After shedding the likes of Greg Zanon, Shane O'Brien, Blake Parlett, Jesse Blacker and Josh McFadden, the Florida Panthers needed to restock the blue line for their new AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, this summer.
The Pirates back end will have a much different look than last year's San Antonio Rampage as the Cats will welcome a couple of new prospects to the professional ranks and have a few new minor-league veterans on hand to help guide their development. Let's take a look, starting with the names that are already familiar to us, before checking out the new signings.
Dylan Olsen: 24-year-old Dylan Olsen is the wild card on the Pirates blue line heading into the fall. Olsen held down a spot on the Panthers for a fair portion of last season, suiting up for 44 games, until he was demoted to the Rampage after seeing the level of his play fall off. After his demotion, he didn't show up in San Antonio until near the end of the regular season. It was lightly reported that he was dealing with a (still undisclosed) personal issue of some sort. Was this issue part of the reason Olsen's game suffered and he fell out of favor in Sunrise? That can't be answered, but it certainly seems possible. When he's on the top of his game, although a bit slow of foot, Olsen looks like a solid-enough bottom-pairing NHL defenseman. He'll be looking to come to camp and reclaim a spot on the Panthers roster. With Alex Petrovic recently inking a new two-year deal, It seems likely that return to the roster would come at the expense of veteran AHL/NHL "tweener" Steven Kampfer, who finished the season with the Cats and looked pretty good.
Mike Matheson: After three seasons and 75 points with the NCAA's Boston College Eagles, Matheson signed his ELC with Florida near the end of last season. The 23rd overall pick in the 2012 draft was sent down to San Antonio to get his feet wet and played in 5 games with the Silver and Black, racking up 2 assists and 8 PIM. The blazing fast Matheson is coming off an impressive showing at the Panthers annual development camp and should receive plenty of ice time and be able to contribute solid offensive numbers from Portland's blue line. Look for Matheson to be in the mix for a roster spot on the parent club in 2016-17 after he gets a year of seasoning in the AHL.
Jonathan Racine: Tough, stay-at-home defenseman Jonathan Racine, a third round pick back in 2011, will be embarking on his third full tour of AHL duty this season. Last year, Racine played in 70 games for the Rampage and finished with 7 assists and a team-leading 149 PIM. The 22-year-old now has a solid 129 games of AHL experience under his belt. While not at all flashy, teams always need a guy like Racine in their defensive group. Another solid year in the "A" could have him ready to take over Willie Mitchell's on-ice role sometime in the not too distant future.
Josh Brown: Brown is another stay-at-home defender who will probably end up battling the aforementioned Racine to take over a Willie Mitchell-type role on the Panthers one day. The 21-year-old is coming off an impressive OHL campaign, his fourth, that saw him put up offensive career-bests with 4 goals, 17 assists and 21 points and lead a smothering defensive effort that shutdown phenom Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters in the league championship final. And oh yeah, after that, Brown captained his Oshawa Generals to a win at the Memorial Cup. The native of London, ON , who signed his ELC in April, will be making his professional debut this season, and it seems likely it will be in Portland, and not with the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones.
MacKenzie Weegar: A highly-skilled, offensive defenseman from the QMJHL, Weegar was the darling of the Panthers' 2014 development camp. Big things were expected from him last season, but the young prospect failed to live up to the hype (which was probably unrealistic), splitting his time between San Antonio and Cincinnati, while also seeing some press box duty. In 31 games with the Rampage, Weegar totaled 2 goals and 8 assists while posting a +2 rating. He was more productive with the Cyclones, producing 13 points in 21 games. It will be interesting to see if the 21-year-old is deemed ready for a full season of work in the AHL, or if he will have to work his way up to the Pirates from Cincinnati. Our own Shane O'Donnell has pondered the idea of switching the dynamic blueliner to forward, could Florida's brass be thinking the same thing or will Weegar get more time to hone his defensive game?
Brent Regner: The 26-year-old Regner, a right-handed shot, brings a wealth of AHL experience (388 games) to the Pirates blue line. Last season, he scored 6 goals and added 23 assists for the Chicago Wolves. Regner played his junior hockey in Vancouver, for the Giants, and was a fifth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008. In his final year with the Giants, he set the club record for most points by a defenseman with 67. That type of production hasn't translated to the next level, but he can chip in offensively and is usually good for 20-plus points a season. Regner has yet to play a game in the NHL.
Cameron Gaunce: Gaunce is another experienced AHL defenseman, who unlike Regner, has some NHL games to his credit. In 2010-11, Gaunce played in 11 games for the Colorado Avalanche, scoring his only big-league goal, and in 2013-14, he suited up nine times for the Dallas Stars after being recalled from the club's Texas affiliate in Cedar Park. Last year, he spent the entire season with the Texas Stars, racking up 113 PIM while scoring 4 goals and 10 assists. Gaunce was a second round pick of the Avalanche back in 2008, so there is some talent there if the Cats need him in a pinch.
Sena Acolatse: An undrafted player who spent five years with three different teams in the WHL, Acolatse was signed to a three-year ELC by the San Jose Sharks in 2011. After three seasons toiling with the Worcester Sharks, he signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Calgary Flames and spent last season with the team's AHL affiliate in Adirondack, putting up 19 points in just 38 games. The native of Hayward, CA is just 24-years-old, but after going untendered the last two times out, doesn't seem to have much of a future in the NHL. He is, however, a useful AHL player when he is in the lineup.
Yann Sauve: Sauve was signed to a one-year deal last week by the Pirates, not the parent Panthers. He played his junior hockey with the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs and was a teammate of Jonathan Huberdeau during the 2009-10 campaign. Sauve was drafted in the second round by the Vancouver Canucks in 2008 and played a total of 8 games for them over the course of his time with the organization. Only 25-years-old, Sauve is already a well-traveled AHL journeyman, having played for six different teams while compiling a 221-game resume at that level. Last season, he signed with the ECHL's Orlando Solar Bears, where he scored 2 goals and 2 assists in 13 games. The Solar Bears loaned him to three different AHL teams during the 2014-15 campaign and in 25 games he finished with a combined total of one goal and 3 assists.