Panthers Top 20 prospects

By Matt MacInnis

The Florida Panthers system, led by Nathan Horton, is full of forwards with good size who love to play physically. Almost of all the team’s top forwards play a gritty style and also have good goal scoring skills. The team also has a number of very large defensive prospects who all have potential but are considered long-term projects at this point. The Panthers have just one strong goaltending prospect in David Shantz, and this is an organizational weakness which will need to be addressed in coming drafts, even with one of the world’s best in Roberto Luongo currently with the Panthers.

1. Nathan Horton, C – 19, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 3rd overall, 2003

It was a very difficult injury-shortened season for Horton, who registered just nine points in his 21 games played with the Rampage all season. In addition to struggling at the AHL level, Horton was not released to play in the World Junior Championships for Canada, despite being eligible for the tournament. Horton began the season recovering from shoulder surgery which was necessary because of an injury sustained late in the 2003-04 NHL season when he was playing with the Panthers. Horton’s shoulders have once again caused a problem for him and he has missed the last 42 games because of them.

Florida’s Assistant GM, Jack Birch, talked about Horton’s health a few weeks ago. “My understanding is that with the last operation they say they‘ve got it licked and that he’ll be 100 percent for next year. I think he’s back skating but he’s not going to play the rest of this year for sure. He was just turning the corner this year after missing a fair amount of time. I think he’s got all the tools to be a top power forward in the league.”

Despite the health concerns, Horton remains the consensus top prospect for the Panthers. Built in the mold of a power forward, Horton is a strong skater for his size and loves to throw his weight around. He was not physically intimidated in his first season in the NHL. However, this style of play is susceptible to injuries, as he has experienced already in his young career. Horton is a strong puck-handler who cycles the puck very well because of his size. He has soft hands for a big man and has the strength to plant himself in front of the net for rebounds and tip-ins. Horton is a nightmare for defensemen. With franchise player potential, the Panthers can plan on building their team around Horton if he is able to stay healthy.

2. Rotislav Olesz, C – 19, Sparta Praha (Czech)
Acquired: Drafted 7th overall, 2004

During the offseason Olesz moved from Vitkovice HC to Sparta Praha, where his numbers remained consistent with his production last season. In 47 games, Olesz managed 13 points, including six goals. However, it is important to acknowledge that Olesz faced stiff competition for ice time and power-play minutes as Praha had a number of locked-out NHLers on its squad, including David Vyborny, Jan Hlavac, Petr Nedved, and Martin Havlat, just among forwards. Considering the depth of the Praha team, Olesz did well statistically. Olesz also returned to the WJC tournament where he was dominant this year, scoring seven goals in seven games and totaling 10 points, putting him in a three-way tie for fourth in tournament scoring. Olesz, with the help of Petr Vrana (NJ) guided the Czech Republic to a bronze medal.

“Rusty” doesn’t play a typically European style of play. He’s a character type of player who contributes to all aspects of the team and has the abilities to play in all situations, including penalty kill. He has good hockey sense and puck handling skills and a strong shot to finish plays with. He could stand to shoot the puck more frequently, however. Willing to play physical, Olesz’s strong lower body make him difficult to move off the puck. In his own zone Olesz is responsible and limits his mark’s opportunities. Olesz has the capacity to be top line player in the NHL some day.

3. Anthony Stewart, RW – 20, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) & San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 25th overall, 2003

Stewart was expected to break out for an enormous offensive season in his final year of major junior eligibility but it never transpired. He ultimately put up very similar numbers to his previous two seasons, finishing with 67 points in 62 games, just above the point-per-game mark, as was standard for him during his time in the OHL. Stewart also won a gold medal with Canada’s WJC, where he managed to score three goals and one assist while not playing up to expectations. It is important to recognize that Stewart wasn’t often playing on one of the top two lines for the powerhouse Canadian squad either. Stewart physically dominated the OHL this season with his stature, but had difficulty converting that to offensive success. After his Frontenacs failed to make the playoffs, Stewart was signed to a try-out contract with the Rampage.

Birch commented about Stewart’s experience at the 2005 WJC. “I think what probably happened was that Anthony went in there thinking that he would be a star and Brent Sutter, in his wisdom, put him in his place early in the tournament. I watched Anthony play in the last three games and in the gold medal game he scored a major league goal. From our perspective we were very satisfied with what we saw at the WJC. I have a great deal of respect for Brent Sutter and I think he handled the situation perfectly; Anthony came in thinking that he was going to be on the front line and he didn’t deserve it at the time.”

