Reunited and it feels so good... On March 4, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon made a huge splash, bringing back goaltender Roberto Luongo to solidify a position which was starting to become a real issue; with too many pucks finding the back of the net, Tim Thomas' injury problems and the contracts of both Thomas and struggling backup Scott Clemmensen set to expire at the end of the season.
Part of the price to re-acquire Luongo from Vancouver was long-time prospect Jacob Markstrom. The 24-year-old Markstrom was selected with the 31st pick in the 2008 Entry Draft and immediately tabbed as the club's "goaltender of the future." After two more seasons with Brynas IF of the Swedish Hockey League, the long, tall Swede made his North American debut with the Rochester Americans in 2010. Markstrom managed to make 43 appearances, posting a meager 11 wins, with Florida over the next four seasons, but despite a few really tantalizing performances here and there, never managed to stick. He has shown himself to be a capable AHL starter, however, if one were looking for a single adjective to describe Markstrom's pro career so far, that adjective would very likely be inconsistent.
With Luongo back in the fold and Markstrom's stalled development now in the lap of the Canucks, the Panthers' picture in goal has changed considerably. Louie may be 35-years-old, but over the last few seasons he has shown that he is still capable of starting upwards of sixty games a season. He has eight years to go on his monster contract, and while there is a decent chance he won't finish it out, at least as a starter, there is every indication, like Martin Brodeur or the recently departed Thomas, that he will be able to remain a relatively high-level number one option as he approaches age forty.
Backing up Luongo this season will be either free-agent signing Al Montoya or Dan Ellis, who was acquired from the Dallas Stars in the deadline-day deal that saw Thomas leave Sunrise. Since Ellis bombed in his short time with the Cats at the end of last season, and Montoya has the longer and more lucrative contract, he is going to have his work cut out for him. But what about beyond that? Do the Panthers have another captivating "goaltender of the future" prospect like Markstrom in the system? With Luongo likely to hold down the number role for at least the next four or five years, do they even need one right now? Do any of the young netminders on the organizational depth chart have a chance of ever supplanting Louie as the starter, or is the best they can hope for taking over for Montoya as the backup a couple years from now?
Let's take a brief look at the prospects the Panthers currently have in the goalie pipeline.
Michael Houser: A former OHL Goaltender of the Year and Red Tilson Trophy winner as the league's most outstanding player, Houser earned a contract with the Panthers in 2012 after appearing in the team development camp. The undrafted netminder spent the 2012-13 season with the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, compiling a 17-10-2 regular season record and made 17 postseason appearances as the club advanced to the conference finals. Last season, the 21-year-old saw duty in 28 AHL tilts for the San Antonio Rampage and another 12 with Cincinnati. Houser is in the final year of his ELC and may need to have a big year to stay with the organization. It looks like he will be battling Florida draftee Sam Brittain for the right to take one of the two spots available on the Rampage, with the other likely going to Dan Ellis if the Panthers don't trade or cut the veteran puck-stopper loose before the season starts.
Sam Brittain: The former Denver Pioneer recently signed his ELC and is ready to embark on his first pro season. Whether that is in San Antonio or Cincinnati remains to be seen. The 22-year-old was drafted in the fourth round (92nd overall) of the 2010 Entry Draft. After a very impressive freshman campaign, Brittain only played in 25 games during the next two seasons due to a knee injury and then losing the number one job to Juho Olkinuora. He bounced back this past season to post a 19-14-6 record and stellar 2.22 GAA, leading Denver to an appearance at the NCAA Tournament. Brittain definitely had some ups and downs during his college career, but all the tools are there for him to be a successful pro. It would bode well for his future if he can get significant playing time with the Rampage this season.
Evan Cowley: Like Sam Brittain, Cowley was also taken with the 92nd pick, in the 2013 Entry Draft, and also ended up at the University of Denver, after a stint with the NAHL's Wichita Falls Wildcats. With Brittain firmly ensconced as the Pioneers' starter, the redheaded 19-year-old only saw action in five games as a freshman, but shined when he got the chance, posting a miserly 1.76 GAA. The youngster is currently making a bid to secure a spot on the United States WJC team for year's tournament in Toronto and Montreal, and took part in the Panthers' development camp in July. Look for Cowley to get plenty of playing time with the Pioneers this season, and hopefully make Team USA, as he continues on the road to becoming an NHLer.
Hugo Fagerblom: Despite being in prime position in the second round, the Panthers decided to pass on the top-two rated goaltenders in this year's draft, Thatcher Demko and Mason McDonald, in favor of Brandon Wheat Kings forward Jayce Hawryluk. The Cats did grab a netminder in round seven, taking a huge, relatively unknown Swede in the Markstrom mold, Hugo Fagerblom, with the 182nd overall pick. The Panthers brought the raw 18-year-old to Coral Springs for a look at the team's annual development camp. Fagerblom, who played last season with Frolunda's U18 squad, is definitely a project, and will need to become a regular in the SHL before he thinks about coming to North America, unless it's play Major Junior.
Sergei Gayduchenko: Since being drafted by the Panthers in the seventh-round of the 2007 Entry Draft, Gayduchenko has spent six seasons toiling in the KHL, mostly as a backup. His best season, from a won-loss perspective, was in 2009-10, when he posted an 11-7 record and .922 save percentage for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. In 2012-13, he went 6-9-2 with a fine 2.40 GAA in 19 games for HC Sibir. Last season, he appeared in just 8 games for Sibir and saw his GAA balloon to 3.42. The 25-year-old recently signed on with HC Donbass, but with the club taking a one-year sabbatical from the KHL due to the unstable situation in the Ukraine, his playing status is currently up in the air. He will be free to sign a one-year contract with another club until Donbass returns to the ice. With Gayduchenko well on his way to becoming a KHL journeyman, and showing no inclination to come to North America, it's unlikely he figures much, if at all, in the Panthers' plans.