Florida Panthers Top 20 full of prospects ready for NHL

By Brian Fogarty

Jacob Markstrom - Florida Panthers

Photo: Goaltender Jacob Markstrom will have a chance to earn the starting job for the Florida Panthers in training camp. Markstrom recorded 23 starts for Florida in 2012-13. (courtesy of Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

Narrowing the Florida Panthers vast prospect pool into a top 20 is no easy task, and several of the players in the second half of the list could easily crack the top 10 prospects in other organizations. The Panthers continue to move youth into their NHL lineup and many of the players currently ranked will graduate in 2013-14, but there are several newcomers and other top prospects ready to fill the empty spots.

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

Jonathan Huberdeau is undoubtedly one of the best young players in hockey right now and he has the hardware to prove it. Despite playing through a hip injury which required offseason surgery, Huberdeau ended his debut NHL season as the Panthers top forward, with a rookie scoring title and Calder Trophy in hand.

Although he lacks high-end speed, Huberdeau is an agile and quick skater with good acceleration. He reads plays well, and has tremendous offensive instincts and the hands and vision to find opportunities that most players would miss or be unable to finish. He can snap off a quick one-timer while on the move and has a highly accurate shot, but he is most dangerous with the puck on his stick and a split second to make a play.

He is expected to continue to grow in his second NHL season and has the potential to be a star forward in the near future.

2. (NR) Aleksander Barkov, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 2nd overall, 2013

Though only recently drafted, Barkov has already built an accomplished hockey career. His achievements thus far at such a young age (he was just two weeks from the 2013 draft cutoff) include two seasons of professional play in Finland's best hockey league with a top-10 finish in scoring, and two trips to the Under-20 World Junior Championships.

Barkov is a player with exceptional hockey sense. He has great size and strength, and uses both to protect the puck even when in heavy traffic. His combination of strength, size, and skill allow him to create space on the ice and distribute the puck even while drawing double or triple coverage. He has a hard, accurate wrist shot and with his amazing balance, he can fire that shot off from almost any situation or body position.

Barkov is expected to compete for a roster spot in training camp. He should be a perfect complement to Huberdeau and could very well compete for the 2014 Calder Trophy.

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

Markstrom will enter the 2013-14 season with a genuine opportunity to take over the starting goaltender role. Last year's starter Jose Theodore is no longer with Florida, and although backup Scott Clemmensen is still with the team, he cannot be considered a legitimate starter this late in his career. So Markstrom, who for the past few years has been talked about as one of the game's top prospects, should finally take the next step up in his career. If Markstrom can remain consistent in net despite the young team in front of him, and use his size and quickness to his advantage, 2013-14 could finally be his breakout season.

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

Bjugstad made his long-awaited NHL debut late last season, and although he needed several games to score his first goal, he looked comfortable in the Florida lineup. His skating improved during his years with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and he now patrols the offensive zone with efficient, powerful strides and is able to easily get himself into position. His size is an important weapon in his arsenal, but his overall hockey sense and puck protection will help to lift him up past a checking line role and into a serious offensive threat and two-way centerman.

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

Shore made the most of his chance at an NHL roster spot last year, and quickly became a key piece on the team's best offensive line. He was outstanding in the faceoff circle, hard to knock off the puck especially when deep in the offensive zone, and he developed good chemistry with Calder winner Huberdeau. A wrist injury hampered his production over the last portion of the season, but Shore had successful surgery to repair the damage, and looks ready to build upon his early success.

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

Petrovic had a good rookie year with Florida's AHL affiliate in San Antonio. He adapted well to the faster pace of the professional game, and by the end of year he had become one of the best Rampage defenders. His efforts earned him a late-season call to the NHL, where he played six games for Florida.

Petrovic is a good skater for a 6'4 defenseman, and his mobility, toughness and physically punishing style make him the system's top blue line prospect.

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

Just months out of junior hockey, Howden got an unexpected crash course in NHL hockey last season. Injuries to several Panthers forwards forced the team into bringing Howden up earlier than anticipated and he finished the season with 18 NHL games under his belt. His speed made him a constant threat, but he finished with no points, as he was used primarily in a bottom-line role and averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time per game.

Howden needs more time in the AHL to build game experience, particularly in offensive situations. He has the speed and skill to be a top nine forward in the NHL.

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

This will be a crossroads season for Robak within the Panthers organization. At 23 years old, he has developed into a reliable, physical two-way defender who can move the puck up ice, join the rush, or use his speed and strength to neutralize attacking forwards in his own zone. The biggest question now is whether or not Robak can be just as effective in the NHL. He showed last year that his skills are on par with what is expected at the top level, but he needs to prove that he can perform in the NHL on an extended and consistent basis.

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

Matheson will return to Boston College this fall to continue to develop the defensive side of his game. During his freshman season, the early signs of the type of player that he can become began to shine through. Whether it was an end-to-end rush, driving the net on odd-man break, or making a clean breakout pass from behind the blue line, Matheson displayed a wealth of offensive talent. He also began to make better choices away from the puck and to play a more physical but controlled defense based on positioning rather than speed. He still needs refinement in order to get his defensive play at an acceptable level, but if he does he could quickly become a top offensive defenseman in the NHL.