Birch also addressed Stewart’s apparent lack of offensive improvement over the past season and what the Panthers expect from Stewart in the future. “No, that doesn’t bother me, what we project Anthony Stewart to be and what the hockey world might be saying is probably different. We’ve seen him play lots and there are things for him to work on but he represents that power forward, whether it’s a second or a third line it’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t’ say we’re relying on him to put pucks in the net. We’re going to rely on him to control the right side, be the first in the corners and at the front of the net and he does that.”

Stewart is a strong puck handler and also works very well along the boards. His shot is nothing spectacular, but he scores most of his goals in close, using his strength to overpower the defense. Considering his size and strength, though, Stewart has been criticized for not using it enough, particularly during the 2003 NHL preseason. Stewart still has some development and improving to do, but his maximum potential is very high. His size and ability to play solid defensively at this age make him a very strong candidate to make the NHL even if his offensive game doesn’t translate as hoped. However, if he can bring it all together, Stewart can be a good second line and power play contributor.

4. Stefan Meyer, C – 19, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Acquired: Drafted 55th overall, 2003

Some analysts speculated that Meyer’s 2003-04 season was a fluke, scoring 34 goals and putting up 75 points. This season he managed to match those numbers, proving that he was a legitimate offensive player at the WHL level. Meyer, who turns 20 in the offseason, makes the biggest jump in the end of season edition of the Top 20 Prospects, moving from 11th all the way to fourth. Meyer played well all season with the Tigers and led the team in both goals and points and was among the team leaders in plus/minus at +21. Meyer was unable to secure a spot with the Canadian WJC but his strong play was enough to earn him a spot at the try-out camp.

Now 6’2, 202 lbs, Meyer has grown into a frame that was once considered too slight to play in the NHL. He continues to have some skating issues, particularly his acceleration and explosiveness. His hockey skills are very good, however. He’s strong on the puck and has great finishing skills; he’s more of a goal scorer than a playmaker from the pivot position. Meyer wins a lot of the battles for loose pucks and has a knack for finding the open ice and getting into the right position for a loose puck. Meyer made strides this season towards correcting inconsistency which had plagued him. Meyer has second line potential, but will need several years to get to that point. It is impossible to tell if he will return to Medicine Hat as an over-age player or make the jump to the AHL at this point. The decision may be influenced by whether Meyer will get scoring line minutes with San Antonio next year.

5. Dany Roussin, LW – 20, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Acquired: Drafted 223rd overall, 2003

The past two seasons Roussin has scored 50 goals and more than 100 points, but he continues to be one of the greatest unknowns among all hockey prospects. The reason, of course, is because Roussin plays on a line with Sidney Crosby. Roussin put up similar numbers this year compared to last, and was one of three Oceanic to finish with 100 points or more (the third being MA Pouliot). That said, it is difficult to ignore the monster numbers which Roussin has posted the past two season, and at this point, Florida appears to have a steal at 223rd overall.

At 6’2, just under 200 lbs, Roussin needs to add a bit more weight for the NHL game. Not a particularly strong skater, Roussin’s best asset is his ability to finish, both with an accurate wrist shot and in close. It is easy to assume that Roussin’s production is directly correlated to his linemate, but the reality is that even with a superstar on his line, Roussin has still been the one to score 50 goals. He certainly benefits from having a Crosby beside him, but without his ability to bulge the twine, Roussin would not be on that line to begin with. Roussin’s critics are eagerly awaiting a time where he plays without Crosby, and at this point it is uncertain if that will be next season or two years from now. At this point, however, Roussin shows all the signs of a competent potential second line goal scorer.

Assistant GM Jack Birch agrees with this approach when evaluating Roussin. “There’s the perfect example of a guy who just puts the puck in the net. He might be benefiting from Sidney but it still requires putting the puck in the net and what we need to find out is if he can do it at the next level. He’s got the talent to do it. If you go back and look at when Crosby was away from the team, it didn’t slow down his production at all.”

6. Gregory Campbell, C – 21, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 67th overall, 2002

Campbell was one of very few players who did not struggle with the Rampage this season. In his second pro season, Campbell put up similar point totals to his first year (27 versus 29) while playing in 15 fewer games due to some minor injuries. Campbell also showed a chippy side by racking up 109 penalty minutes. His 27 points actually put him in a tie for second place in team scoring among players who are still with the Rampage.

