Florida Panthers prospects starting to come of age

By Brian Fogarty

Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers

Photo: University of Minnesota center Nick Bjugstad is one of several Panthers prospects who had a breakout season in 2011-12. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

Over the last three drafts, the Florida Panthers managed to stockpile an incredible array of young prospects. Some top-flight prospects such as former third-overall draft pick Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, and Alex Petrovic will make their official professional debuts this fall. Other top prospects like Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, and Corban Knight will return to their college programs, ready to resume their quests for a national title.

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

The summer began with disappointment for the young Saint John forward after his team lost in overtime in the Memorial Cup championship game, but summer could end with Huberdeau pulling on a Panthers sweater and a rousing opening night introduction to the NHL. Huberdeau has shown that he has nothing left to gain from playing junior hockey and is all but guaranteed a spot in the Florida lineup when the season starts.

Huberdeau remains one of the game's top prospects because of his ultra-high hockey sense and offensive instincts. He makes crisp, accurate passes to open players, can dazzle with the puck on his stick, and possesses a lethal shot that he can release from multiple angles and speeds. Although his skating speed still has room for improvement, he is quite agile. Combined with his soft hands and offensive instincts, he is able to find or create space and time on the ice, from which he often generates good scoring chances for himself or a linemate.

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

Bjugstad came tantalizingly close to signing a professional contract early in the summer. He was a standout player in the Panthers rookie development camp, not only for his dominant play on the ice, but also because the large, talented center from the University of Minnesota's Frozen Four team has gotten even bigger. At 6'6 and 220 pounds, one expects Bjugstad to play a solid physical game, which he does, but he also has good speed, soft hands, and  solid offensive instincts.

After much deliberation and extended deadlines, Bjugstad decided to return to the Gophers for another crack at a national championship. It was clear from interviews that Panthers GM Dale Tallon believes that Bjugstad can become a force up the middle on the NHL team.

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

Markstrom suffered through an up and down 2011-12 season. He started the year with glowing hot play in the NHL while substituting for an injured Scott Clemmensen. Once Clemmensen returned, Markstrom returned to the AHL to some sub-par performances. He turned that around in December and rattled off a string of seven games in which he saved all but 11 of the 205 shots he faced. Called up to the NHL once again, Markstrom injured his knee and required minor surgery which kept him out of action for most of January. After a couple of shaky starts upon his return, Markstrom again went on an extended streak of spectacular play and helped drive the Rampage deep into the playoffs.

Despite the Panthers statements that they would like to see him play another year in the AHL, Markstrom will battle Clemmensen for the NHL backup spot this fall. Should he not win the job, he will return to San Antonio and try to level out and play a full season without injury. However, no matter where he begins the season, his days of minor league hockey should be numbered.

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

When Howden hits the ice this fall, he will start the season playing professional hockey. With Bjugstad's return to the NCAA, Howden's odds of winning one of the two or three open spots on the Panthers roster have increased, and with his speed, scoring touch, and playmaking ability, he looks ready to accept the challenge.

Howden has terrific speed and he uses it to push the defense back on their heels. He drives hard to the net and plays a power forward style of game. He has a good shot and a deceptive release even at full speed, and the hand-eye coordination to be effective tipping and deflecting shots.

5. (6) Alex Petrovic, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2010

Petrovic was named the WHL Defenseman of the Year last season, and for good reason. He is physically imposing at 6'4, 210 pounds and plays the game with a hardness that can intimidate opponents. But being tough in his own end is just one way that Petrovic makes an impact. He is also a smooth skater with a big shot and the hockey sense to be a good powerplay quarterback and penalty killer. He has the potential to be a top-pair defenseman, but will likely end up as a really good middle-pair blueliner in the NHL. Petrovic helped out the San Antonio powerplay in their playoff run last spring, and will likely take up that same position again this fall.

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

Robak is coming off of an impressive AHL All-Star season and will compete for a bottom-pair defenseman spot in the NHL this fall. Although he does look like he is poised on the verge of making the transition to the NHL, if he does not win a spot there another year of development in the AHL will not hurt this solid, two-way player with good instincts and size. Robak was San Antonio's top-scoring defenseman last season, and finished 13th overall in the AHL in scoring from the back end. 

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

Shore signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers after the end of his NCAA season last spring, and played a few games in the American League with San Antonio. He managed three points in eight regular season games and two more assists in the playoffs. He has second-line upside due primarily to his outstanding hockey sense and work ethic, but is more likely to become the kind of third-line team leader that can help shut down opponents' top scorers and add significant counterpunch offense when the opportunities arise.

8. (8) Vincent Trocheck, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2011

Trocheck continues to prove that he will outwork and outhustle everyone on the ice every time he comes over the boards. He is a smart, instinctive center, a good skater, and the kind of player that coaches love for their leadership, effort, and two-way talents. Though he was passed over by Team USA last fall, Trocheck served well in the national team's summer camp and should make a serious contribution to their gold-medal efforts in the upcoming World Junior Championships. Still only 19, Trocheck will return for another season of junior hockey with Saginaw in the OHL.

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

It may have seemed innocuous at first. Taking a puck to the knee in training camp hurts. Combine an everyday occurrence with a rare congenital knee problem, and surgery becomes the only effective solution and a season is lost. So it was with Rocco Grimaldi, who continues to rehabilitate from the corrective procedure. Fortunately, Grimaldi should have a full recovery and restart his hockey career. He may not be fully ready for the University of North Dakota fall opener, but he should be back in game shape sooner rather than later.

