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The Up-East Report: Portland Pirates at the quarter pole

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The Panthers new affiliation with Portland has gotten off on the wrong foot to start the 2015-16 season, as the Pirates struggle through injuries and NHL call-ups.

Michael McSweeney

The Florida Panthers AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates have played 19 games to start the 2015-16 season. The team finds itself in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, and in 7th place in the Atlantic Division, with an 8-10-1 record. It has not been the kind of start fans in Maine wanted, nor how the Panthers would have preferred to begin their new affiliation with the Pirates.

Despite the lackluster start, it is darn near impossible to determine whether this is a good team or a poor one. The record points more towards to a conclusion of: "poor." Yet, that is not necessarily the case. Through the first quarter of the season the Pirates have been decimated by injuries and call-ups to the Panthers. Connor Brickley, Logan Shaw, Rocco Grimaldi, Garrett Wilson, and Dylan Olsen have all spent time, or are currently with the parent club. Corban Knight, Grimaldi, Greg McKegg, and Brett Olson are just a few of the players who have been sidelined with injuries - Knight for the long haul. With a depleted team in front of them, it has been difficult to get a good evaluation of goaltenders Sam Brittain and Mike McKenna. Nonetheless, Maine hockey journalist Chris Roy recently had this succinct post about the play of the team:

It would seem that Coach Tom Rowe does not believe the team is playing well, and Tom is one hell of an experienced coach, so we have every reason to trust his evaluation. Many of the team's younger players came over from a successful San Antonio team, and the Rampage's success seemed to invigorate the development of players such as Brickley, Grimaldi, Wilson, and Shaw- all of whom had good or great AHL seasons last year. That development revealed itself as Brickley, Alex Petrovic and Quinton Howden made the Panthers roster out of camp this year, and Grimaldi and Shaw have seen lengthier call-ups to the NHL. But the Rampage's somewhat shocking first round exit from the AHL playoffs last season seems to have carried over into 2015-16, as the team has gone from Western Conference power to Eastern Conference weakling.

Of primary importance to Panther fans is the play of the team's prospects. Last year's Rampage team gave Panther fans a source for optimism as players like Brickley, Wilson, Petrovic, Shaw, Grimaldi, and (at the conclusion of the season) Kyle Rau all revealed themselves as promising NHL prospects. The graduation of Brickley, Petrovic and Howden has left a less stocked cupboard in Portland, with very little in the way of top-end talent. That is not to say there are not players worth watching in Pirates uniforms though.

While much of the focus from South Florida has been on Rocco Grimaldi, it is another somewhat diminutive former NCAA stand-out that is emerging as a player to watch: Kyle Rau. At this quarter turn of the season, we at LBC will take a look at some of the most notable Panther prospects in Portland and try to decipher where they are on the developmental path to the NHL.

Kyle Rau

Listed at 5'8", 173 lbs., (and pictured in the photo for this article) this left-handed shooter played center for four years at the University of Minnesota, capturing every honor imaginable. Interestingly, Rau has already been moved by Portland from center to left wing, and he has not missed a beat as he continues to add grit, sandpaper, and goals at the AHL level. Rau has played on a line with Chase Balisy and Wayne Simpson, and with Simpson and Brett Olson (prior to Olson's injury). In 18 games, Rau has potted 8 goals and 3 assists, has 36 shots, and 1 power play goal. His shooting percentage is 21.6%.

In his first game of this season against the Providence Bruins Rau picked right up where he left off after joining the San Antonio Rampage for the final 7 regular season games of the 2014-15 season. In that initial seven-game set (after graduating from the University of Minnesota), Rau netted 2 goals to go along with an assist. In game one this season, Rau scored his first goal of 2015-16 while playing on a line with Brett Olson and Wayne Simpson (that started the game). Rau would almost collect an assist against Providence, but Wayne Simpson's goal was not counted as the Bruins net was off at that time of the apparent goal.

Kyle was amongst the early departures from Panther training camp to Portland this fall, but in his first NHL pre-season game (against the Nashville Predators) he had two assists. This is very much a player who has adjusted well to every level of hockey he has played, and has done so quickly.

