The Florida Panthers are suddenly the talk of the NHL with their play in December and initial January dates, and rightfully so. But while the media attention outside of South Florida has been focused mostly on players like Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Roberto Luongo, what is making the Panthers success especially noteworthy is that they are doing it with so many NHL rookies. Alex Petrovic, Quinton Howden, and Connor Brickley all are rookies who broke training camp with the team, but Logan Shaw and Corban Knight are both call-ups from the AHL. In a post-game interview with Brandon Pirri (after the victory over the Rangers), Pirri took a moment to correct the reporter asking the question regarding the AHL call-ups, by stating, they are all NHL players. Well done Mr. Pirri, this team does indeed show its love for one another and noted "family" atmosphere.
The strength of the NHL team has come from drafted players, such as Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad, Gudbranson, Petrovic, Kulikov, Shaw, Howden, Knight, Brickley, and Trocheck. The Panthers still retain a good deal of talent spread throughout various levels of amateur and minor-pro hockey. Here then, a look in at how many of those players are looking in 2015-16:
I took a look at Rau as part of this article about the Portland Pirates at the quarter point of their season, and LBC had this young forward at No. 14 in our "Top-25 under-25" series. Since that time, Rau has given Panther fans even more to be excited about, as he had a fantastic December and start to 2016.
Rau leads Portland in goals, with 15 in 31 games this season- his first full professional season (he played 8 games for San Antonio after leaving the University of Minnesota last season). Only 2 of those goals were on the power play, meaning Rau is doing the majority of his damage at 5-on-5. Of players in Portland who have played more than 10-games this season, Rau has the highest shooting percentage on the team, at 20.5%. Because he does most of his scoring in the high traffic area around the net, this is not an inflated percentage that is likely to come crashing down. Rau is tied for second (5th officially) in the AHL in goals scored. Pretty impressive stuff for a rookie.
At 5'8", 173 lbs., Rau is not going to be one of the Panthers big bodies, but he has consistently shown an exceptional Hockey IQ and fearlessness that often have him in the right place at the right time. This was surmised by Hockey's Future in their Talent Analysis of the winger:
Rau is an agile and quick skater with impressive hockey sense. His ability to anticipate plays allows him to consistently find the one place on the ice where the puck will go and where he can have the greatest opportunity to score. His defensive play is underrated, and despite his smaller frame he plays a tough, physical game. He has quick hands around the net, and is a tireless worker.
There is no rush to bring this 24-year old up to the NHL squad, as the Panthers are fully loaded at forward (with bodies to spare). Rau will likely be given a full season to continue his adjustment to professional hockey. If called up today, he would be the smallest forward on the Panthers roster by 2-inches (Vincent Trocheck is 5'10"). That is not necessarily a bad thing, but a full season of AHL duty- a league noted for having enforcers and goons on every roster- will only serve to prepare him for the physical battles that await. In the meantime, he is a prospect that holds a great deal of offensive promise that Panther fans can watch with some excitement. Consider this: Rau has 15 goals in 31 games. Last season (on a far better San Antonio team) Garrett Wilson had 23 goals in 71 games; Connor Bickley had 22 goals in 73 games; and Logan Shaw had 13 goals in 69 games. Rau is on pace to eclipse every one of them.
We, around LBC, were all very excited for Grimaldi coming into this season, and many folks believed he could end up a full-time Panther coming out of training camp. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Let me begin by stating you could not root for a nicer, more deserving young man. Grimaldi is as hard working, dedicated, and nice a young man as any mother could want. Having said that, Rocco has struggled in his NHL call-ups so far this season. In 15 NHL games this season, Rocco went -5, with one goal and one assist, both at even strength. He managed this while averaging 11:48 in ice-time. His relative Corsi-For percentage was -2.7. He did that despite a 54.2% Offensive Zone start rate. This is not what any of us wanted or expected out of the speedster. We were not the only ones either, as Hockey's Future had said this about him:
After a breakout campaign with San Antonio in 2014-15, Grimaldi will compete for a roster spot on the Panthers in 2015-16; his diminutive size, however, might suggest that he has to earn a spot on one of the top two lines in order to be effective. He has been viewed as a proverbial "boom-or-bust prospect" at every level and those concerns exist in terms of his NHL future. His early success at the AHL level seems to suggest the potential for similar production with the Panthers one day.
