the rebuild of the Florida Panthers, GM Dale Tallon and crew went into the draft with ten picks and a plan to add scoring power. Trade temptations were not enough to keep Tallon from sticking to the plan and using the third pick on what some consider to be perhaps the best goal scorer in the 2011 prospect pool. With the remaining selections, the Panthers opted for six forwards and three defensemen. Tallon dipped into the QMJHL for three of those picks, matching his total from his previous six drafts combined.

Jonathan Huberdeau, C/W – Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
1st round, 3rd overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 171 lbs

The Panthers wasted no time in selecting Huberdeau. Many prognosticators believed that Tallon would choose Gabriel Landeskog (COL) with this pick, but when the Avalanche took Landeskog with the second pick, all eyes turned to Huberdeau (whom the Panthers apparently had been carefully monitoring throughout the entire process, including the combine).

Huberdeau compiled an impressive season in the QMJHL. He led the offensive powerhouse Sea Dogs by putting up 105 regular season points (43 goals and 62 assists) through 67 games. Perhaps more impressive than his 1.56 points per game and plus-59 rating was his offensive output throughout the playoffs. In 19 games of QMJHL playoffs, Huberdeau scored a league-best 16 goals, far outpacing second-place Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s (OTT) 13 goals for Gatineau. Huberdeau continued his torrid pace in the Memorial Cup, in which he led his Saint John team to the championship trophy with six points in four games. He assisted on Zack Phillips’ (MIN) Cup-winning goal, scored an insurance goal in that same game, and was named tournament MVP.

Huberdeau fits neatly into the Panthers’ plan for the future. He has good size and will continue to add weight to his 6’1 frame over the coming months. Huberdeau proved last season that he can go one-on-one, drive the net, stick-handle through pressure, or use his vision and hockey sense to make plays and get the puck to the net. The one thing that stands out most among Huberdeau’s many gifts is his hands. He has a quick and accurate shot, can weave at full speed through traffic and has a keen ability to keep the puck on his stick. He is creative and has tremendous vision, and the enviable ability to both make plays and finish them.

Panthers’ Assistant GM Mike Santos said recently that the team has left one or two spots open for a young forward to make the team this fall. Whether or not Huberdeau is able to fill one of those spots will be determined not by his skill, but by his size and strength. If he can work hard this summer to add muscle weight, it is possible he makes the team. If not, he will likely see a couple of games at the start of the season before returning to his QMJHL team for another year of growth and dominance.

Rocco Grimaldi, F – USNDT (USHL)
2nd round, 33rd overall
Height: 5’6 Weight: 160

With their second pick, the Florida Panthers added another highly gifted offensive threat. Rocco Grimaldi dazzled both scouts and fans alike throughout the 2010-11 season with his instincts and lethal shot. He has tremendous speed and skating ability, and the creativity to match.

Grimaldi is third on the list of all-time scorers for the US Development Program, behind only Phil Kessel (TOR) and Patrick Kane (CHI), both NHL All-Star players. In 13 Under-18 World Championship games, Grimaldi posted 18 points with four goals and 14 assists. He assisted on the game-winning goal against Russia in the U-18s, tallied a goal and two assists against a surprising and tough German squad, and finished the tournament with two goals, six assists, and a gold medal. In his time on the ice for the development team in the USHL last season, Grimaldi put up 12 goals and 13 assists in 23 games and was named to the USHL All-Star squad.

Grimaldi is an offensive threat whenever he is on the ice. “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to try to bring [to the Panthers]. Obviously they have a lot of offensive talent that is coming up, with Bjugstad and Shore…and Huberdeau. They are definitely a team that’s going to start rising, which is great to see.”

The main knock against Grimaldi, and the thing that may have kept him out of the top ten draft picks, is his size. At 5’6, Grimaldi will be one of the shortest NHL players once he makes it to the big league. However, he is a solid player at 160, and will continue to add muscle. One thing that cannot be questioned, however, is his superior skill, drive to succeed, and his outstanding work ethic. He plays much bigger than his weight and height indicate on paper.

Grimaldi is slated to join the University of North Dakota next season, where he should see significant ice time and get plenty of opportunities on the power play and the penalty kill.

Rasmus Bengtsson, D – Rogle (Allsvenskan)
2nd round, 59th overall
Height: 6’2 Weight: 196

The Panthers traded their 47th overall pick to San Jose (which the Sharks used to select left winger Matthew Nieto) in exchange for the 59th overall pick and an additional third-round pick in the 2012 draft. Florida then used the 59th overall pick to select their first defenseman of the 2011 draft, Rasmus Bengtsson.