In his third game for the Pirates this season, the second of a back-to-back series with the Hershey Bears, Rau would light the lamp twice in a 5-2 victory, while playing on a line with Simpson and Chase Balisy. For the series against Albany, Rau would alternate between playing with Rob Schremp and Shane Harper, in a game that he went pointless in, and with Simpson and Balisy in the other. Most recently, in a 6-2 drubbing of Springfield, Rau played LW on the starting line centered by Brett Olson, with Harper on the right side. Rau scored an empty-netter in that game (assisted by John McFarland). He has certainly seen many different line-mates so far this season.

The AHL does not post Corsi stats, so the admittedly flawed plus/minus is all we have to work from regarding defensive zone play and/or possession. For what its worth, Rau is even on the season, which for Portland at this juncture, is a solid rating.

Much like Grimaldi, Rau is too often discounted due to his smaller physical stature. Nonetheless, this is very much a player that should be on the radar of Panther fans, as he has a knack for the net and has no fear in going to the heavy traffic areas to create offense. Rau scored 67 goals in 160 games during his NCAA career (.41 goals-per-game). He has already made the change to wing, a position the Panthers have a real need at, and he has hit the ice running at the AHL level. Rau is scoring at a .42 goals-per-game rate on a sub .500 team in a league known for featuring heavy hitting and a higher degree of thuggery than the NHL. Rau should certainly be in the conversation for next season, if not a middle-6 call-up this season.

Rocco Grimaldi

Rocco Grimaldi was a late addition to the Portland roster after an ankle injury sidelined him during Panthers training camp. Grimaldi had a scare with a knee injury that caused him to miss several shifts in the Pirates home-opener against Hershey as well, but he would return and assist on a Logan Shaw goal. The next night Grimaldi would miss an opportunity for his first goal of the 2015-16 season on an open net 2-on-1 with Greg McKegg. Against Albany in late October, Grimaldi got the assist on Michael Matheson's first goal of the season during a 3-1 loss. He would also get an assist on one of McKegg's 3 goals in a 5-2 win over Albany.

After 9 games, Grimaldi has 4 assists, and 1 goal. Somewhat alarming is the fact (flawed a stat as it is) that Rocco is also -5 in those games. His lone goal came in the 6-2 beat-down of Springfield.

Of interest is that Grimaldi has also been getting moved from center to right wing by the Pirates, where he was playing on a strong AHL line with Garrett Wilson and Greg McKegg to start the season. Moves are seemingly being made for the future, as the Panthers are seemingly set down the middle with Aleksander Barkov, Derek MacKenzie, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck and Dave Bolland all either excelling or being signed for years to come.

In a 10-game call-up to the Panthers, Grimaldi scored 1 goal and went -4. Clearly Rocco has some work ahead of him, but this dedicated young player is driven and has never shied away from hard work. There is no questioning his scoring ability, although goals do not necessarily come easily for him (he scored 31 goals in 86 NCAA games, for .36 goals per-game), but other aspects of his game, such as defensive coverage will need addressing. After a less than stellar Panther call-up, this exciting player will have much to prove in Portland for the remainder of the season.

Logan Shaw

Logan drew the honor of being the first injury call-up from the Pirates this season, with late October injuries sidelining several Panthers forwards. He earned this honor by playing hard through the Pirates first 5 games, scoring two goals during that time. Shaw is also presently one of very few prospects at right wing in the Panthers stable. Shaw played well in his first NHL game in a 4th line energy role. Hockey's Future had this to say in describing him:

Entering the final year of his entry-level contract, Nova Scotia native Logan Shaw will hope to build off a breakthrough 2014-15 season in which he proved himself a productive AHL player. Shaw spent 20 games in the ECHL in his rookie season after recording just 8 points in 46 games with San Antonio. Last season, however, he spent the entire year in the AHL and finished 10th in scoring on the team with 25 points in 69 games. He was also tied for fifth on the team in goals with 13.

The Panthers are spread quite thin on the right side in terms of prospects, particularly at the pro level, so that might work toward Shaw’s favour in terms of earning another contract. That said, the team won’t keep him around simply to fill an organizational need; he’ll need to improve his standing in the organization with another solid season in the AHL.