Campbell is not expected to be an offensive player in the professional ranks, his best major junior season saw him register 56 points, but his success this season may indicate an ability to chip in on the scoreboard from time to time at the elite level. A little under-sized at the center position, Campbell is a defensive specialist that is very effective in his checking role. He still needs to add a little more muscle and be more physical on the forecheck. With the puck, Campbell has good speed and the ability to shift gears quickly. The fairly strong season may suggest that Campbell is getting close to ready to play a depth role with the Panthers when the NHL resumes play. His abilities max out as a third line checking forward, but that does not mean he is not a valuable asset.

7. Lukas Krajicek, D – 22, San Antonion Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 21st overall, 2001

Krajicek slides from third to seventh based on the strong seasons of those ahead of him rather than his own difficulties. Krajicek was one of the more steady offensive producers in San Antonio, scoring two goals and compiling 21 helpers for a season point total of 23. Krajicek has had a solid, but unspectacular season in the AHL and continues to show signs of getting closer to being prepared for full-time NHL action.

Krajicek is a good skating blueliner at 6’2, around 200 lbs, and has good passing abilities. One of the more offensively talented defensive prospects in the AHL this season, Krajicek spent much of the year honing his defensive game, although he is among the worst on the team with a -13 rating right now. This stat, however, is at least partially indicative of the quantity of ice time Krajicek has logged this season. He is a top four defender with good offensive skill. If his defensive game can improve, Krajicek’s usefulness to the Panthers will go up exponentially.

8. David Shantz, G – 18, Mississauga Ice Dogs (OHL)
Acquired: Drafted 37th overall, 2004

Shantz has experienced a difficult season. Not only did he fail to secure a spot on the Canadian WJC, but he has struggled to get starts between the pipes for the Ice Dogs. Shantz played in just 27 games this year, and made just four starts in January and February. He failed to record a single shutout, and had a GAA of 2.81, coupled with a respectable .910 save percentage. Shantz has not been given the starting job for the playoffs either. He was expected to be dealt from the Ice Dogs at the deadline but surprisingly nothing materialized, and Shantz has subsequently lost much of a year of game time.

It is unclear what will happen with Shantz next season. Unless Michael Ouzas remains for an over-age season, Shantz should inherit the starting job, but at this point that is not clear. Regardless, Shantz remains a strong prospect who played reasonably well when he was given the opportunity this season. He is a very good technical goalie and plays the angles very well. His biggest problem remains inexperience as he needs to get more game time just for development. He has the ability to be a starting goalie down the road, but Shantz is many years from recognizing that potential. Shantz will play in the OHL next season and may even be a candidate to remain in major junior for an overage season to make up for what happened this year, but that is difficult to tell at this point.

9. Rob Globke, RW – 22, San Antonio Rampage (AHL) & Texas Wildcatters (ECHL)
Acquired: Drafted 40th overall, 2002

In 54 games in the AHL, Globke struggled to put up the offensive numbers expected of him. He tallied just eight points, and at one point was demoted to the ECHL. In the ECHL Globke regained some confidence, scoring an impressive eight goals and four assists for 12 points in 10 games. He was also more physical with the Wildcatters, compiling 13 PIMs in 10 games compared to 17 PIMs in 54 games in the AHL.

“He represents the American born player with the size and the speed and the skill and all he really needed was the experience. We’ve moved him down to the ECHL and he did very well down there. His upside is decent and he’s going to be a strong power forward.” AGM Jack Birch on Globke’s season.

Globke is a very good skater for a player over 200 lbs at his age and uses his body to its fullest advantage. He plays a hard, physical game along the boards and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. He uses his long reach to his advantage offensively and defensively, and has an effective shot. Globke is extremely difficult to contain in one-on-one situations because of his rare blend of size and puck-handling abilities. He has slipped a bit due to a rough rookie season in the AHL, but his performance during his stint in the ECHL gives hope for this projected second line power forward.

10. Kamil Kreps, C – 20, San Antonio Rampage (AHL) & Texas Wildcatters (ECHL)
Acquired: Drafted 38th overall, 2003

Kreps had a very similar season to Globke. He also falls down the rankings because of a poor AHL season, though he was one of the youngest players in the entire league, only turning 20 in November. Kreps also experienced a 12-game stint in the ECHL where he excelled, totaling 11 points in his stay in the ECHL. He had problems producing points while often playing on depth lines in San Antonio, a situation which likely did not help his development as a playmaker or his long-term confidence.