Bengtsson is a smart player who makes good decisions on the ice, and is another solid puck possession player. Bengtsson has good hands, and a blast of a point shot which he has been using on the powerplay for Rogle in the Swedish Allsvenskan league. Thus far, he has not produced big counting statistics. He scored just two goals and seven assists last season for Rogle, but he is younger than most in his draft class (he just turned eighteen in May) and has a lot of upside potential. Defensively, he is solid in his own end and uses his size and positioning to keep the play to the outside. He plays a solid, quiet game that every team looks for in a two-way defenseman, someone who can control the flow in his own end and get the puck up ice with a clean first pass.

He may not be the best skater, but with his upside he could be a fine pick for the end of the second round. Look for Bengtsson to play another year or two in Sweden before making the transition to North America. Though he may not reach a top-pairing level, once he gets acclimated to the North American game, he projects as a solid 3-4 defenseman in the NHL.

Vincent Trocheck, C/W – Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
3rd round, 64th overall
Height: 5’11 Weight: 180 lbs

The Panthers went back to the forwards with their first pick in the third round, and stayed true to their needs for scoring and puck possession. Saginaw centerman Vincent Trocheck is an intriguing prospect. He may not be spectacular in any one area, but he is a hardworking, two-way player who will win battles and keep the puck with quick hands and hockey sense. The Pittsburgh native is a consistent player who can contribute in all aspects of the game. On the power play, he can distribute the puck well and score opportunistic goals. On the penalty kill, he can use his high hockey IQ and work rate to disrupt the opponents’ attack. He is a durable player (he did not miss a game in his two seasons in the OHL) with a tremendous compete level that makes him an effective forechecker.

Like Bengtsson, Trocheck is also young for his draft class, and turned eighteen on July 11. Though he may not be a prolific scorer, Trocheck has shown good improvement at the OHL level over his first two seasons. As a 16-year-old OHL rookie, Trocheck scored 43 points in 68 games. Last season, he increased his production to 26 goals and 36 assists for 62 total points in 68 games, and was the Spirit’s first- or second-line center on most nights. He finished third on his team in scoring, but both players who finished ahead of him, Josh Shalla (NAS) and Jordan Szwarz (PHX), are 19-year-olds playing in their fourth OHL seasons.

Trocheck will almost certainly go back to Saginaw for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. If he continues to improve all facets of his game at his same prolific rate, and is able to improve his skating, he could become a dependable top-nine contributor at the NHL level in a few years’ time.

Logan Shaw, C/W – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL)
3rd round, 76th overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 197 lbs

Dale Tallon has shown a propensity for selecting big players, and the Panthers certainly held true to that form with the 76th overall pick–their second of four in the third round–when they selected Logan Shaw out of the QMJHL. The 6’3 winger brings size to the right side of the Panthers forward corps. “I’m not just a goal scorer, I’m a two-way player,” Shaw has said. “I’m not just a hockey player. I am an all-around good person."

Florida’s Director of Scouting Scott Luce describes Shaw as “a skill guy with size, [with] nice touch around the net.” Shaw was the 12th overall pick in the QMJHL draft in 2008, and since joining the Screaming Eagles he has posted 40 goals and 38 assists in 184 total games over three years. Last season was his most productive by far. He scored at a pace that would translate to about 15 goals and 10 assists for a typical NHL season. However, Shaw is a raw prospect, and though he may be considered a bit of a risky pick at the middle of the third round, his size and ability to finish around the net may be worth the gamble.

Shaw is one of the older players of his draft class (he turns 19 in October). His age puts him a step above most of his other classmates in the development schedule, and could work to both his benefit, and the Panthers. Shaw will play another year at Cape Breton, and then likely turn pro and make his way to the AHL.

Jonathan Racine, D – Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
3rd round, 87th overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 182 lbs

With the 87th pick, the Panthers went back to the QMJHL to select the second defenseman for their 2011 draft, Jonathon Racine.

Racine is a typical stay-at-home type of defenseman, with good size and defensive skill. Shawinigan used him on the penalty kill and on the second-unit power play, and has offensive potential that may be as yet untapped. He is a strong, physical player who will drop the gloves when necessary, but it is his ability in quick, subtle plays and positioning that helps make him a stalwart defenseman, better suited for preventing goals than scoring them. In addition, Racine posted the longest standing broad jump, and had the longest wingspan of any player at the draft combine.

