After saying goodbye to San Antonio's leading scorer Bobby Butler, as well as veteran Mark Mancari and middling prospects like Ryan Martindale and Andrew Yogan, the Florida Panthers needed to inject some new bodies into the mix for the AHL affiliate shift to Portland, ME.
The Pirates forward group will look pretty similar to what the Rampage rolled out last season with a few notable exceptions. One or two of the players listed below could wind up on the Panthers opening night roster, but since they finished the regular season in the AHL, we'll keep them at that level until they actually make the jump. Let's take a look at the new faces and check the progress of the Cats home-grown prospects that will man the front line for Portland in 2015-16, starting with the players that have the best chance of making it to Sunrise.
Rocco Grimaldi: Grimaldi has to be considered the leading candidate to make the leap up to the Panthers, provided of course, that he has a good training camp. The speedy 22-year-old put up 42 points (14G/28) in 64 games with Rampage in his first professional season and showed a knack for scoring in overtime, an important tendency with the NHL shifting to 3-on-3 in the extra session this year. Grimaldi also bagged a goal in San Antonio's three-game playoff loss to Oklahoma City. The 33rd overall pick in 2011 did not look at all out of place during a seven-game stint with the Cats that saw him score his first NHL goal in a late November game versus the Nashville Predators. Grimaldi will be a Panther sometime soon, it's just a matter of when.
Garrett Wilson: Wilson, a Florida fourth-rounder from 2009, scored a career-high 23 goals and 38 points in 71 games with San Antonio in 2014-15. The 24-year-old now has four seasons of professional experience under his belt and has shown steady improvement each year, earning a three-game call-up with the Cats last season after playing two games with the big club in 2013-14. Wilson has good size and has added to his offensive game, putting him in the mix to make the Panthers' 23-man roster out of training camp.
Quinton Howden: The injury-prone Howden is likely at a make or break point as far his career with the Florida organization goes. A first-rounder in 2010, the former Moose Jaw Warrior's speed and penalty-killing ability would make him a nice addition to the Cats' bottom-six. Unfortunately, his development has been stalled by his inability to stay in San Antonio's lineup. Howden only suited up 33 times for the Rampage last season, but did manage to accumulate 18 points, including 15 assists. He hasn't shown much of a goal-scoring touch in the AHL, but did score four times in sixteen games with the Panthers in 2013-14. An intriguing player, who if 100% healthy, could give Grimaldi and Wilson a run for their money when it comes to taking one of the open roster spots on the Cats.
Greg McKegg: The 23-year-old McKegg was acquired early in the offseason for the rights to unsigned NCAA prospect Drew Hyman. With 108 points in 190 games with the Toronto Marlies, the 2010 third-rounder has shown his usefulness at the AHL level. McKegg has gotten his feet wet in the NHL, suiting up four times with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but has yet to notch his first big-league point. Look for McKegg to be in the running for call-up duty if the Panthers run into injury problems this season.
Connor Brickley: Brickley, the 50th overall pick in 2010, acquitted himself quite well in his first full professional season with the Silver and Black in San Antonio. The 23-year-old scored 22 goals and added 25 helpers to finish second on the team in scoring. He was one of three players to put up two points in the club's playoff loss to the Barons. The former Vermont Catamount could use some more seasoning in San Antonio, but I'd expect to see make his Panther debut sometime this season.
Shane Harper: The Panthers signed Harper this offseason to help replace the goals provided by the departed Butler. Harper lit the lamp 32 times last season for the Chicago Wolves, establishing a new-career high. He added 18 helpers to hit the 50-point mark for the first time professionally. The 26-year-old went undrafted after playing five seasons for the WHL's Everett Slivertips. Harper brings 281 games of AHL experience and 65 career goals to the Pirates. He has yet to suit up for an NHL game.
Kyle Rau: Named Minnesota's Mr. Hockey for his exploits as a high school senior, Rau is coming off a stellar four-year run at the University of Minnesota. A third-round pick in 2011, Rau hit the 40-point plateau in all four of his seasons with the Golden Gophers and captained the team during his senior year. After signing his ELC with Florida, the 23-year-old got his first taste of the pro game, playing 7 games with San Antonio, where he lit the lamp twice and added one assist. He also suited up for one of the Rampage's playoff games. Look for Rau to be a big part of the Pirates offense and be on the fast-track for promotion to the Panthers after he gets appropriate amount of AHL seasoning.
Corban Knight: Knight was originally drafted by the Panthers in the fifth round of the 2009 draft. After the two parties could not come to terms once he finished his NCAA run at North Dakota, Knight was dealt to the Calgary Flames, who traded him back to the Cats this past season for Drew Shore. The 24-year-old pivot finished the 2014-15 AHL season with 36 points in 58 games split between Adirondack and San Antonio. Knight has good size and some scoring ability, but will need to put up bigger numbers with the Pirates if he wants to earn a look from the Panthers.
Brett Olson: Olson is an undrafted player who played his college hockey at Michingan Tech. The 28-year-old earned his second one-year, two-way deal with Florida after scoring 14 goals and 31 assists in 76 games with the Rampage last season. Olson now has three years of AHL experience and has posted back-to-back seasons of 40-plus points.
Logan Shaw: After producing just 8 points in 46 games with San Antonio in 2013-14, Shaw did much better this past season, putting up 13 goals and 12 assists in 69 games. The 22-year-old, who is in the final year of his ELC, will need to continue that upward trajectory to earn another contract with the Cats. Shaw has good size and as a right wing, a weak spot in the organization, could have a future with the team if he continues to improve. He should have a bigger role on the Pirates this season.
Chase Balisy: A sixth-round draft pick of Nashville in 2011, Balisy scored 21 goals and 23 assist in his first professional season while toiling with the AHL's St. John's IceCaps, earning a two-year, two-way deal with Florida this summer. The 23-year-old, California native is a product of the U.S. National Development program and played four years at Western Michigan University, where he accumulated 129 points in 161 games.
John McFarland: Another player in the final year of ELC, McFarland posted his second-straight, ten-goal season for the Rampage. The good news for the 23-year-old in 2014-15 was that he finally managed to stay out of the ECHL. The bad news was that his 19 points fell five short of the 24 that he posted for San Antonio in one less game in 2013-14. McFarland was a high second-round pick in 2011. He will need to make significant strides forward this season in Portland if he wants to remain in the organizational fold.
Rob Flick: Another one of the veteran American-leaguers signed by Dale Tallon this summer, Flick came out of nowhere to score a career-high 19 goals for the Providence Bruins last year after scoring just five times in the two seasons prior. The rugged Flick was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. The 24-year-old has yet to play an NHL game, but brings four years of AHL experience and a degree of toughness to the Pirates roster.
Steven Hodges: A third-round selection of the Panthers in 2012, Hodges split his time between San Antonio and Cincinnati during his first professional season. The 21-year-old, who battled some injury issues during his junior career, managed just one goal and one assist in 23 games with the Rampage, but he did fare better with the Cyclones, where he put up 15 points (8G/7A) in 28 ECHL games. Hodges might need a little more time with Cincinnati before he his ready to claim a full-time spot in Portland.
Wade Megan: We've been hearing Megan's name for quite some time now, as he was drafted by the Panthers back in 2009. After two seasons spent bouncing between San Antonio and Cincinnati, he was not re-signed by the Cats. He was, however, signed to an AHL contract by Portland and should see time in the club's bottom-six. Megan scored 8 goals and 5 assists in 59 games with the Rampage last season and once again proved he's probably too good for the ECHL by scoring 7 points (4G/3A) in five games with the Cyclones. The ship might of sailed on Megan's NHL career, but he can still become a useful AHL player.