The Panthers are in the middle of one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, and fans have every reason to feel down about the way this year has gone. No one could have predicted losing Roberto Luongo for six weeks on opening night. Combine that with the gruesome leg injury that took Vincent Trocheck out of the lineup for more than half the season, Nick Bjugstad’s month-long injury absence, and the brutally inconsistent play all-around and you have the a season that began with so much promise, just now finding life again. There may still be time for a miraculous turnaround to this season, as Trocheck has returned to spark a three-game winning streak to bring the Cats back to .500 going into the All-Star break.
Everyone is hoping for another shocking turnaround, and no one is ready to throw in the towel on this year just yet. As much as Panthers’ fans are tired of hearing about the future, the Panthers’ future is still extremely bright. And the results of great drafting and developing should really start to show as early as next season. While it seems we have been saying that for years now, we actually have the elite prospects to prove it. So while we all anxiously watch to see if the Panthers go on another run, it’s important to keep in mind that there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings, regardless of the outcome of this season. So here’s a look at the Panthers prospects who have impressed in various leagues from the NHL to the AHL and around the world.
Owen Tippett, RW, Age 19
Owen Tippett has established himself as the Panthers’ top prospect still playing outside the NHL/AHL system. The 10th overall selection in 2017 picked up right where he left off last year in the OHL with the Mississauga Steelheads. So far in 30 OHL games this year, Tippett has 22 goals and a grand total of 41 points. He is a pure sniper who has improved greatly on the defensive side of the puck. He earned his first crack at the World Junior Championship with Team Canada. Despite the Canadian squad’s disappointing early exit, Tippett finished with four points in five games while playing on the top line and top power play unit. Following the tournament, he was traded to the Saginaw Spirit for a package including seven draft picks! That shows how valuable he is at the OHL level. He should be ready to slide into the Panthers’ top nine next season. He is NHL ready.
Henrik Borgstrom, C, Age 21
Henrik Borgstrom is as good as advertised. Let’s get that out of the way right now. His offensive talent is impressive and still improving. He’s gotten stronger with his time in the AHL and he shows his defensive ability a little more with each game. Following his stellar college career, brief NHL showing, and 24 game stint in the AHL, the 2016 first-rounder has made it back to the NHL and centered the second line while Trocheck was on IR. Borgstrom’s numbers aren’t all that flashy yet, but he looks better and more comfortable every night. He is solid in the face-off circle, responsible defensively, a smooth skater, and has incredible vision as a play-maker. He has all the tools and very few weaknesses. He should continue to grow as the new third line center for the Panthers and as a regular on the second power play unit. His endless potential was on full display when he scored 22 points in 24 AHL games as he was named an AHL All-Star. The Artist should be an elite contributor with the Panthers for years to come.
Aleksi Heponiemi, C, Age 20
This is possibly the most exciting player on the list. The 2017 second round pick has blown away expectations and has put up ridiculous numbers every step of the way in his development. The only reason he is not in the NHL right now is because of his lack of size. He has shown no signs that his size will limit his ability to light up the scoreboard though. After exploding for 118 points in 57 WHL games a year ago, Heponiemi went home to Finland to play for Karpat in the Finnish Liiga. He leads all teenagers in the league with 27 points in 32 games. Keep in mind this is Finland’s top league. The same one that produced Sasha Barkov, Patrick Laine, and countless other Finnish stars. Heponiemi also captured the gold medal in the WJC tournament while tying for the lead (with another Panther prospect so more on him later) in the entire tournament in scoring with nine points in just seven games. Heponiemi has drawn comparisons to Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Petterson because of his elite offensive talent despite his small stature. He should be ready to show it next year as a Florida Panther.
Grigori Denisenko, LW, Age 18
The Panthers’ first round pick in 2018 has been relatively quiet at the professional level in the KHL with just four goals and one assist to his credit for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this year. But, he has not played top line minutes or with quality linemates in the pro ranks. However, when he has played with his age group, he looks dynamic. He has posted nine goals and eight assists in just 13 games with the Russian national junior team this season, including tying with Heponiemi for the tournament scoring lead at the WJC with nine points in seven games. Denisenko was one of the most electrifying offensive talents on display at the tournament and has drawn comparisons to a young Evgeny Kuznetzov, Artemi Panarin, or Nikita Kucherov. He still has some developing to do on the defensive side of the ice, but within the next two to three seasons, he should break through as a top six scoring threat for the Panthers as he matures physically.
Jayce Hawryluk, RW, Age 23
Jayce Hawryluk has finally broken into the league and become the player we all thought he had the potential to be. He has been one of the few bright spots this season. After leading the Springfield Thunderbirds in scoring with 28 points in 25 games, he has added a burst of energy to the Panthers lineup and is hard to miss when he’s on the ice. He absolutely flies to every loose puck and throws the body like very few players his size. His offense hasn’t translated yet, but he has a knack for showing up in big moments. The effort and energy he displays while he is on the ice is similar to Vincent Trocheck even if the high-end skill isn’t all there. He looks to be a lock as a valuable bottom six contributor for a long time. I would not be at all surprised to see him become one of those legendarily clutch playoff performers one day. It’s just something about the way he plays the game.
Dryden Hunt, LW, Age 23
Dryden Hunt seems to be right on the outside looking in when it comes to NHL success. He’s already exceeded the expectations most would have for an undrafted free agent as he has become a reliable offensive threat in the AHL with 29 points in 34 games this season. He also has 24 NHL games under his belt with the Panthers. If he can find a way to break through offensively with the Cats, he could stick around in the bottom six for a long time. All the other aspects of his game are NHL ready.
Serron Noel, RW, Age 18
The Panthers’ second round pick this year has been a monster in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals. He has become a constant scoring threat as a mobile power forward and his playing style resembles Blake Wheeler. He is huge at 6 feet and 5 inches tall. And he already weighs 205 lbs. He is a force at the junior level having already surpassed his career high point total with 58 points in 45 games. That is 17 games fewer than it took him to reach 53 points last year. He has shown rapid improvement in a short time. The one big question mark with him has always been his foot speed and skating ability. He looks much better this season than he did a year ago and it has translated offensively. He may end up playing another year or even two in the OHL and will likely get a shot at the WJC next year, but don’t be surprised if he gets an NHL audition out of training camp next season.
Other Forward Prospects to Watch
- Anthony Greco, RW, Age 25: He has scored 32 points in 43 AHL games and was recently named to the All-Star game. He also earned a one game call-up with the Panthers this season.
- Jonathan Ang, C, Age 20: He has tallied 16 points in 44 AHL games this year. He has sneaky offensive upside and his elite skating and speed translate well as a penalty killer.
- Patrick Bajkov, RW, Age 21: Bajkov hasn’t transitioned to the pro ranks in the AHL as smoothly as he would have liked. He has been a frequent healthy scratch and seen an ECHL demotion. His offense and speed are intriguing though and he is worth keeping an eye on.
- Sebastian Repo, C, Age 22: Repo is a hard-nosed grinder with a talent for causing trouble in the crease. He’s big, physical, and responsible. He also has 14 points in 34 AHL games. He has decent bottom six potential if he ever makes the NHL.
- Logan Hutsko, RW, Age 19: Logan Hutsko is a great story and everyone should be pulling for him to make the NHL someday. He’s from Tampa and overcame a career threatening injury to play at Boston College. Dale Tallon thinks highly of him as he traded up to get him in the third round of the draft. He has 14 points in 21 games in college this year. He’s likely a few years off from suiting up in a Panthers sweater.
- Justin Schutz, LW, Age 18: Schutz was actually surprised to get drafted, but he has played well enough to warrant the pick. He has 17 points in 17 games with EC Salzburg this year and led the German junior team to a berth in the WJC next year. That will be our best chance to evaluate him. As it stands, he is an NHL long shot.
Max Gildon, D, Age 19
Max Gildon is without a doubt the Panthers’ most underrated prospect. He has size, smooth skating, solid two-way skills, and he plays a ton of minutes every night. He was a third round pick in 2017 and has been a true #1 defenseman at the University of New Hampshire. He quarterbacks the power play and plays on the top pair in all situations for UNH. He has managed to record 16 points in 18 games from the blue line. It would have been nice to see him get a shot with Team USA for world juniors, but he projects as a top six defenseman regardless of that omission. He’ll likely need a while in the AHL after college as most defensemen do, but he should be a fixture in Sunrise soon enough.
Ian McCoshen, D, Age 23
McCoshen just recently got his first NHL call-up of the season after playing 35 games in the AHL with nine assists and no goals. He played 38 NHL games a year ago while mostly serving as the Panthers’ seventh defenseman. This season, he started in Springfield until Alex Petrovic was traded. McCoshen is a big, physical, stay-at-home defenseman. He is as defensive minded as they come and will be counted on to provide physicality and toughness in front of the net. He has the ability to provide a rugged presence to the blue-line and he projects as a very solid bottom four defenseman long term. He reminds me quite a bit of Colorado Avalanche d-man, Ian Cole.
Josh Brown, D, Age 25
Brown is 25 years old and has finally gotten the NHL call-up that has seemed imminent for so long. He was drafted in 2013 and has served as a shut-down defenseman in Springfield for quite some time now. He has made his presence felt in the NHL too as a punishing and reliable blue-liner. He throws the body, clears pucks out of danger, eliminates bodies from the crease, and isn’t at all afraid to drop the gloves. He has only played three NHL games so far, but all three have been wins against playoff teams and he has held his own against top offensive talents. He has also skated on the penalty kill and recently recorded his first NHL fight. After injuring his arm in the first preseason game this year, he never had a chance to crack the NHL roster out of camp, but he has made the most of his opportunity with Mackenzie Weegar in concussion protocol.
Jacob MacDonald, D, Age 25
Jacob MacDonald is a very late bloomer who actually made the NHL roster out of training camp this year due to injuries. He also scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot which also happened to be the Cats’ first goal of this season. He only saw two games of NHL action before being sent to the AHL where he has flourished. He has been quite the find as an offensive defenseman. With 29 points in 40 AHL games, he should see more NHL time in the near future. It’s remarkable how things just seemed to click for him as a 24-year-old last year and the Panthers may soon reap the rewards. He can provide valuable offense as a bottom pairing defenseman and gives the Panthers much needed depth both for this year and next.
Linus Nassen, D, Age 20
Linus Nassen is a 2016 third round pick who has made a great transition to North American hockey in the WHL. He came from Sweden and is now playing for the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL. He suffered a wrist injury that cut his season short last year, but this season, he has rebounded with 35 points in 41 games. He is a fast, puck mover on the blue line and he has great vision which shows in his assist tallies. He operates well on the power play too. If he can improve play in the defensive zone and stay healthy, he has a shot to play NHL hockey with the Panthers within the next few years. He’ll need some AHL time first though.
Riley Stillman, D, Age 20
I’m hesitant to classify him as a defenseman because he has spent his last few games on the wing in Springfield. But given that his natural position is defense, we’ll put him here. He has 10 points in 35 games for the Thunderbirds, although his two goals have come from the forward position. He is an intriguing prospect and it will be interesting to see if he flourishes as a forward or a d-man. Either way, he’ll be in the AHL for the foreseeable future.
Other Defense Prospects to Watch
- Ben Finkelstein, D, Age 21: He is an interesting name to watch. Taken in the seventh round in 2016, he has shown tremendous offensive ability. He is a similar player to Torrey Krug in Boston. Finkelstein was named USHL Defenseman of the Year last season and will play at Boston College for the rest of his NCAA eligibility.
- Tyler Inamoto, D, Age 19: Inamoto is a true defensive defensman. He has a lot of work to do on his skating and puck moving but he is as physical as they come. He is playing at the University of Wisconsin and shows steady improvement. Oh and he also has some family background and history as a Samurai so that’s something unique in the pipeline.
- Cole Krygier, D, Age 18: Krygier is from a hockey family and it shows. He knows how to play the game the right way. He is playing his college hockey at Michigan State and could end up being a steal of a seventh round pick, much like Mackenzie Weegar.
- Thomas Schemitsch, D, Age 22: He plays a solid two-way game and is quietly on pace for a good year in Springfield with 10 points so far in 30 games. The 2015 third round pick could steal some NHL ice time with a good training camp next season.
Sam Montembeault, G, Age 22
Monty, as he is known around the organization, has established himself as one one of the very best goaltender prospects in the AHL. He got off to a hot start and quickly overtook the starting job in Springfield leading to the trade that sent Michael Hutchinson to Toronto. Montembeault is already the Panthers’ third goalie and it looks like he could be the elite goalie of the future that the Panthers so desperately need to eventually take over after Roberto Luongo. Montembeault currently boasts a .904 save percentage and a 2.95 goals against average. Both numbers could easily be better with a better defensive roster in front of him. He faces a high volume of shots almost every night and he has that rare ability to make the impossible, acrobatic saves. He has a baseball background and is well-known for his tremendous glove hand and he also handles and passes the puck with his stick better than any goalie in the Panthers’ system all the way to the NHL roster. He has been named an AHL All-Star in just his second season. He’s an exciting prospect to watch going forward as he could be the franchise goalie of the future.
Ryan Bednard, G, Age 21
Ryan Bednard was a seventh round pick in 2015 and the Panthers still see him as a potential NHL player. He is playing his college hockey at Bowling Green University and has a .929 save percentage to go along with his 1.78 goals against average. He is a really big guy at 6-foot-5 and 205 lbs. He isn’t the most agile or mobile goalie but he takes up a ton of space and positions himself well. He may be ready to make the jump to AHL hockey after this year or next and it is not that far fetched to see him play as a backup or third NHL goalie one day. He hasn’t faced the toughest competition but his size and potential make for an intriguing prospect.
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