One interesting side note comes from a game in February of 2011 when Racine fought with Florida’s first-round pick Jonathon Huberdeau, something that will unlikely happen again.

Kyle Rau, C/W – Eden Prairie High School (Minn)
3rd round, 91st overall
Height: 5’8 Weight: 158 lbs

The Panthers used their fourth pick of the third round to select another small, speedy, and offensively talented forward. Before being drafted, Kyle Rau dominated high school hockey in Minnesota. He was named Mr. Hockey as Minnesota’s best senior hockey player, and capped off a spectacular season (in which he scored 69 points in 25 games) by scoring the game-winning overtime goal in the state championship game. After leading his team to the state AA title, Rau took his game to the USHL, where he joined the Sioux Falls Stampede for their final 11 regular season games. During that brief stretch, Rau managed to post four goals and six assists. Rau then led the Stampede in playoff scoring, with seven goals and five assists in ten games, including two game-winning goals.

Rau is a shifty player who can skate, stick-handle and score at a high level. He has remarkable hands and offensive instincts. Rau describes his offensive contribution as, “I just try to get to the net and put the puck away.” Rau has a strong work ethic. When asked if getting drafted would make him train harder, Rau responded: “Even if I didn’t get drafted today, I’d still be doing the same thing tomorrow.”

As with Grimaldi, Rau’s biggest obstacle to reaching the NHL will be his size. He has the skill and talent to be a scorer at the NHL level, but to reach that goal, he will have to get as strong as possible, and outwork everyone else around him. As he has shown, he is more than willing to put in the work and has an unstoppable enthusiasm for the game. He has the speed and instincts to find and create space on the ice, but at his current size and weight, he is at times easy for the bigger defensemen to knock off the puck. Still, Rau can and will make opposing defenses pay for allowing him any time and space.

Rau will move on to the University of Minnesota next year, where he will join his good friend and fellow Panthers prospect Nick Bjugstad. Rau has immense upside potential. Whether or not he can capitalize on that potential remains to be seen. However, today’s NHL is a much friendlier place for smaller players than it has been in the past.

Yaroslav Kosov, C/W – Magnitogorsk Jr. (Russia)
5th round, 124th overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 220 lbs

The Panthers went big with their fifth-round selection. Yaroslav Kosov is a hulking Russian winger who scored 11 goals and 10 assists in 43 games for his Russian junior league squad last season. According to Dale Tallon: “He’s big, skilled, can skate, and is aggressive. He wants to come to North America and play. I don’t think he had a lot of viewing from a lot of teams.” Kosov is a project player, but if he can reach his potential, the Panthers may have found a rugged, punishing third-line winger with good scoring touch and speed.

Kosov will continue to play in Russia for a couple of years, at least before making his way to North America.

Ed Wittchow, D – Burnsville High School (Minn)
6th round, 154th overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 189 lbs

Florida selected high-schooler Edward Wittchow in the sixth round, adding yet another big defenseman to their stocked cupboard of large blueliners. He is a good, young defense prospect with offensive skill and was considered one of the top defenders playing high school hockey last season in Minnesota. Wittchow was selected fourth overall in the recent USHL draft. He is a good skater, with good hands and a physical presence.

“I like to describe myself as a defensive defenseman,” Wittchow said in a recent interview. “I need to improve on all aspects of my game, but I did integrate more offense into my game this year. I have some interest from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State and North Dakota. I turned down an offer to go to Wisconsin this upcoming season because I didn’t think I was ready for that step. I think physically and mentally the junior route is best for me.”

Wittchow will play in the USHL next season, before entering the NCAA ranks. He is a long-term project player with good upside.

Iiro Pakarinen, F – KalPa Kuopio (SM-Liiga)
7th round, 184th overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 194 lbs

With their final pick in the 2011 draft, the Panthers selected Finnish winger Iiro Pakarinen from KalPa. Pakarinen is a good skater with a crisp, accurate wrist shot and quick release. He is strong in the corners, and battles hard for the puck. However, he is not the most defensive-minded player, and can at times take himself out of position with his exuberance and aggressiveness.

Pakarinen uses his size well, and plays a physical game that can translate well to North America. He has played 84 games and has scored 10 goals and 8 assists at the top level of Finnish hockey. Pakarinen was named Alternate Captain for the Finnish World Junior bronze-medal team in 2011, where he scored a goal and two assists in six games.

Pakarinen will play at least another season with KalPa in the SM-Liiga.