Kreps, a speedy skater with very good vision, is primarily a playmaker. He is a bit thin right now to be productive at a professional level, but with 15 more lbs on his body to be stronger on his skates and less easily knocked around, Kreps has the raw skill set to be a productive second line pivot for the Panthers some day. However, this season indicates that he’s several years away from fulfilling that potential. The road ahead may be a difficult one for Kreps, but the talent is there for him to be a useful playmaker in the NHL.

11. Filip Novak, D – 22, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Trade with New York Rangers

Once a promising defensive prospect, Novak missed the entire 2003-04 season with an ankle injury. He returned in 2004-05 and saw a sharp drop off in his numbers from the last season he played, falling from 29 points in 57 games to just 9 points in 65 games this season. The only upside to the season for Novak was that he got in more games than ever before over his WHL and AHL career.

Novak is a talented blueliner who showed early signs of being a quality power play quarterback before his injury. Although he has lost a year of development, and struggled this season, the talent is still there to be the top four defenseman he was projected to become earlier in his career. He just has more to overcome at this point. Novak is a smart player in the offensive zone, makes the right passes, and has good judgment when to pinch. His physical game showed some signs of progressing during the season, but still needs improvement. Novak will need to rebound next season with a strong performance in order to reassert himself as a top prospect.

12. Vince Bellissimo, C – 22, Western Michigan University (NCAA) & San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 158th overall, 2002

Bellissimo had another successful season at Western Michigan, scoring 17 goals in 35 games and finishing with a point-per-game average. Following his strong season, Bellissimo made the decision to leave the college ranks a year early and turned professional, signing a tryout contract with the Panthers affiliate, the Rampage. Bellissimo has appeared in six AHL games, and has managed two points in his short end of season stint in the pro league. His strong collegiate play has moved him up four places in the Panthers top 20.

Bellissimo’s ferocity and intensity, particularly while pursuing loose pucks and fighting for possession, will make him a fan favorite at whatever level he plays. A player who has become more physical as his career progresses, Bellissimo also has quick hands and decent puck-handling abilities. Relatively strong on faceoffs, he will help his team get possession off the draw. Bellissimo has third line potential in the NHL, and will probably spend all of next year with the Rampage to adjust to the longer professional schedule and higher level of play.

13. Petr Taticek, C – 21, San Antonio Rampage (AHL) & Laredo Bucks (CHL)
Acquired: Drafted 9th overall, 2002

The lanky former top ten pick moves up two spots to 13 after a solid, but unspectacular season with the Rampage. Like the rest of the Rampage, Taticek had difficulties manufacturing offense and finished the season with just 17 points in 61 games. He did play the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League for four games where he picked up seven points. Taticek has never put up numbers much better than a point-per-game at any level, and was drafted projected as a second-line center, but remains some distance from his potential.

A play-making center, Taticek has a good stick-handling ability, vision, and the ability to make the difficult pass to an open winger. Known as a strong faceoff man in his junior days with Sault St. Marie, Taticek needs to add a little more strength before he can be dominant professionally. Competent in his own zone as well, Taticek has a reasonable shot at making the Panthers in the next two years, but obviously developments to his offensive game will make him a more valuable player.

14. David Booth, LW – 20, Michigan State University (NCAA)
Acquired: Drafted 53rd overall, 2004

Booth once again struggled offensively this season as he was unable to regain the same form which he scored 17 goals in during the 2002-03 season. Seen as a steal by some when selected late in the 2004 second round after a poor sophomore season, Booth’s inability to produce similar numbers to his freshman season brings questions about his offensive upside. After seeing his point production cut in half, from 36 to 18 between his first and second years, Booth’s point total dropped once again, to 16, this season.

An aggressive, physical type of player, Booth uses his 6’1, 217 lbs frame to his advantage at both ends of the rink. Not a fast player, he is very strong on his skates and difficult to move or knock off the puck. Not blessed with tremendous hands, Booth’s role is to create space for his linemates, to find the open ice for clear shots, and to put away rebounds. He needs to improve his offensive stats to be a real threat to make the Panthers anytime soon. His struggle this season likely will see Booth return for his senior season in college, but at this point no announcement has been formally made.

15. James Pemberton, D – 21, Providence College (NCAA)
Acquired: Drafted 124th overall, 2003

The hulking 6’4, 220 lbs defender from Rhode Island continues to show steady signs of all around improvement in the college ranks. With 3 goals and 12 points this season, Pemberton reached career highs in both categories. He moves up three spots in the Panthers rankings to 15th.