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

Now that two of North Dakota's top scorers have moved on, Grimaldi is primed to take on most of the offensive responsibilities for the Sioux. He will return to the team's top line, and should become the main weapon on the power play. He is supremely talented, and one of the best skaters in college hockey. Grimaldi works extremely hard on and off the ice, and he is much stronger than his 5'6 frame appears. He will get physical in the corners and uses his acceleration to generate power behind big hits along the boards. When he has the puck, his skating makes him elusive and difficult for defenders to pin down. Because of that, he typically finds just enough time to get his laser shot on net.

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

The 2012-13 season marked an extraordinary end to Vincent Trocheck's junior career. The productive and durable Trocheck led the OHL in regular season scoring with 50 goals and 59 assists, managed 24 points in 15 playoff games, and six points in seven games for Team USA at the 2013 WJC.

Now, Trocheck must show that his dominant play can carry over to the AHL and eventually to the NHL levels. Although the quick, smart and talented forward will certainly get a good chance to make the NHL roster this fall, he will likely spend most if not all of the season in the AHL, acclimating to the speed and skill of professional hockey.  

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

In his two years with Minnesota, Kyle Rau has developed into a disruptive force every shift he is on the ice. He generates offense with his quick feet and good instincts, is physical on the forecheck, and anticipates plays well. He has an above average wrist shot but he chooses to make his mark in close, banging in loose pucks at the goal mouth. The remaining point that Rau needs to prove is that he can take over games without his big linemate with him, fellow Panther prospect Nick Bjugstad.

13. (NR) Ian McCoshen, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2013

The second 2013 draft pick to make the top 20 list is defenseman Ian McCoshen, from the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks. McCoshen fits the mold of the type of players Florida general manager Dale Tallon likes to acquire. He has good size for an 18-year-old defenseman at 6'3 and 205 pounds and he is a smart player who works hard. Like Robak, McCoshen is a two-way player with more offensive potential available to him should he fully develop that aspect of his game. McCoshen hits hard, has a high panic threshold, and skates well. He will start his college career with Boston College in the fall.

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

Hodges is rounding into the kind of player who could eventually become a versatile role player at the NHL level, but one who can provide offensive spark from time to time and do anything that is asked of him. He does not have any standout skill in one particular area, but he does everything well, from aggressive forechecking to steady defensive play. He will play another year of junior hockey in the WHL before moving on to the minor leagues.

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

Racine continues to improve and impress. After completing his QMJHL career, Racine joined the Rampage for a handful of late season games and showed that his sound positional play and hockey smarts translates well to the AHL. He impressed again at the Panthers summer development camp and looks well on his way to a professional hockey career as a middle-pair shutdown defenseman after at least one more year of minor league experience.

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

Kosov struggled to find quality ice time in the KHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk last season, and his point totals suffered because of it. After scoring just seven points in 40 games last year, there is a sizeable risk that Kosov's offensive development might stagnate. His defensive game is excellent, and he is always tough to play against, but he needs to get better opportunities to excel at both ends of the ice.

17. (17) Michael Houser, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, July 11th, 2012

Houser made the transition from junior to professional hockey look relatively easy last year. After starting the season backing up Brian Foster in the ECHL, Houser eventually earned the starting role and helped lead the Cyclones deep into the ECHL playoffs. He finished the season with a .917 saves percentage. He works extremely hard on and off the ice, and he has strong fundamentals which will help carry him forward. He will fight for a spot in San Antonio this fall.

18. (NR) Evan Cowley, G, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2013

Cowley is a young, relatively inexperienced goaltender who has a long road ahead of him. He played in the NAHL last season but will challenge for a starting role this season at the University of Denver. He has good height for the current NHL standard at 6'4, but his mechanics are still raw and he will need a lot of game experience in order to polish his technique. Up until now, Cowley has been able to rely on his natural abilities, but talent alone will not take him to his full potential.

19.  (NR) Christopher Clapperton, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2013

Clapperton is a long-shot prospect who was selected by the Panthers on his second time through the NHL draft. Clapperton had a breakout season in 2012-13 with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL, managing 34 goals, 43 assists, and 77 penalty minutes. He has good scoring potential that comes from his quick hands and shot, but his skating needs work if he is going to thrive at the higher levels of hockey. His plays a feisty game on the ice but his grit alone will not be enough to lift him up past the limitations imposed by his relatively small frame. He is strong though, and if he can improve on his quickness, he could become a solid contributor at the AHL level with intermittent trips up to the NHL level.

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

Entering his third year of play in the Michigan program, Hyman is at a turning point in his career. If he can impress Red Berenson and the rest of the Wolverines staff enough to earn scoring line minutes, he may be able to finally prove that he has the skill necessary to score at higher levels of hockey. If he does not get significant offensive ice time, Hyman looks relegated to a role as a defensive specialist who could still find a home in the NHL. He has the hands and foot speed to become a scorer, but must earn the opportunity to demonstrate it.