Cue up some altered expectations. Rocco has played 17 games in Portland this season, contributing 5 goals and 7 assists for 12 points. Two of the goals were on the power-play, and he has a 14.7 shooting percentage. He is also -2. There is no question we saw some defensive issues during his NHL call-up, and it may be that he is working on similar issues in Portland.
But all is not lost here. While we may have been looking at Grimaldi as a goal scorer, we should have expected more of a set-up player. In two years of full-season NCAA play at the University of North Dakota, Rocco scored 30 goals (in 82 games), but contributed 45 assists. In his lone full AHL season (last year), he scored 14 goals in 64 games, but added 28 assists. Returning to Hockey's Future, their talent assessment does point out his passing skills:
Grimaldi is a top-flight NHL hockey player in a small package. He is a terrific skater, both with and without the puck. His quickness and acceleration are truly high end and he has the agility to match. His shot is deadly, and his passing skills are professional grade. Grimaldi is a tireless worker and often the most competitive player on the ice. His combination of puck skills, compete level and explosive skating give him everything he needs to overcome any issues he might have because of his size.
The remainder of this AHL season will be very important for Rocco. He was recently returned to center (from wing) by Portland coach Scott Allen, and that does not suggest good things- as we all know any future for him with the Panthers is not at center. If that position sticks for some time it will be somewhat telling for the organization's plans for him. Yet, if Rocco continues to produce in Portland, and play sound two-way hockey, he is still a supremely talented player that Dale Tallon believes in.
Canada had an awful 2016 World Junior Championship tournament in Helsinki- where they finished 6th. The Panthers top 2015 draft choice did not play poorly though. Lawson Crouse began the tournament on Canada's 3rd line, and ended it on the team's 2nd line. He played 5 games, scoring 2 goals and adding 3 assists to go along with only 2 penalty minutes and a +1 rating. Good, but not among the tournament's best.
Crouse has also had a solid OHL season to date, with 9 goals and 15 assists (24 points) in 22 games played for a very good Kingston Frontenacs team (that added Islanders star prospect Michael Dal Colle via trade recently). Five of Crouse's 9 goals for Kingston have been on the power-play. All the talk of how good Crouse is on the power play seems to be solid analysis.
Hockey's Future had this to say about Crouse:
One of the biggest knocks on Crouse last year was that he doesn’t—and won’t—produce enough offense. That might be a bit of a stretch considering he did score 29 goals last season, but the point being that he isn’t particularly skilled and will be more suited to a third-line role in the NHL.
While they did not include him in their "elite offensive skills" group of Canadian players, the HF writers did evaluate Crouse coming into the WJC tournament:
Crouse is huge. At 6’4" and 211 pounds, he can assuredly make himself at home in front of opposition goaltenders. For a player of his size, he moves very well and should be effective on the international-sized ice surface. Crouse is capable of providing offensive punch.
He did just that, which is good to see. The last write-up at HF also suggests that Dale Tallon and company knew what they wanted when Crouse was drafted- as the goal by Logan Shaw against the New York Rangers showed how Tallon and Gallant want the players on the 2nd-4th lines to provide offense. The big player-drive the net-and smash home rebounds- mold will fit Crouse well. Kingston plays a very sound defensive game- so it is somewhat difficult to say how much more offensive output Crouse is capable of. Looking at a player who plays with a somewhat similar skill set, Quinton Howden was known as a large, speedy player who drove to the net during his days in the Western Hockey League. Howden is not as big as Crouse is, although he was (and is) noted for having more speed, but he also produced more points at the junior level than the Kingston stand-out.