When he arrived in college, Pemberton was expected to put up strong offensive numbers based on his previous play. He is starting to show some signs of developing that component of his game while improving his defensive play. The past two seasons he’s spent most of his time on the Friars top defensive pair and has seen ice time during all situations. While still facing issues with his game, Pemberton has made improvements this season and is a prospect with legitimate NHL potential as a No. 4-6 defenseman. He will likely spent 2005-06 completing his collegiate career.

16. Martin Tuma, D – 19, Sault St. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Acquired: Drafted 162nd overall, 2003

Tuma is one of the newcomers to the Panthers top 20 after a successful second season in the OHL where he say significant increases in his offensive output. After registering five assists in his rookie CHL season, Tuma exploded for 10 goals and 13 assists for a total of 23 points on a team which won the OHL’s West Division. With 107 PIMs (third on his team), Tuma demonstrated a physical component to his game as well. He also finished the season +13, third best on the Greyhounds.

The 6’4, 210 lbs Czech is another large defenseman in the Panthers system who is showing signs of being pro material. Nineteen years old, Tuma will be back with the Greyhounds next season in the OHL. He’s adapted to the North American style well, not avoiding rough situations and being physical with opponents in the defensive zone. His decision-making ability could be better as he is prone to making a bad pass, but his skating for a big man is more than adequate. He has similar potential to Pemberton.

17. Jeremy Swanson, D – 20, Texas Wildcatters (ECHL) & San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Drafted 169th overall, 2002

Swanson falls five spots to 17 because he does not have high end potential and some of the other defensive prospects in the system had strong seasons in their respective leagues. Swanson, however, had a moderately successful first professional season. Swanson’s transition from the OHL to the ECHL was fairly seamless, and after spending slightly more than half the season with the Wildcatters, earned a call-up to San Antonio, where he played in 15 games.

Although not tall, Swanson is very well built and subsequently has great strength. The key to Swanson being successful at any level will be that he needs to remain physically stronger than the majority of opposing forwards, many of which are taller than he is. Overall, Swanson had a solid season, particularly considering he suffered a shoulder injury early in the year. His potential is likely a third pairing stay-at-home defenseman.

18. John Hecimovic, RW – 21, Sarnia Sting (OHL) & Mississauga Ice Dogs (OHL)
Acquired: Drafted 264th overall, 2003

Traded to the Ice Dogs during the season from Sarnia, Hecimovic averaged a little under a point-per-game with 19 goals and 14 assists for 33 points in 39 games. He also recorded 99 PIM. Playing as an overager, he appeared to injure his shoulder in a fight at the start of the last game of the season but was able to make it back to play in the first round, where the Ice Dogs lost.

At 6’1, 224 lbs, Hecimovic has good size and uses it in different ways. A physical, aggressive player he uses his size well along the boards battling for pucks and to finish his checks on the forecheck. Very willing to drop the gloves, Hecimovic is a fighter with good skating ability and the ability to find the back of the net. Hecimovic has a peak potential of a third line player, but a depth forward on the fourth like may be more realistic.

19. Greg Jacina, C – 21, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)
Acquired: Signed as a free agent

In his first full season in the AHL, Jacina was one of very few bright spots on the team. Jacina continued to display a feisty side to his game, racking up an impressive 140 PIMs, the third highest total on the team, somewhat surprising for a player who is not particularly big at 6’0, 200 lbs, although he has gained quite a bit of muscle over the past two seasons.

Jacina moves into the Panthers top 20 after his strong AHL season. With decent puck-handling skills and a good shot, Jacina has some offensive potential, although he never put up monster numbers in major junior. A player with something to prove after never being drafted, Jacina’s hard work continues to pay off. Limited to checking line player potential, he will need another equally strong season to have a chance at the next level.

20. Martin Lojek, D – 19, Brampton Battalion (OHL)
Acquired: Drafted 105th overall, 2003

At 6’5, 220 lbs, Lojek is a monstrous defender. He did not have a particularly strong season, putting up little in terms of offensive statistics and did not demonstrate the level of aggression that any pro team would like to see from a 6’5 player. Lojek missed some games to participate in the World Juniors for the Czech Republic where he played a solid, defensive, game.

Lojek is a stay-at-home type with very limited offensive upside. If the Panthers can tap into his aggressiveness and make Lojek a meaner player, he could be a top two pairing defenseman. But until he begins to initiate the physical play far more frequently, and improves upon his footwork and mobility, he remains a long-term, long-shot type of project.

Guy Flaming contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.