Grimaldi has exceptional talents. His speed is remarkable, his hands extremely quick and his shot laser accurate. He is quick, explosive and as long as he can continue to be competitive against much larger players, he has the potential to be an NHL fan favorite for his play and unparalleled work rate. Grimaldi has an almost innate ability to find the puck in a crease scramble and quickly release a sharp shot. In open ice, he is practically untouchable and he could become a top-level puck possession player. The only thing Grimaldi has to prove is whether or not those skills and skating abilities will allow him to be equally effective against the big men of the NHL.

10. (16) Kyle Rau, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011

What a season for the Gophers freshman. Rau racked up accolades and points in his inaugural year in the NCAA. His non-stop energy is infective and he looked stronger and feistier as his confidence grew. Rau has great hands down low, and his hockey sense separates him from most college freshman. Rau created turnovers in the offensive zone just by anticipating breakouts and getting himself in the right spot before the defender made the pass. He showed a knack for scoring goals off of rebounds, and likes to set up on the doorstep. He will, however, dig into the corners against much bigger players, and proved that he is not intimated by anyone on the ice.

11. (NR) Mike Matheson, D, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 23rd overall, 2012

Matheson makes his Top-20 debut at number eleven but he definitely has the potential to quickly move up the ranks. For a first-round pick, Matheson is a bit of an enigma. He is a spectacular skater and was once considered a top-flight CHL prospect, but instead he joined the Dubuque Saints of the USHL for a year of American junior hockey before he heads to Boston College this fall. He is relatively small for an NHL defenseman, and he takes risks on the ice. But if he develops and makes his way to the NHL, he could become the kind of dynamic, offensive blueliner the Panthers need.

12. (11) Corban Knight, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2009

Knight is a solid center who tends to dominate the faceoff circle and the corners of the rink. Although he was hampered by injuries most of last season, he was still effective and played significant minutes for UND. He has decent hands and his ability to maintain puck control in traffic opens up opportunities. When the chances arise, more often than not Knight can make the pass to spring a linemate or take advantage of a goalie out of position. Given his hard-working style of play, Knight projects as a very good third-line player.

13. (12) James Wright, C, 6.5C
Trade with Tampa Bay Lightning, December 2nd, 2011

Wright is slowly trying to play his way back into the big league. The Lightning drafted Wright in the fourth round in 2008, and after one additional year in the WHL, moved him up to the NHL for 48 games. After logging just five points, the Lightning sent Wright back to the WHL. In the two full seasons since then, Wright has played just one game in the NHL as he struggled to regain his effectiveness. At 6'4 and 196 pounds, Wright has good size and his 80 AHL points in 156 games proves that he has some scoring ability. Wright is only 22 years old, and has time to once again make it the NHL, but he must still prove himself before he gets another crack at it. 

14. (NR) Steven Hodges, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2012

Hodges joins the Panthers organization after a solid draft year with Victoria in the WHL. On a beleaguered Royals team, Hodges held his own with 46 points in 72 games. He is an excellent skater who has shown a nose for the net and has some grit to his game. He has a high hockey intelligence and makes solid reads at both ends of the ice. At this stage, Hodges appears to be a candidate for second or third-line duty, assuming he improves his two-way play. He is a project player, but the Panthers have the luxury of outstanding system depth and the time that provides to let players like Hodges develop.

15. (14) Yaroslav Kosov, C, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2011

Kosov has slowly been gaining traction in Russia and in international play, and continues to improve and develop. The 6'3, 220 lbs winger has a physical game that is suited for North American ice and could become a true power forward in time. Still just 19, Kosov produced consistently in limited ice time in the KHL during the last season and made good use of the limited ice time he saw. With some inevitable ice time increases and more scoring responsibility, Kosov will continue to progress towards becoming a valuable component in the Panthers system.

16. (15) Sam Brittain, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010

Britain rejoined the Pioneers late in the season after spending months rehabilitating from knee surgery. Once back between the pipes, Brittain quickly shook off the rust and once again proved that he is a potential NHL starter. Though he struggled a bit early on in maintaining his angles and reading the play in front of him, Brittain managed to post record-breaking numbers as the season wound down. Going into his junior year for Denver, Brittain needs a healthy and dominant season in order to reestablish his credentials. However, he has great size and athleticism and is as mentally tough as any netminder in the NCAA.

17. (9) John McFarland, C, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2010

McFarland looks to rebound after a shoulder injury brought a sudden and premature end to his junior hockey career. Once thought of as a top junior prospect, McFarland's struggles to generate consistent offense in the OHL have been well-documented. As he begins his professional career, McFarland must prove to his detractors and fans alike that he can apply the effort that will make the most use of his prodigious offensive talents.

18. (17) Rasmus Bengtsson, D, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2011

Bengtsson crossed the pond early last year and took up residence with Muskegon of the USHL. There, the young Swedish defender saw an increase in ice time and became a stronger, more disciplined defender as the season wore on. He plays a quiet, positional game geared more toward controlling the flow of action than making dazzling, sensational plays. Bengtsson needs further development, and is at best years away from the NHL, but he has the ability to become a steady middle- or bottom-pair defender.

19. (19) Jonathan Racine, D, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 87th overall, 2011

Racine was impressive at this summer's development camp. His physical play is improving, and his defensive awareness, always a valuable tool, has become his strongest asset. Racine is a tremendous athlete, with a long reach and the strength to easily disrupt the oncoming play and manage the best the opponents can put up against him. With Shawinigan trading his QMJHL rights to Moncton over the summer, Racine should see an increased role on the Wildcats top defensive pairing.

20. (NR) Connor Brickley, C, 6.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2010

The joy and excitement of playing in the World Junior Championships changed quickly for the winger from Vermont after his calf was inadvertently cut by a skate blade. Though he was able to come back and play three games for the US team, the injury bothered Brickley for the remainder of the NCAA season. He finished with just 12 points on the year. He will return for another go for the Catamounts this fall.