What this all means is difficult to determine. Crouse came into last year's draft with considerable differences in opinion among scouts about what he will be at the NHL level. Virtually every scouting agency complained of wanting to see more offensive production to complete an otherwise formidable package. At this point he remains very much a question mark on that front, but he is without a doubt a player who will contribute as a 4th line NHL player at a minimum. We will continue to follow and monitor his progress in hopes that he reveals more offense as the season moves forward.
Sticking with Panther prospects in the World Junior tournament, Lammikko came into the tournament with some rather high expectations. but has not contributed much to a very good Finland team's offense. In 6 games played, he has no points and only 8 shots on goal. But he was also +2 and being used in a 4th line role by the Finns. Finland will take on Russia in the gold medal game. HF had this to say about the Finn coming into the tournament:
Kingston Frontenacs’ forward Juho Lammikko, a third round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014, was one of the final players cut by Jortikka last year. He is scoring at a point-per-game pace in his second OHL season and should provide both size and skill this year’s Finnish squad.
I recently looked at this prospect in an LBC article leading into the World Juniors, that focused heavily on the outstanding OHL season he is having. In 30 games in the OHL this season, Lammikko has 10 goals and 18 assists (28 points) and has been fantastic at the center position on the aforementioned Kingston Frontenacs.
Nonetheless, Lammikko has been passed in the offensive expectation and skill department in Finland by several other NHL draft picks, such as Kasperi Kapanen, Mikko Rantanen (both of whom were 1st round NHL draft picks), Sebastian Aho (a 2nd round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes), and several draft eligible youngsters playing in the Liiga (Finland's top professional league), in Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine (both of whom could end up being 1st round picks in this year's draft).
What we know at this point is that Lammikko struggled to begin the year in the Liiga and was returned to Kingston. He has played very well in the OHL again. This may mean that he will be the late bloomer some believed he may be coming into his draft year. That is not to suggest he will be an elite NHL talent, but with his size, two-way play, and offensive ability, there is still hope he could end up playing a 3rd or 4th line role in the NHL. This season and the next year or two- when he will likely play in the Liiga and possibly the AHL will tell where he will land, but in the meantime there is much to happy about in Kingston.
Like Crouse and Lammikko, Malgin played for his country at the World Junior tournament. Unfortunately for Malgin and the Swiss, it is one they'd likely prefer to forget as the team barely remained above relegation. In 8 total games at the tournament, Malgin had 1 goal and 8 assists (9 points) to leasd the team in scoring, while going -1 with 6 penalty minutes. Malgin played mostly on the team's 2nd and 3rd lines, but was one of their top players who saw important minutes. His hockey IQ, vision, and smooth skating were on full display and were all they were reputed to be.
Of some concern are Malgin's numbers in the Swiss-A League for Zurich this season. In 26 games played this season, he has 2 goals and 7 assists (9 points), which is about where he was last season with 8 points (2 goals, 6 assists) in 23 games. That is a point for some concern when you consider this:
Given his impressive playoff performance and the experience gained last season, it’s hard to imagine Malgin not playing a more prominent role for Zurich.
If given a more prominent role this season, Malgin is scoring at the same or lesser rate than last season. Malgin was #25 in the LBC Top 25 under 25 series, where we noted:
Malgin will continue to play for Zurich in 2015-2016, but he'll be playing alongside Auston Matthews, the 2016 Draft eligible prospect who will most likely go first overall. Matthews signed with Zurich over the summer, and as soon as he turns 18 in mid-September, will start playing with the Lions.
This small forward gets compared to Rocco Grimaldi often, likely due to their size and speed similarities. Yet, if Grimaldi's recent struggles are any indication, Malgin will have a long road ahead to prove his skill set can result in an NHL role. If we are looking for a silver lining, consider that Malgin is producing at a rate of .34 points-per-game against grown men- professionals- rather than kids. At this point he still has much to prove.