Since that initial call up, Shaw has once again returned to the Panthers and has now played 5 games for the Cats with no points and an even plus/minus rating. In 13 AHL games this season he has scored 7 goals (3 on the power play) and contributed 1 assist, but is -4. He has an 18.4% shooting percentage.

Shaw has not looked out of place in the Panthers lineup, but he has also not been the noticeable contributor Connor Brickley and Quinton Howden have been, nor does he possess the noticeable speed that Grimaldi has. It will be interesting to see what the remainder of his call-up to the NHL holds, as well as what he will do upon return to Portland. The one thing that is certain is that Shaw has showed himself to be a capable 4th line NHL player, but not one who stands out among a crew of such players the Panthers presently have that fill that role. Shaw is in direct competition for an NHL position with Brickley, Howden, and Wilson. This season will be the make-or break for Shaw, and his AHL production so far has been solid, with .53 goals-per-game. Now he needs to keep that up.

Garrett Wilson

This left wing with good size, like his teammates Logan Shaw and Rocco Grimaldi, was summoned by the Panthers due to injuries to Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr. During his most recent NHL call-up he played 6 games during the Panthers west coast road trip in early November. He had no points and was +1. At the time of his call-up, Wilson had played 7 games for the Pirates where he contributed 4 assists and no goals. Garrett has now played 11 games for the Pirates and has a goal and 6 assists, with a -3 rating. His shooting percentage is 5.6%

Garrett has shown solid NHL 4th line ability, but that is without question where he tops out. Wilson's future is likely linked to Brickley and Howden and whether they can remain viable NHL players, and in Howden's case, whether he earns a promotion up the lines with the Panthers, opening a 4th line position for next season when Shawn Thornton's contract runs out. His .64 points-per-game this season in the AHL is excellent, but he, like Shaw, will need to keep that number high to have any shot at a future in Sunrise.

Dylan Olsen

The mystery surrounding Olsen and his disappearance from the game and re-emergence this season is of little consequence. His on-ice play in a recent call-up for the Panthers was excellent. This could be expected, as he was playing well in Portland as well. Jeff Mannix, the voice of the Pirates broadcast has seen a lot of hockey, and he had this to say about Dylan a week ago:

Dylan has played 9 games for Portland and has contributed a goal and an assist with a -1 rating. Olsen seems to have returned to the level of play he was at before sliding into whatever personal problems bounced him from the Panthers in the first place. He and Erik Gudbranson have resumed the chemistry they shared prior to that slide as well. The sample size so far this season has been small, but it has been against excellent competition.

Michael Matheson

The prospect on everyone's mind has played 17 games in Portland with 2 goals and 5 assists. Amazingly, he is also +5. He has no power play goals, and a 6.5% shooting percentage. Matheson has done all of this fairly quietly, with little fanfare or note, the hallmark of a good defenseman. He was a healthy scratch on November 21st, but it is impossible to say the reason behind that, as the team also had 19 players dressed for warm-ups and had to sit someone. He started in the recent win over Springfield and has been paired most recently with Brent Regner. Matheson had an excellent training camp with the Panthers that led to many wondering if he would stay in Sunrise to start the season. It would appear that the Panthers made the right choice in sending him to Portland, as he did not set the AHL world on fire to start the season, and the Cats defense has looked quite capable.

The Panthers defense has been playing exceptional on their current road trip, without injured Dmitry Kulikov, for the first three games,and Alex Petrovic. Dylan Olsen and Steve Kampfer have played well in relief. With the depth on the blue line it is unlikely we will see Matheson at the NHL level this season. This is likely a blessing, as he could use the time in Portland to get used to the pro game. Defensemen are notorious for taking a longer time to hit their peak than forwards, and Panther fans have watched that first hand with Kulikov and Gudbranson. At this point, Matheson is playing well with .41 points-per-game and an excellent plus/minus. We will certainly check back in with Michael later this AHL season.

Jonathan Racine

Racine has been doing what Racine does: 19 games played, no goals, one assist, +5, 28 penalty minutes. He has been paired of late with the impressive Sena Acolatse (who has contributed mightily on the offensive side with 3 goals and 3 assists).

