Jonathan Huberdeau tops exceptionally deep pool of Florida prospects

By Brian Fogarty
Photo: Taken in the second round, Rocco Grimaldi was widely considered to have first-round talent, but his lack of size was considered a major problem. (Photo courtesy of DJ Powers/HF)

The Panthers boast one of the deepest pools of prospect talent in the league. Debuting at the top of the list is 2011 third-overall draft pick, center Jonathan Huberdeau. The third overall pick in the 2011 draft joins the list fresh off of a stellar year in which he helped lead his team to the QMJHL and Memorial Cup championships. Several other prospects join Huberdeau as new entrants into Florida's top 20, including Rocco Grimaldi, Rasmus Bengtsson, Corban Knight, Vincent Trocheck, Joonas Donskoi, Zachary Hyman, and Kyle Rau.

1. (NR) Jonathan Huberdeau, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 3rd overall, 2011

Jonathan Huberdeau debuts at the top of the list of Panthers prospects, earning the rank after compiling 43 goals and 62 assists in 67 regular season games for Saint John and a Memorial Cup MVP performance in his draft year. Huberdeau had been moving up the ranks on just about everyone's pre-draft lists, but it was his 30 points in 16 playoff games and six points in four Memorial Cup games that solidified his spot as a top-three talent in the 2011 draft class.

Huberdeau brings electricity to the ice. He has good size, great hands, and a keen hockey sense to go with his creativity. Perhaps lost amongst his offensive accolades and skills packages are his defensive abilities and work ethic. His all-star potential, compete level and other intangibles put him a step above the rest of the impressive talent in the Florida system.

2. (1) Jacob Markstrom, G, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2008

Markstrom drops down a spot from last year's ranking, due more to the addition of Huberdeau than any decrease in his potential. However, Markstrom did suffer a setback last season with a rocky start to his North American career and a season-ending knee injury. Both were enough to lower expectations for his NHL ascension, but he remains among the best goaltender prospects in the world.

Markstrom combines great size (he is 6'3, 178 pounds) with effortless movements and mental focus. He is technically sound in his crease, but he did have some problems with rebound control early in his first AHL season. Unfortunately for Markstrom and his fans, his knee injury occurred at a time when it looked like he had finally made adjustments to the North American style of game. He had a great run throughout December and January, playing in 18 games, posting a .931 save percentage and a 2.73 goals against average with a shutout and two shootout victories.

Markstrom's rehabilitation seems to be on track, and he should have a full recovery from his knee injury. Once ready to go again, he will suit up for San Antonio in the AHL for what should be a final year of seasoning before he makes a push for his spot in the NHL.

3. (2) Erik Gudbranson, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 3rd overall, 2010

Gudbranson makes what could be his last appearance on a Florida Top 20 list before he graduates as a prospect. Expectations are that the big, mean, and skilled defenseman will make the NHL squad out of camp this year after finally signing an entry-level contract over the summer. Gudbranson had a turbulent year that saw him earn three suspensions and 32 points in 49 games.

The 6'4 two-way defender is a physical presence and a punishing force on the ice, and a natural leader on and off the ice. Gudbranson has the intelligence, skating ability and mental toughness to control play and tempo in his own end, and can change a game with a teeth-rattling hit. His offensive game improved with his additional season in juniors.

4. (6) Quinton Howden, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 1st round, 25th overall, 2010

Howden had a breakout year for the Moose Jaw Warriors, and his efforts see his stock rise amongst his fellow prospects. Howden played a total of 73 games and scored 91 points on 47 goals and 44 assists. He was rewarded with a selection to the WHL All-Star team, a WHL Player of the Week honor, a silver medal for Canada, and a three-year contract with the Panthers.

Howden is a fantastic skater, and a true two-way player that can impact games at both ends of the ice. He has the agility, skill and size to be both an effective penalty killer and a scoring threat in the NHL, and looks to be on track for a real shot at the Florida lineup this year. If he does not make the team out of camp, Howden will return for another season in Moose Jaw, and another chance to represent Team Canada at the World Juniors.

