Back in August, I took a look at the prospective San Antonio Rampage roster and its relationship to the Panthers as a top minor league affiliate. Since that time there have been changes, trades, promotions, and demotions that have, in some respects, altered the landscape of the Panther prospect pool. We here at LBC keep an eye on all things San Antonio Rampage, with Todd's frequent Rampage Reports. We also check in on the NCAA, CHL, and European prospects from time to time. As a franchise that has had to deal with years of NHL level misery, the Florida Panthers have spent the last several years peddling hope, in the form of a top rated prospect pool, and patience to the fans waiting for those kids to develop. Things are changing drastically within the Panthers depth chart as some kids take NHL roles, others begin to complete AHL development, and still others become the long-term projects. Here, in this writing, I will try to put all of this together to offer a January look at how the Panthers depth chart is shaping up.
Should we start with the good news, or the bad? Bad it is. The Panthers depth at goalie, once outside the NHL team, is not in great shape. Al Montoya has proven to be an outstanding signing as a back-up to Roberto Luongo. Dan Ellis is not a prospect, but appears to be playing well in San Antonio. Ellis is without question 3rd on the goalie depth chart. After those three, the cupboard is looking rather bare. There was a great deal of hope that Michael Houser could be developed into a goalie of the future on the cheap, as he was an undrafted free agent signing off an OHL champion London Knights team. Houser has not looked good this season in San Antonio, while playing on a team that is performing well. His sub .900 save percentage is alarming. Ellis, by comparison, is playing quite well on the same team. After Houser on the depth chart is Sam Brittain, playing in the ECHL for the Cincinnati Cyclones. Brittain also started quite poorly, although he did earn his first professional shutout earlier this season, and (at the time of this writing) has a 2.79 GAA and .900 SV%.
Panther fans must hope that Brittain has begun to turn the corner in his professional development and returns to the form he displayed in his stellar senior season for the NCAA Denver Pioneers. For that reason alone, I will temporarily place Brittain ahead of Evan Cowley (who took Brittain's place at Denver) and Houser (who although playing at a higher professional level, in the AHL, is struggling badly). Cowley is playing good hockey at Denver as his team's new starter and appears to be developing well. Count me among those who think the NCAA is a great place for young goalies to develop, mainly because they typically come out older and more mature, and because goalies typically do not show what they are truly capable of until the latter half of their 20's, that's a good thing. Hugo Fagerblom, due to his age and experience, is a long-term project at the bottom of the depth chart, but is playing well this season in Sweden.
After the top 3, the goalie chart is weak. The team must hope that Brittain can return to the level he showed in his senior season at Denver, that Cowley is all he is advertised to be, and that Roberto, Al, and Dan stay healthy and effective for a couple more seasons. Thankfully, goalie is also a position that has proven to be open for trades and free agent signings.
Lets stay in the bad news category for one more position before we push on to happier tidings: right wing. The Panthers face a recognizable defenciency at this position. On the NHL squad, Brad Boyes, Tomas Fleischmann, Jimmy Hayes, and Shawn Thornton slot in at 1-4 on the depth chart. Brandon Pirri has also played on the right side, and could ultimately take a RW position from Fleischmann, although Pirri's production has slowed considerably. More recently, Vincent Trocheck has been moved over to wing to accommodate Dave Bolland's return. It must also be mentioned that the Cats have been moving players between left and right wing. For instance, Tomas Kopecky is listed on the team's website as a RW, but consistently plays the left side, while Shawn Thornton is listed as a left wing who usually plays the right side. I generally include each player where they are seeing their most recent time.
