Top prospects for Florida Panthers starting to make an impact in the NHL

By Brian Fogarty

Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers

Photo: Forward Nick Bjugstad's decision to return to Minnesota for another season has paid off, as the Golden Gophers have been among the top teams in the nation. (courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Since the beginning of the truncated NHL season in January, several of the Florida Panthers prospects have had a chance to play in the NHL, and their experiences with the big club have helped to shuffle the order of the organization's top 20 prospects.

In particular, Drew Shore's success has lifted him several spots in the ranking, while others like top prospect Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Colby Robak have shown that their spots in the ranking are legitimate and well-deserved. Others, such as junior prospect Vince Trocheck and collegiate players Corban Knight and Rocco Grimaldi continue to fulfill their potential and demonstrate that the prospect pool is among the NHL's best.

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

To say that Huberdeau has transitioned well from junior hockey to the NHL would be a dramatic understatement. The rookie forward has not only adjusted to big league play, but through 32 games Huberdeau has scored 12 goals, good enough for the team lead and a spot among the league leaders. He has been one of the few bright spots on a struggling Panthers team and easily the team's most effective player. He and his linemates (fellow rookie Drew Shore and free-agent acquisition Peter Mueller) have driven most of Florida's possession and scoring opportunities.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Huberdeau's play in the NHL has been his effectiveness in the corners and in high-traffic areas. His abilities in open ice situations, where his skills and vision have time to bloom, have always been evident, but his play around the net has been better than expected. He is simply a NHL star in the making and one of the top candidates for this season's Calder Trophy.

2. (3) Jacob Markstrom, G, 8.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2008

The Panthers have suffered through inconsistent goaltending for most of the season, and a recent, perhaps season-ending injury to starter Jose Theodore appears to have finally opened the door to an extended NHL stay for Markstrom. He looks ready. Markstrom has stopped 240 of 262 shots through his first nine games, and his .916 saves percentage and 2.72 goals against average clearly outshines those of the veteran Florida netminders, Theodore and Scott Clemmensen. Markstrom uses his size to his advantage, and although he is still somewhat raw in his technique, he covers so much of the net that there is little room for shooters to find openings. As he closes up some of the holes in his form (his long legs often leave gaps between his pads as he drops to the butterfly), he can become a top talent in goal for the Panthers.

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

Though Nick Bjugstad did not have type of dominating junior season that was expected of him, he continues to be the focal point and leading goal-scorer for Minnesota, who is among the top teams in the nation this year.

Although he arguably may have been better served by going pro this season, Bjugstad has shown a willingness to continue his development curve while playing a key role on a successful team. His skating continues to improve, and that aspect of his game which was once considered a weakness is now at a level that may have turned to a slight benefit to his overall game. He is quicker, stronger and faster on his skates than he was even last season. His strength down low and his ability to control the puck with positioning and sheer power has not fallen off. He also continues to show a professional-level shot.

Bjugstad looks to carry his team far into the post-season, but he could find his way to the NHL for a few games after the end of the Gophers' 2012-13 run.

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

Drew Shore traveled to Florida just a couple of days after the start of the NHL season, principally for spot duty to help out an injury depleted lineup. Shore turned that short stint of third-line minutes into a permanent home on Florida's most productive line through gritty hard work, faceoff success, and instant chemistry with fellow rookie Jonathan Huberdeau. Shore was scoreless through his first five games, but has since been fairly productive, with 11 points in the following 25 games. He plays the game like a veteran, making simple plays and doing the little things right to get the job done.

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

After a slow start to his AHL season, Howden has started adjusting to the pace of the AHL, and his scoring rate has increased despite the absence of some key offensive pieces in San Antonio. Howden is an effective penalty killer, and his speed makes him a scoring threat even while his team in shorthanded. Howden recently was called up to the NHL, though how long he will be on the Panthers roster remains to be seen. He will likely make the Panthers NHL roster on a full-time basis in 2013-14.

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

Petrovic's size, toughness, and cannon shot have helped carry him through his first professional season. Petrovic has seen some difficult moments this year, but he is beginning to come into his own on the ice. He has 15 points in 45 games, and 83 minutes in penalties. He skates well, shoots hard, and hits harder. He can play the point on the powerplay and he can be an effective penalty killer.