5. (9) Evgeni Dadonov RW, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2007

Dadonov moved up four spots in this year's Top 20, but after playing 40 games in the NHL last season, should be graduating from the list sometime this fall. The only obstacle for Dadonov's NHL progress this season is the massive influx of free agent veteran forwards that GM Dale Tallon brought in over the summer. Dadonov will have to compete hard to secure a roster spot this fall, yet he could see a return to the AHL for part or even all of the 2011-12 season. However, his future as an NHL winger is all but certain, whether he sees time at that level this year, or must wait another year for another opportunity.

Dadonov put up respectable numbers for a rookie on an offensively anemic team last season. He scored eight goals and nine assists in 36 games with the Panthers after being called up in December. Dadonov saw increasing responsibility and ice time as the season progressed, and finished the year averaging over 15 minutes per game over the last ten games.

6. (3) Nick Bjugstad, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2010

Bjugstad drops down a few notches on the Top 20 this summer, but in no way is that a reflection of his play. The former Mr. Hockey in Minnesota high-school hockey had a tremendous freshman season at the University of Minnesota. He scored eight goals and twelve assists in 29 games after a bout of mono in the beginning of the season. He assumed top two-line center duties and was used in all aspects of the game. He should see his role and ice time increase even more this year.

Bjugstad is a package player, meaning that he has the size, skating ability, smarts, instincts and scoring talent to be an NHL center. He is a capable defender, both in his defensive zone and on the forecheck, and will use his stick or body to gain possession of the puck. With his size, he can hold off defenders and shield the puck while waiting for help, or simply muscle his way to the front of the net. He's got a good release, and an effective shot. The biggest question is whether or not he plays an offensive role in the NHL, or becomes an above-average shutdown center that generates offense.

7. (NR) Rocco Grimaldi, C, 8.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011

The second of the new entrants Florida's top 20 is Rocco Grimaldi, a player who has been offensively dominant at every level in his young career. Teams passed on Grimaldi in the first round, even though by the end of the season he was considered by many publications and services to be a top-twenty pick. The Panthers rolled the dice and called his name early in the second round, and if Grimaldi can overcome his only apparent weakness, his size, he could become a top-line fixture (though a move out to the wings may be in order).

Grimaldi possesses tremendous offensive ability, and is a fast and deft skater. He has a lethal shot from just about anywhere in the offensive zone, and is a threat whenever the puck is on his stick. He has a top-flight work ethic and hockey intelligence that is invaluable at his size. Putting on weight and getting stronger will be absolutely crucial to his NHL future, because at 5'6, he will have to either skate into space, or fight to create it. This season, Grimaldi will play at North Dakota, and should step immediately into a role in which he will be expected to score, and score often.

8. (11) Drew Shore, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2009

Shore continues his climb up the prospect ranking, and lands in the eighth spot after another year of progress at Denver. Shore put up 46 points in 40 games as the top-line center for the Pioneers, and opened the eyes of many while helping his team to the WCHA finals and their trip to the Frozen Four.

Shore uses his size and hockey sense to play a controlled game, and to gain and keep puck possession. He has a good but not lethal wrist shot, and is strong in all zones. Shore is a workman-like player who always seems to be in the right place on the ice. He will return to Denver for his junior season, and continue to hone his skills in preparation for what looks to be a good professional career.

9. (8) Alexander Petrovic, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2010

Petrovic came close to being a point-per-game player for Red Deer last season. He scored seven goals and 50 assists in 69 games, and finished the year at a career-high plus-27 while playing against some of the opposition's best lines. The Panthers rewarded Petrovic for his efforts by signing him to an entry-level deal this summer.

Petrovic is another big, quick, physical defenseman in the Panthers' system. His scoring output comes as a bonus to his authoritative play in his own end, where he will drop the gloves or punish opponents in the corners. Petrovic will continue to sharpen that nasty edge in Red Deer for another season before heading to the AHL and eventually to the NHL.

10. (4) Colby Robak, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2008

Robak's ranking in this list says more about the tremendous depth and rising quality the Florida system than it does about his talent or his career track. He is among the top offensive-minded defenseman in the Panthers' prospect pool.

Robak enjoyed a good rookie season in the AHL last year, playing 76 games and scoring 24 points as a 20-year-old. He is a good skater in a big frame with a hard, heavy point shot. Although not far from earning a full-time spot in the big leagues, Robak will return to the AHL for another year of improvement and experience.

11. (5) Michal Repik, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2007

Not often does a prospect put up 45 points in 53 AHL games and earn another 31 games of respectable performance in the NHL only to see his top 20 ranking drop by six spots. Much like Colby Robak and many others on this list, Repik's ranking is not a true comparative indication of his overall ability or potential.

If not for the influx of veteran talent into the Panthers organization this summer, Repik would probably be a lock to make the NHL squad, even as a fourth line player. However, many of the players that Tallon signed are bottom-line veterans, and Repik could have a tough time finding a place in the Panthers locker room, at least short-term. He is a speedy offensive threat, but will likely start the season back in the AHL unless he can manage to secure an NHL spot in camp.

12. (7) John McFarland, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2010

McFarland has two main currents pushing against him in the Florida pipeline. The first is the fact that he is a center in an organization that finds itself fully loaded at the center position. The second is his underwhelming results in juniors last year. McFarland has the tools to be a scorer in the NHL. He has speed, a great wrist shot and scoring touch, but at times last year he failed to make the score sheets for several games in a row.

Still, the Panthers have faith in his abilities, and signed him to an entry-level deal this summer. McFarland will undoubtedly spend another year in juniors before hitting the pro ranks. What he does with that year may or may not signal his potential as an NHLer, for there will be those who give him credit for a good year, and those who will claim any success to be the result of his age and maturity playing against younger opposition.

13. (NR) Rasmus Bengtsson, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2011

The fact that Bengtsson makes his debut this high up on the Panthers' Top 20 is a good indication of his overall potential as a two-way defenseman. Bengtsson played in Sweden's Allsvenskan last year, and scored just 12 points in 45 games. However, against players in his own age group, at the World Juniors and other U18 competition, Bengtsson netted three goals and 13 assists in 25 games.

Bengtsson has a big shot and the vision and patience to become a powerplay quarterback. On defense, Bengtsson plays a quiet, steady game, again using his instincts and hockey sense and quality positioning to limit opponent chances.

Bengtsson will continue to play in Sweden for the near future before making the transition to North America.

14. (NR) Corban Knight, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2009

Knight had a good sophomore year for North Dakota, and has begun to emerge as a true NHL prospect. Knight was the team's top faceoff player, was second overall in the points with 14 goals and 30 assists in 44 games, and finished near the team lead in plus/minus with a plus-25 rating.

Knight is a player that makes the opposing team miserable. He wins faceoffs, skates hard, competes non-stop, forechecks, backchecks, hits and scores. He has good size at 6'1, 181 pounds, and is good on his skates.

Knight will likely take over the top-line center duties for the Fighting Sioux this fall as a junior. Players like Matt Frattin (TOR) and Jason Gregoire (WPG) have moved on, so expect Knight to take on more of a leadership role on the squad. With Danny Kristo (MON) on his wing, Knight seems poised for a big year in the NCAA.

15. (10) A.J. Jenks, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 100th overall, 2008

Jenks' rookie season as a professional got off to a bumpy start after going through surgery to repair a defective heartbeat, but he still managed a substantial year in the AHL. Jenks scored 21 points in 63 games, and showed hints of his offensive potential.

Jenks is a power-forward in the making who skates surprisingly well. He has a quality shot and is creative in the offensive zone. He also has the hockey sense to play reliable defense, and is a good penalty killer. If he continues to work on his physical game and develop all of his many tools, he can become a steady third-line contributor in the NHL.

16. (NR) Vincent Trocheck, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2011

Florida has an immense stable of quality center prospects, and Trocheck has immediately become one of them. Taken early in the third round, Trocheck can easily be regarded as a prospect on the rise. He is a player that typically outworks everyone else on the ice. He is big, strong, and skilled in many areas though perhaps not great in any of them. He is also one of the youngest players in his draft class.

Trocheck scored 62 points (26 goals and 36 assists) in 68 games for Saginaw in the OHL last year, then scored another 11 in 12 playoff games. He looks like a lock to make the US national team for the World Junior Championships later this winter, and some have said that he was the most impressive player at the US development camp over the summer.

Trocheck will return to the OHL this fall, but is a player to watch closely.

17. (NR) Joonas Donskoi, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2010

Donskoi joins the top 20 this year after putting up 27 points in 52 SM-Liiga games for Karpat. Those are quality results for anyone (he was fifth on his team in scoring), but to achieve that production at 18 years old is all the more remarkable. In fact, Donskoi finished fourth overall in the SM-Liiga for players under 19 years of age, behind only Teemu Pulkkinen (DET), World Championships star Mikael Granlund (MIN), and 2011 first-round pick Joel Armia (BUF).

Donskoi is an explosive skater with a two-way, up-and-down-the-ice mentality. He makes the right plays, and although he has been said to lack creativity, his six points in six World Junior games last year continue to prove that he has the skills to produce against tough competition. Also, he proved he can more than hold his own against older, more experienced competition.

Donskoi signed an extension with Karpat, and will play at least one more season in Finland.

18. (14) Garrett Wilson, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2009

Wilson had standout year for the Owen Sound Attack in 2010-11, but his junior career ended on a sour note after a concussion knocked him out of the Memorial Cup. Prior to the injury, Wilson captained his OHL team to the league championship, was named to the OHL First All-Star team, and scored at a 1.3 points-per-game pace. The Panthers signed him to an entry-level contract at the end of his season. In a different organization, Wilson would be pushing for a top-ten spot in prospect rankings.

Wilson will in all likelihood join the San Antonio Rampage this fall to start his professional career. Wilson is a skilled and gritty player, a true leader who will get his hands dirty in the corners, in front of the net, or anywhere else on the ice when necessary. He has second-line winger potential, but probably will play a third-line role in the NHL.

19. (NR) Zachary Hyman, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010

Hyman was recently named the CJHL Player of the Year for his efforts in 2010-11. He led the Junior-A league in points-per-game production, and scored 42 goals with 60 assists in just 43 games. He ends his Junior-A career as the fourth all-time leading scorer in CJHL history.

Hyman's choice to play Junior-A hockey was predicated on his desire to move on the NCAA ranks, and he will join the University of Michigan squad this fall. He is an elusive, playmaking winger who will use every tool in his arsenal to win the puck, establish possession, and generate offense. Given his continued progression, he has the potential to develop into a defensively responsible scoring-line winger, capable of contributing on the powerplay and the penalty kill units.

20. (NR) Kyle Rau, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011

The second Minnesota Mr. Hockey on this list, and rounding out the top 20, is Kyle Rau, a small but terrifically gifted center who dominated the high-school hockey landscape last season. Rau scored 69 points (33 goals and 36 assists) in 25 games (compared to Bjugstad's 29 goals and 31 assists in 25 games the prior year) and scored the overtime, state-championship winning goal for Eden Prairie.

Rau is an agile, darting skater with terrific hands and hockey sense. He has the puck-handling skills and footwork to evade bigger defenders, the speed to challenge them on the outside when necessary, and the hands to finish his opportunities. Like other smaller players, Rau will have to develop the strength necessary to stay upright in battles in the corner, and to keep the bigger players from simply knocking him off the puck. However, given space and time on the ice, he can definitely make his mark on a game. Indications of his abilities were seen after the end of his high school season, when Rau joined the USHL's Sioux Falls team, and led them in points down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Rau will join Bjugstad at the University of Minnesota this fall, where he will continue his work toward a potential scoring-line role at the professional level.