I was fortunate to get to see McCoshen play live in Estero over the 2015 Christmas holiday. It is easy to see what the Panthers scouting staff is so excited about. He is a big man who skates both fast and quick; he can play with a Gudbranson style edge, dishing out pain and heartache; he is a quick puck mover with excellent vision up ice; he is strong and gets his shot off quickly; and he plays a smart and safe defensive game. For those who have never seen a Division 1 NCAA hockey game live- do yourself a favor and get out there, it is fast, and furious to the point of vicious. In a game against Providence where, in typical NCAA Division 1 hockey fashion- the bodies were flying, McCoshen stood out with some big, clean bone rattlers.
McCoshen has 5 points in 18 games for Boston College this season (he had 16 points in 35 games for BC last year). But it is not the offensive game he is being asked to run for BC this season- that game has been left for Colin White. This 6'4, 218 lb. defenseman has been asked to play more of a defensive role, and he is doing it very well. If it is difficult to get statistical quantification of NHL defensemen in the defensive zone, it is even harder to do so with NCAA defensemen. But consider that McCoshen is +20 so far this season. Fellow defensive standout Michael Matheson was -4 in his final season at BC. There is good reason that Hockey's Future labeled this big D-man the Panthers top amateur prospect coming into this season, writing:
McCoshen is a similar player to Matheson, but has a bit more size to his frame and is a little more physical. He led the Eagles in penalty minutes last season with 63.
Long-term McCoshen projects as a top pairing defender with the ability to control the play.
He is also a power-play specialist, where he has scored most of his goals with a notable snapshot. With the Panthers deep defensive talent pool there will be no rushing McCoshen to the professional ranks. He landed at #15 in the Top-25 under-25 series this summer. He is only 20-years old and in his 3rd year at BC. Ian has fantastic potential but is still likely several years away from a full time NHL role, but he is certainly one to watch.
Speaking of Boston College-trained defensemen, former Eagles standout Matheson is likely the Panthers top defensive prospect, and the player whose name is most often mentioned for the eventual replacement of Brian Campbell. Matheson has had a slow start to his professional career in Portland, putting up 3 goals and 6 assists to go along with an excellent +11 rating (on a team that struggled through the 1st third of the season). Matheson is now a top pairing defenseman with Portland, often playing with AHL vet Brent Regner.
Matheson had a fantastic training camp with the Panthers that had many questioning whether he would break camp with the Panthers. Our own Todd Little wrote of Matheson at that time:
Along with forward Connor Brickley, Matheson was one for Florida's most impressive players in the recently concluded Estero Rookie Tournament, The slick 21-year-old blueliner seems to be on the fast track for a roster spot on the Panthers in the near future. Portland Pirates coach Tom Rowe, who oversaw Florida's rookie team, stated in a radio interview that Matheson has all the tools to be a successful NHLer, but will need a year of seasoning in Portland. So expect him to get that, as well as some call up duty with the big club this year. Matheson should be penciled in as a Panther regular come 2016-17.
With Dylan Olsen and Steve Kampfer both getting the calls when injuries have sidelined a Panthers regular blue liner, Matheson will indeed likely get a full year in the AHL, if not more should the team re-sign Brian Campbell to a short term contract. Defensemen take time to develop, so there is no rush yet for Matheson. He is starting to emerge in Portland, and that is exactly what we want to see at this point for this 21-year old blue liner.
Perhaps the best place to start with this player is the LBC Top-25 Under-25 series where he placed at No. 23. Todd Little had some difficulty at that time figuring Weegar out, as he has bounced from the AHL to the ECHL and back to the AHL. As a 7th round pick, Todd also noted that there would be no expectations for this former Halifax Moosehead. In a quote in that article from Hockey's Future, it was also noted that Weegar had at times been a healthy scratch, and he was once again just that in Portland on January 3rd of this new year. But he was also a player that Dale Tallon raved about, and the talent write-up at HF is glowing:
Weegar should earn a steady role on the Portland Pirates of the AHL in 2015-16. He is still quite far away from earning NHL consideration, but his first year as a pro was a positive step forward. Long-term his offensive instincts suggest he can be a valuable skating defenseman and power play quarterback at the NHL level one day. Weegar should add strength and bulk as he matures physically and refine his positional play with the Pirates — allowing him to reach that potential.