Below the NHL roster, thngs drops off dramatically at this position. It is entirely possible that the right-handed Rocco Grimaldi will end up as a RW, and if so, he is at the top of the non-NHL level depth chart, with what he has shown to be a lot of talent. After Grimaldi is the Rampage's Bobby Butler. Butler has played stints in the NHL before, one of which was very successful for Ottawa in 2010-11, but he has been a point per game player for the Silver and Black this season. After Butler comes Zach Hyman, who is an intriguing prospect at University of Michigan. As Shane mentioned in his NCAA prospect article, Hyman is showing great offensive upside this season after having been asked to play a mostly defensive role in prior seasons with the Wolverines. Through 17 games this season, Hyman has posted 9 goals and 11 assists. Hyman has also looked good at Panther prospect camps. After Hyman on the chart is likely Logan Shaw, who, like the player behind him on the chart, Joe Basaraba, could likely play no more than an energy role on a 4th line in the NHL. Joe Wegwerth is a recent draft pick who will play NCAA hockey next year and is predicted to (at best) fill an energy line role.
Because of the utter lack of depth on the right side, the importance of Brad Boyes (and his reasonable contract) comes into sharper focus. Much will depend on whether Pirri, Trocheck, and/or Grimaldi can adapt to playing the right side. If so, this position could turn into one of considerable strength, especially with Jimmy Hayes' recent offensive output.
Moving on to center, the Panthers depth chart is stacked like cordwood, and for the long haul as well. 22-year-old Nick Bjugstad is having another outstanding campaign, and is now signed through the 2020-21 season. Aleksander Barkov is 19-years-old and is still on an entry level contract through 2015-16. Dave Bolland is signed through the 2018-19 season. Derek MacKenzie is signed through the 2016-17 season. Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri also play center, and are each signed through the end of the 2015-16 season. In San Antonio, Drew Shore is playing like a man ready to make an NHL impact. Shore is now 23 -years-old and will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. In 34 AHL games he has put up 30 points this season (9 goals and 21 assists). With absolutely no space next season for a center on the NHL roster, Shore will either have to move to wing or move to another team. Some trade talk has started appearing around him, and his value should not be understated to gain a considerable return.
Rocco Grimaldi is also a center, although he has played more on the wing with the NHL team when called up. Like Pirri and Trocheck, Grimaldi will likely be called upon to move away from the pivot to remain at the NHL level. Playing his first season in San Antonio is Steven Hodges. Hodges is a center in the Derek MacKenzie mold, playing an aggressive game that emphasizes responsible two-way play. Hodges has played 22 games for the Rampage, posting only one goal and a single assist, but the Cats remain confident about his future as a 3rd or 4th line NHL centerman. After these pro-level players on the depth chart are a pair of young men who play a very similar game: Kyle Rau and Jayce Hawryluk. Both of these centers are aggressive, gritty producers with good speed and responsible two-way games. Hawryluk is bigger than Rau is, which may give him an edge under a Dale Tallon regime, and both will be in the pro ranks by the end of their NCAA and WHL seasons this year. Deep down the depth chart is Matt Buckles, who is a 6'2 sophomore at Cornell University. Buckles has played well for the Big Red this year.
At left wing, the name on the top of the chart is Jonathan Huberdeau. The 21-year-old is in a contract year, and has improved his play in all aspects of the game but goal scoring. Still, Huberdeau is battling, playing defense, and setting up line-mates, and those are all good signs for his future. Will the Panthers re-sign Sean Bergenheim? The Panthers lack of established wing depth suggests he has more importance than is immediately apparent. Jussi Jokinen is signed through 2017-18, but has produced his best numbers this season in a 3rd line role. Much was expected of Quinton Howden, but injuries have limited him to just 10 games this season (in which he has put up 6 assists). After Howden on the depth chart is Garrett Wilson who is in a second season putting up solid AHL numbers (34 games this season, 13 goals, 8 assists, 21 points). Wilson is a hard working wing who can play a 3rd line NHL role. Connor Brickley spent much of his career at the University of Vermont battling injuries, but he has been a steady performer in his first pro season for the Rampage, netting 9 goals and 10 assists (19 points) in 32 games.