Petrovic still has a way to go before he can be considered an offensive threat at the NHL level, but even if his scoring fails to translate, the other aspects of his game are solid enough to buy him a middle-pair role in the near future.

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

Robak was an AHL All-Star last year, and through the first half of the current AHL season he was arguably San Antonio's top defenseman. Long known as a big, two-way defender with good skating ability as well as reliable defensive positioning and technique, Robak's future in the NHL has been more a question of when he would make it to the Panthers lineup and where he would fit in the big league. It appears that the answer to that question is now. Robak was called up to Florida as an injury replacement at the end of February. In the 13 games he has played since then, Robak has earned increased ice time and responsibility while displaying a quickness and confidence that have exceeded expectations. He has been seeing time on the second powerplay unit and some limited penalty killing work, as well.

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

Trocheck-a hard-working forward who does everything well-skyrocketed to the top of the OHL leaderboard this season and finished the regular season with 50 goals and 59 assists in 63 games and an OHL scoring title. Trocheck will move on from the junior ranks after the end of his season and could play in a few AHL games depending on how far the Whalers advance in the post-season. Regardless of the season's outcome, Trocheck continues to climb the Panthers organizational depth chart, and should be among the system's top five prospects next year.

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

Offense has never been an issue for Matheson. His speed and balance can be mesmerizing to opponents and fans, and his puck control and passing are top notch. He has a natural ability to assess opportunities for rushing the puck up ice or snapping an outlet pass to an open forward. The weakness in Matheson's game has been decision making and positional assignments in his own zone.

Early in his freshman season at Boston College, Matheson was often out of position or chasing opponents after a defensive mistake that caused him trouble. He also still shows a propensity for trying poke checks and takeaways when the simpler, more effective play would be to take the body. However, as the season has progressed, Matheson has slowly begun to improve in his own end, and with increased confidence has come more scoring chances. Over the last ten games of the Eagles regular season schedule, Matheson tallied three goals and seven assists, including a three-point game in Providence. Although his defensive game could benefit from at least another year at BC, there is a chance that Matheson could sign a professional contract at the conclusion of this season.

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

Grimaldi's hard work to recover from last year's season-ending knee surgery has been rewarded this season with a 35 points in 38 games so far and a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie team. Grimaldi started the year on North Dakota's third line, but quickly ascended up the depth chart to form what became one of the top scoring lines in the country with fellow Florida prospect Corbin Knight, and senior Danny Kristo (MON).

His combination of high-end speed, puck skills, and accurate repertoire of shots make him a threat to score on every shift. He has incredible hockey sense, and moves effortlessly around the ice. He has been able to refine his game as the season progressed, and has acclimated to the college game in a way that shows that he is able to thrive among the bigger bodies and more experienced players in the NCAA. There is no question that as a small player Grimaldi will need more development time, but if skill, skating ability, heart, and hard work are the prime requirements for an NHL future, Grimaldi will be heading to the world's top league before too long.

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

Rau continues to impress. After a rookie year that brought him accolades and freshman All-American status, Rau improved his game and steadied his sometimes erratic play. Another small player in the Florida system, the 5'8 sophomore is second on the Gophers squad in scoring with 15 goals and 24 assists, including seven game-winning goals. Still, it is his innate intelligence for the game that sets Rau apart from most players. Rau can find pucks in a scrum while other players are just poking and fishing for the puck. He sees plays developing in a way that allows him to act more quickly than his opponents, and the result is often Rau with the puck on his stick in a key moment in the game.

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

Knight's decision to stay at the University of North Dakota for his senior season paid off. With Grimaldi and Kristo (MON) on either wing, the feisty 6'2 center helped lead the Sioux to a 21-11-7 record while finishing tied (with Kristo) for seventh overall in the nation in scoring at the end of the regular season. Knight plays the game with an imposing amount of energy and combination of size, quickness, and physical play that could see him playing a key third-line leadership role in the NHL.

