Many top prospects for Florida Panthers starting to come of age

By Brian Fogarty

Logan Shaw - Florida Panthers

Photo: A high scoring forward in the QMJHL, Logan Shaw is expected to develop into complementary forward at the professional level. Shaw managed 68 points in 67 games with the Quebec Remparts this season. (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The 2012-13 season marked a pivotal point for numerous prospects in the Florida Panthers system. Seven different players (Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore, Alex Petrovic, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad, Michael Caruso, and Eric Selleck) made their NHL debuts this year. Others, including 2012 first-round pick Mike Matheson, launched their collegiate or professional careers. The players below have all gained recognition for their play, but given the breadth of talent in the system, each of these awards could have been handed out to several different players.

Prospect of the Year: Jonathan Huberdeau, LW, Florida Panthers (NHL)

Although Vince Trocheck is a prime candidate for the Panthers prospect of the year (winning the OHL scoring title certainly qualifies him), there is no denying that Jonathan Huberdeau deserves the award. Huberdeau currently holds the top spot among rookie scorers in the NHL and is second on the Florida Panthers in both goals scored and total points. With 14 goals and 14 assists in 47 games, Huberdeau is the current front-runner for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie. As the Panthers have struggled with injuries and inconsistent performances, Huberdeau has on many nights been the team's best player on the ice. His poise, dazzling offensive skills, and highlight reel goals set him above not only the rest of the Panthers pack, but most prospects worldwide.

Most Improved: Drew Shore, C, Florida Panthers (NHL)

Drew Shore was expected to make a smooth transition from being a team leader and scorer for the Denver Pioneers to-if all went well-a first or second-line center in the AHL during his inaugural professional season. That was how it was playing out through the first half of the season, and through 41 AHL games, Shore scored 10 goals, added 20 assists and earned a spot on the AHL All-Star squad. Then, when the NHL started its season in mid-January, Shore got a call to join the team in south Florida as an injury replacement. Expected to get a few games of experience, Shore started off slowly, taking six games to log his first NHL point. He quickly found a groove though, and became a frequently linemate of Huberdeau.  

Best Defensive Prospect: Alex Petrovic, D, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)

Although a case could be made for Mike Matheson being the top defenseman prospect in the Florida organization, his qualifications for that title would, at this point in his career, rest solely on his offensive abilities from the blue line. When discussing the best defenseman among the Panthers prospects, Petrovic still towers above the rest. At 6'4 and 206 pounds, he has the size to be a physical force in the NHL. He plays a smart defensive game, skates very well for a player his size, and can blast shots from the point. Petrovic made his NHL debut on April 18th, and saw just over 18 minutes of ice time.  

Fastest Skater: Quinton Howden, LW, Florida Panthers (NHL)

Panthers GM Dale Tallon puts an emphasis on skating ability, and many of the Panthers prospects are top-level skaters, including Rocco Grimaldi, Mike Matheson, and Vince Trocheck. However, when it comes to blazing speed and agility, Howden is a cut above. Although he has yet to score in his first 17 NHL games while playing a bottom-line role, Howden has used his speed to help generate plays in his own end and tilt the ice in his team's favor.

Hardest Shot: Alex Petrovic, D, San Antonio Rampage (AHL)

Petrovic uses his entire body to drive into his slapshot, and when he does, he generates an incredibly powerful shot. He is a threat to score from the point on the powerplay, and he often creates scoring chances for his forwards simply by blasting the puck on net to generate rebounds.

Overachiever: Logan Shaw, RW, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

Logan Shaw is a good hockey player, with excellent size at 6'3 and 204 pounds and above-average skating ability. His playoff performance at the end of the 2011-12 season highlighted his ability to put the puck in the net, and he has the physical play that could someday see him suiting up in the NHL. His point-per-game performance this season, however, stands out among his peers. He finished the season with 26 goals from 230 total shots, an 11.3 shooting percentage. In addition, although his production dipped slightly while Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) was playing in the NHL, Shaw continued to generate offense above expectations even without the former first-round pick as his line mate. Shaw signed an entry-level contract with the Panthers just a handful of days after the Remparts season ended.

Underachiever: Sam Brittain, G, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)

Junior Pioneer netminder Sam Brittain started the year with two solid performances, but struggled thereafter and eventually lost his starting role to Finnish sophomore Juho Olkinuora (WPG). Brittain spent most of the mid-season months on the bench, and saw action in just 13 of Denver's 39 games. He stopped 360 of the total 397 shots he faced and posted a .906 save percentage (compared to Olkinuora's .927 saves percentage). Brittain did perform well in his last few games to salvage some of the wrecked season, but he will need to have an outstanding senior year in order to hold his place on the Panthers depth chart.

Highest Risk/Reward prospect: Rocco Grimaldi, C/LW, North Dakota (WCHA)

As long as he maintains his prospect eligibility, Grimaldi will probably be the top candidate for this award. The rewards that he can give the Panthers are obvious and numerous: incredible and gifted skating, a quick release and accurate shot, high-level hockey intelligence, and the willingness to get physical and score goals from a scramble. On the other hand, the risks are just as obvious. Grimaldi is only 5'6. While size has become less of a determining factor for NHL players, Grimaldi remains on outlier even among the smaller players. Grimaldi turned in a quality freshman season after missing practically the entire 2011-12 season to a knee injury. He finished among the freshman leaders in scoring, and scored the gold-medal game winner for Team USA at the World Junior Championships.

Hardest Worker: Michael Houser, G, Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL)

Houser entered his first year of professional hockey as the reigning CHL Goaltender of the Year and  the OHL's Outstanding Player. Houser, an undrafted free agent signed by Florida last summer, continued to show that he might be the hardest working player in hockey by not only adjusting quickly to the ECHL pace while backing up Brian Foster, but by taking over the starting job when Foster was called up to San Antonio. Houser exceeded expectations by posting a .917 saves percentage in his 29 regular season games, and was named ECHL Goaltender of the Week in February. His play faded somewhat down the stretch, but once the playoffs began, Houser redoubled his efforts and has helped lead his team to the Eastern Conference semifinals. In six first-round games against second-seeded Toledo, Houser posted a .934 saves percentage, including a 37-save double overtime victory in the series opener.     

Breakout player for 2012-13 season: Mike Matheson, D, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)

Matheson just completed his freshman season for Boston College, and although his offensive abilities were on full display throughout the year, his defensive play left a lot to be desired. He should be able to add some strength over the summer and continue to work on his defensive zone positioning and physical play as the team heads into the 2013-14 season. If he can put everything together, Matheson will be among the top defensive players in the nation.