His numbers are not bad, as he now has 25 games played in Portland and has scored 3 goals and added 7 assists, while -2 with 1 power play goal. He is most often paired with Cameron Gaunce, as a 2nd defense pair. Where Weegar is on the developmental spectrum is hard to say, as his oft-partner Gaunce has 16 assists and is +3. Like his defensive prospect brethren, and in part because of them, there is no rush with Weegar and he will be given time to develop. The statistics for late round draft picks and ECHL players are awful when it comes to making the NHL, but the scouts seem to think he can defy the odds and was merely a late bloomer. 10 points in 25 games in the AHL is notable, so Weegar continues to be a prospect that is worth watching.
It has not been the ideal season fans or Sam Brittain would have hoped for after a stellar period of play late last season in San Antonio suggested that Brittain was a goalie prospect to keep an eye on. In only 11 games this season in Portland, Brittain has finally gotten his save percentage to .900 (as late as his 10th game it was at .898) and his goals-against-average below 3.00, as it dropped to 2.93 in his 11th game. We listed him at 21st on the LBC Top-25 Under-25 series and noted his inconsistency:
Inconsistency has marred Brittain's game for some time. He has bounced between exceptional and very average from season to season. But his potential does hold the possibility of great promise. Whether that be from his fantastic final season at Denver, or in his 7-game stint in San Antonio, Brittain has shown he could be a very good goalie. Panthers' staff and players raved about him during his short stint as Ellis' backup when the Cats lost Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya to injury.
Britain has posted a 4-6 record in Portland so far this season, and the team struggled through the first two-months of the season as an AHL bottom dweller, forced to bring in ECHL call-ups just to field a roster. Perhaps this has led to some of Brittain's poor numbers. The Pirates radio crew has noted some fantastic saves he has come up with. Nonetheless, if you are looking to read into something, try this: Mike McKenna- the Pirates other goaltender, has played 23 games this season to Brittain's 11, suggesting that the Portland coaching staff has little confidence in this netminder. This is not good news. The best we can say for Brittain at this point is "stay-tuned," and hope that he turns this season around.
Garrett Wilson has established himself. We know what he is and where he is on the prospect ladder: He is a 4th line NHL caliber talent that could slip into a Connor Brickley or Quinton Howden role with some ease, and may yet do so down the road. He played 6 games this season for the Panthers, averaging just over 10 minutes in ice-time per game, and putting up no points to go along with 20 hits and 6 shots, while going +1. He is 24 years old and is likely fully developed in his skill-set and abilities.
Last season Wilson emerged at the AHL level, scoring 23 goals in 71 games, and posting 15 assists (38 points). In 24 games for Portland this season he has scored 4 goals and added 10 helpers (14 points) and is -1. With the end of Shawn Thornton's career looming it is possible Wilson will stick around as one of the jumble of 4th line players the Panthers move in and out of the line up in the future.
Include me among those who thought McFarland was done with this team at the end of last season. He scored 10 goals in 46 games last season in San Antonio and contributed 9 assists as well. For a 2nd round draft pick who bounced between the AHL and ECHL it did not seem that he had the wherewithal to stay on the Panthers deep depth chart.
McFarland has served notice this season in Portland that there may something yet salvageable in him, as he has now scored 11 goals in 31 games in Portland and added 5 assists, while going +4. Three of his goals have been on the power play as well. The Hockey's Future write up is not particularly inspiring either:
McFarland is a highly-skilled player who has struggled to produce at the rate originally expected of him. He has speed and a quality wrist shot which make him a dangerous breakaway threat whenever he is on the ice, but he has struggled to use those skills to generate consistent, team-based offense. He often works hard to create space but he doesn't play an overly combative game despite his size and is inconsistent with his defensive responsibilities.
His sudden production gives reason to keep an eye on this decent-sized left wing, but the odds remain long for any sort of NHL future.
So-- you may recall there was another possible "goalie-of-the-future" candidate at the University of Denver, 6'4" 185 lbs. Evan Cowley. The Hockey's Future watch on him in August suggested good things to come: