The Florida Panthers made it into the NHL playoffs for the first time in four seasons and it’s thanks to a growing young cast of budding NHLers. General Manager Dale Tallon has built a strong core, while still allowing for the team’s prospects to develop at their own pace.
That notion allowed 2015 first round pick Lawson Crouse to spend another season in the OHL despite thoughts that he might break camp with Florida, while top defensive prospect Mike Matheson spent the entire season in the AHL after a three-year NCAA career.
Hardest Worker: Michael Downing, D, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Recently signed by the Panthers after his junior season with the University of Michigan, Michael Downing will bring his usual work effort, energy and hard hitting to the organization. The 6’2, 200lb rearguard was the most penalized Wolverine in each of his three seasons with the team and also led in blocked shots this past season. But that isn’t to say he’s inept offensively; he is coming off of back-to-back 20-plus point seasons. He was a favourite of Michigan head coach Red Berenson this past season, playing top-pairing duties along with highly touted Zach Werenski (CBJ).
Hardest Shot: Ian McCoshen, D, Boston College (Hockey East)
McCoshen was the recipient of this award last season and no current Panthers prospect has surpassed him this season. McCoshen, who scored 11 goals from the point in 2012-13 with Waterloo of the USHL, has scored 17 goals in the past three seasons with Boston College. Like Downing above, he’s a hard-hitting blueliner with some offensive capability, but he boasts a bit of a larger frame at 6’3 and 218lbs, which gives him a lot of torque on his shot. McCoshen was considered to have the hardest shot with Waterloo in junior and boasted one of the hardest shots in the entire Hockey East conference. He is eligible to play one more season with the team and has yet to sign an NHL contract.
Best Defensive Prospect: Mike Matheson, D, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Matheson, a three-year Boston College Eagle, is an above average skater and at 6’2 he is the ideal size for an NHL defenseman – it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s where he was next season. This year, however, Matheson developed in the AHL with Portland, where he recorded 20 points in 54 games and was recorded a plus-14, which led the team’s defensemen. There isn’t much separation between the team’s trio of solid defense prospects (Matheson, McCoshen and Michael Downing), but Matheson is a step ahead in terms of development and has already dressed in three games for Panthers.
Fastest Skater: Rocco Grimaldi, C, Portland Pirates (AHL)
Grimaldi’s greatest asset is his speed, which is a necessity given his diminutive 5’6, 180lb frame. The 23-year-old had a tremendous rookie season in the AHL in 2014-15 and even played in seven games for the Panthers; he played 20 regular season games for the big team this year, while recording 33 points in 52 games with Portland of the AHL. He has a quick first few steps and can get up to top speed in a hurry, which, combined with his offensive ability, makes him a dangerous north-south player.
Prospect of the Year: Jayce Hawryluk, C, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
No prospect in the Panthers organization – and few in the world of hockey—put up more points than Jayce Hawryluk this season. The second round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft was a late cut from the Canadian World Junior team and his Brandon Wheat Kings didn’t quite meet expectations in the first half of the season, but that changed in the second half thanks in large part to Hawryluk’s improved play. The Roblin, Man. native had 60 points in Brandon’s final 22 games and finished the season fourth in WHL scoring with 106 points, despite playing 14 fewer games than the three players ahead of him. He’ll turn pro next season.
Breakout Player for 2016-17: Chris Wilkie, RW, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Freshman Chris Wilkie had a decent season with the National Championship-winning University of North Dakota; he had nine points in 32 games, including a four-point effort on Mar. 4 against Western Michigan. With one season under his belt, Wilkie is likely due for a better season in 2016-17 anyway, but UND could see a drastic overhaul in the offseason, leaving space for an offensively gifted winger on its top two lines. Senior Drake Caggiula, the team’s second-leading scorer, can’t return next year, while his linemates Brock Boeser (VAN) and Nick Schmaltz (CHI) certainly have the ability to turn pro. Wilkie, in 2014-15, led the USHL’s Tri-City Storm in scoring with 55 points (35 goals, 20 assists) in 59 games.
Most Improved Prospect: Samuel Montembeault, G, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (QMJHL)
Lanky 6’3 goaltender Samuel Montembeault improved steadily throughout the season and has been the driving factor in the Armada’s unlikely postseason run. Montembeault recorded a .891 save percentage and a 33-11-7 record for the high-octane Armada last season; this year his record dropped to 17-19-8 with a much weaker team in front of him, but his save percentage rose to .901. In the post-season, Montembeault allowed 15 goals in a six-game, first round upset against the Val d’Or Foreurs. Six of those goals were allowed in a Game 5 stinker in which he faced 40 shots; the following game, however, Montembeault stopped 54 of 56 shots in the series-winning game at home.
Overachiever: Logan Shaw, RW, Florida Panthers (NHL)
Few people expected 23-year-old Logan Shaw to play in 53 games for the Florida Panthers this season, perhaps not even Shaw himself. The former third-round pick of the 2011 NHL Draft was in the final year of his entry-level deal this season; he split the first between the ECHL and AHL and last season recorded 25 points in 69 AHL games. He completely earned his spot in Florida after an incredible start to the season with Portland, however, scoring seven goals in 13 games. In April, after a demotion to Portland, Shaw scored four times in five games, ending his AHL campaign with 11 goals in 18 games – last year Shaw had 13 goals in 69 games.
Underachiever: Yaroslav Kosov, Magnitogorsk Metallurg (KHL)
The Panthers thought they might have drafted a steal in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Draft, but the big-bodied Russian, Yaroslav Kosov, hasn’t progressed as expected; rather, his regular season numbers have been uninspiring and this season he dropped from nine points the previous season to just five points in 53 games this year. Since he was drafted, Kosov has just 34 points in 204 games. That said, Kosov, who won’t turn 23 until July, better his regular season numbers with seven points in 19 playoff games this season.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Denis Malgin, C, Zurich (Swiss-A)
Malgin is a fourth round selection from last June’s draft, so there’s not a ton of risk in that regard, but he has since put together an impressive resume that may or may not translate at the NHL level, especially given his diminutive stature. The 19 year old recorded 17 points in 38 games with Zurich this season and was one of the top scorers in the entire World Junior Championships. Best case scenario is that Malgin continues to play well in Switzerland for another season or two and then thrives in North America, but it’s important for fans to temper expectations at this point.
Prospect of the Month: Samuel Montembeault, G, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (QMJHL)
Montembeault might not be the sole reason the Armada is still in the QMJHL playoffs, but he has played an incredibly important role, particularly in Game 6 against Val d’Or, where he stopped 54 of 56 shots to put his team through to the second round. The Foreurs lost just 18 games in 68 regular season games and finished fourth in the entire QMJHL. In eight playoff appearances as of Apr. 12, Montembeault recorded a 2.26 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. In March, he recorded his third shutout of the regular season and also allowed just three goals in his last two starts.