The great news is that Jonathan's plus/minus is so positive. The Pirates have been running a team of reinforcements, as they have been forced to bring players in from the ECHL and sign some to contracts just to get a sufficient number of players in uniform. Racine is seeing tough assignments and has continued to be an effective shutdown defender with virtually no offensive upside at all. How his game will translate to the NHL remains to be seen, and with the jam at defense, it's hard to say when and where the Cats will look to make space for him. Racine is as solid as ever, but with a crowded blue line only becoming more so next season with the likelihood of Ian McCoshen's arrival, it is hard to say where Racine will fit in the future of the Panthers.

Keep in mind that Racine is in the final year of his contract.

MacKenzie Weegar

Weegar wears the badge of being the player Dale Tallon raved about prior to last season, only to have a rough start leading to demotion to the ECHL before being recalled later in the season by the Rampage. Tallon's praise has all of us waiting for this "Brian Campbell-esque" defenseman to show us just what it was Dale saw.

In 14 games this season in Portland, Weegar has not shown he is all that..... yet. He has 1 goal and 2 assists and has a -3 rating. He has a 7.7% shooting percentage and no power-play points. He has been playing with Cameron Gaunce, who has been an assist machine, with 11 helpers in 18 games this season to go along with a -1 rating. Gaunce is a very experienced AHL player, which is likely why Tom Rowe has him on the ice with Weegar. The only problem is that Weegar is not showing much on the score sheet yet.

This is not likely a make-or-break year for Weegar. With plenty of defensive depth, the Panthers can afford to let the youngster play through this season and next to see if he can overcome his difficulties and become the offensive d-man they believe him to be.

Sam Brittain

With the lack of available goaltending depth in the system, Panther fans have turned to Brittain for a bit of hope. In 6 games this season Brittain has posted sub par numbers, with a 3.61 GAA and a .877 save percentage. Not the kind of numbers Panther fans want to see. The question is whether this is a product of a poor team in front of him giving up high percentage chances. Six games is not a large pool to accumulate stats from, and one or two poor games can skew a small sample heavily. The good news is that the Pirates press crew has claimed that Brittain has been played well in his limited action. Nonetheless, Brittain was pulled after the first period against Hershey in late November after giving up 3 goals, but would return in the final frame and hold the fort in a 4-2 loss.

Brittain played in the Pirates recent 6-2 win over Springfield, with Jeff Mannix posting that Sam came up with a fantastic save in the game:

It is too early to tell what we have in Brittain, and the Pirates have been scraping by with such an improvised lineup it is unlikely Brittain will see a good team in front of him.  Veteran stopper Mike McKenna has struggled as well, going 6-7-1 with a 2.95 GAA and .886 save percentage.

Other Notes:

As might be expected, veteran minor league players lead the Pirates. Only one Panther prospect of note is in the top-5 in scoring for Portland: Kyle Rau is 2nd on the team. The other 4 spots are held by Rob Schremp (1), Wayne Simpson (3), Cameron Gaunce (4), and Shane Harper (5). Forward and Panther property Greg McKegg (acquired in the Zach Hyman deal) is 6th on the team in points with 5 goals, 4 assists, and an even rating in 16 games played.

Defenseman and Panther prospect Josh Brown was lent to the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL. Brown was captain of the CHL champion Oshawa Generals last season, and had the notable accomplishment of generally shutting Connor McDavid down during the OHL championship. ECHL play is generally the kiss of death for a prospect's chances at the NHL, as the statistics show virtually no ECHL players reach the NHL any more. Yet, in correspondence with the Pirates press coverage team I was informed that Brown was sent down not due to play, but for playing time due to a crowded Pirates and Panther blue line. Brown was recently called up to Portland and acquitted himself well. There is no way to say what Brown's chances are as a Panther prospect at this point, but he is a name to keep in mind moving forward.

Portland will need to start turning things around and start showing some consistency if they want to make the Calder Cup playoffs. In the past, the Panthers top minor league affiliate has done a good job preparing players for play in Sunrise, as Howden, Petrovic, and Brickley have shown. The handful of players mentioned above offer some intrigue. Yet, aside from Rau, Grimaldi, Matheson, and perhaps Brittain, the Panthers will not likely find much to help in middle-6 forward roles or top defensive positions. But mostly because of those players, it is important for Panther fans to pay attention to their play this season, to see if the next Vincent Trocheck or Quinton Howden is on the way or not.