Brandon Pirri can also play the left wing position, so we can include him as a possibility on the left side as well as the right. Recent draft pick Juho Lammikko is playing his first season in the OHL and is producing well, but is still some time away from professional hockey. Like Wegwerth, Miguel Fidler will play NCAA hockey next season and is a long way from any professional contribution.
The lack of 1st or 2nd line depth at the left wing position, due to Howden's injuries, likely makes Bergenheim a more important player for the Cats when contract time rolls around.
Earlier this season, the Panthers traded away prospect Colby Robak, who has played only 4 games for Anaheim, but the NHL roster is full of young, promising defensemen, with Aaron Ekblad playing well beyond his 18 years, and a rapidly improving Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Dylan Olsen. All are signed through at least the end of next season. After the young NHL blueliners, comes a trio of Rampage defensemen: Alex Petrovic, MacKenzie Weegar, and Jonathan Racine. Petrovic has played 32 AHL games this season and notched 3 goals and 13 assists. Racine is known as a shutdown defender without offensive upside, and in 32 games for the Rampage this season he has no points, but a +6 rating. MacKenzie Weegar was spoken of as the future replacement for Brian Campbell, but the transition to pro hockey has not been as smooth as he may have liked. Weegar has played 19 games for the Rampage and has netted only 1 goal and 4 assists. He was re-assigned to the ECHL Cyclones on Tuesday to get some much-needed playing time. Jesse Blacker was acquired in the Robak trade, and in 21 total AHL games this season he has put up 9 points.
Below these pro level defensemen are a pair of NCAA D-men at Boston College: Mike Matheson and Ian McCoshen. While BC has been nowhere near as good as last season, Matheson and McCoshen have been playing well and I expect to see Matheson in San Antonio by the conclusion of this season. McCoshen will likely return to school next season, but he played very well for the United States at the World Junior Championships. After the Golden Eagle duo is probably Joshua Brown, who plays a role like Racine in the OHL for the Oshawa Generals. Brown is an overage player this year, meaning he must be signed to a pro-level contract at the end of this season. Following these young men are a "take your pick" of four NCAA defensemen and one European player: Ed Wittchow, Michael Downing, Ben Gallacher, R.J. Boyd, and Jonatan Nielsen. Of note among these final five players was Downing being a late cut for the United States World Junior Team.
With the youth at the NHL level on defense, only Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell will necessitate eventual replacement, and both are signed through the end of next season. This will give the Cats another year to develop the young D-men and determine which of them gets first crack at replacing Campbell and Mitchell. Certainly, Petrovic and Racine have a leg up on the competition at this point in time.
The depth chart for the Panthers is one crowded with talent, albeit at the center position more so than others. It appears likely that Grimaldi, Trocheck, and Pirri will be moved by the team to the wings, which will add greatly to a lack of depth at those positions. An eye should be kept on Drew Shore, Quinton Howden, Zach Hyman, Kyle Rau, Garrett Wilson, and Jayce Hawryluk, as the closest forwards to contributing at the NHL level. It appears more and more likely that Shore will end up traded before hitting RFA status, unless he is indeed moved to wing. The defense will be survival of the fittest, as the Cats will have limited roster spots at the NHL level for some time to come, meaning they have the luxury of being very selective about who replaces the two veterans on the blue line.
Finally, the Cats will have to keep an eye on the trade market for young goalies, although they may not have to rush to do so with the trio of Luongo, Montoya, and Ellis all playing well and showing no signs of waning output. All in all, its been an interesting season to see the battle for roster spots that continues on a nightly basis. It is literally a "produce or sit" situation that is pushing both the prospects and veterans alike. This is also true at the AHL level, and that will only intensify as the team looks for spots to park incoming players like Mike Matheson, Jayce Hawryluk, Kyle Rau, Joshua Brown, and Zach Hyman. Players like Ryan Martindale and John McFarland in San Antonio will likely be jettisoned to create that space. From top to bottom, the Panthers have forced solid competition for jobs, and thats not something we have been able to say for as long as I can recall.