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

Kosov continued to show off his physical game in Russia this season. Far from the eyes of North American fans and media, the unsung two-way forward gathered in just four goals and three assists while playing limited minutes in a mainly defensive role for Magnitogorsk. Although that total seems underwhelming, Kosov finished fourth overall in the league among players under the age of 20. Still, his lack of ice time and the slowed development that comes from not playing quality minutes at his age threaten to damage his future potential. The time may have come for Russian forward to make the trip to North America and begin playing meaningful minutes in the AHL.

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

Hodges missed a significant amount of time early in the season because of injury, but managed to put together a respectable season after his return. The Victoria Royals center has posted nearly identical point totals this season (28 goals and 23 assists) to his draft year, but did so in 12 fewer games. A rough-and-tumble player who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in order to generate offense, Hodges has accumulated 67 penalty minutes. He was particularly effective on the powerplay this season, managing nine powerplay goals, which was third among Royals skaters.

He is a versatile player without a lot of high-end potential, but could develop into a steady checking-line presence in the NHL if he can maintain his development at his current pace.

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

Hyman joined Michigan as a high-scoring, speedy winger out of the Canadian Junior A ranks, but he has thus far been asked to play a shutdown role for legendary Wolverines coach Red Berenson. Perhaps Hyman's most impressive contribution thus far has been his willingness and ability to transform his game into that of a more physical and defensive forward capable of quickly pushing the puck up ice after generating a turnover. He has become defensively responsible and will throw hits along the boards or angle opponents away from scoring chances. He has acquired commendable stick work and takes away passing lanes with positioning and effort. What remains to be seen is whether or not he can recapture the scoring prowess he enjoyed in Junior A while continuing a high-level defensive work rate, but even if he cannot do so, he looks like a player who could still contribute tenacious minutes in the NHL.

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

Brickley has struggled to stay in the lineup yet again this season. The smooth skating two-way winger for the Vermont Catamounts lost time this year from a nasty forearm cut from a skate blade, and was never able to find his scoring touch on a team that struggled to score all season. Brickley is a smart hockey player, with NHL speed and agility. He understands the defensive game and is responsible in his own zone. With all the tools to be an NHL player, the one thing left for him to do is prove that he can avoid the unfortunate injuries and reestablish his offensive game at the next level.

17. (NR) Michael Houser, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, July 11th, 2013

The long, arduous journey that has been the career of goaltender Michael Houser continues, and at every turn he simply seems to get better. Houser converted an opportunity to get some time in the ECHL as a backup to Brian Foster into a showcase by posting a .922 save percentage and allowing only 2.49 goals per game. For his efforts, Houser was named ECHL Goaltender of the Week in late February and has secured a spot near the top of the Panthers goaltending depth chart. A backup role in the AHL next season, or possibly more, would not come as a surprise given Houser's tremendous work ethic and talent.

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

Bengtsson got the opportunity to play for his country in this year's World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. There, he posted an assist in four games, but it was yet another fragment of quality experience for the young Swedish blueliner, to go along with his training camp work in San Antonio and his first full season of USHL hockey. Bengtsson finished the USHL regular season second among Lumberjacks defensemen in scoring, but he is not known as an offensive blueliner. Instead, he is more of a stay-at-home type who can help lead a breakout. He still has a long ways to go before developing into an NHL-quality defender, but the framework is there.  

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

Another season, another year of simple, effective, unglamorous defense from Jonathan Racine. He has actually improved his offensive production this season, but his value comes in the form of consistent defensive play in his own end. His reach, strength and skating allow him to muscle forwards away from chances, and he plays with an edge. Racine will take a while to make to the NHL, and he is not going to make a lot of noise getting there. However, after a couple of years in the AHL, he should begin to see NHL minutes, and could become a steady third-pairing shutdown blueliner.

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

McFarland continues to try to claw his way back up the organizational ladder, and did manage to hold on to a Top-20 spot through some moderate productivity in San Antonio. As injuries took their toll all along the Panthers system, McFarland got the opportunity to move up to the AHL, where he posted 11 points in 32 games. His performance for the Rampage has not yet done enough to put him back onto a safe NHL track, but if he can continue to develop a checking-line type of game, he could end up with a shot at the big leagues someday.