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Five Florida Panthers prospects taking part in 2016 NCAA Tournament

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Cats have a quintet of draft picks competing in college hockey's version of "March Madness"

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Remember the years the Florida Panthers did not compete for a playoff spot and all we beleagured fans had to look forward to was the draft and watching our prospects play, dreaming of the day when they would be NHL players in the postseason? Those days seem gone, as whether the team makes the playoffs or not (and 99.7% seems like strong odds to make it), the days of watching our big lottery picks while salivating are in the past. Those players are almost all in the NHL now.

But this is not to say that there are not some sweet prospects to watch in the road to the NCAA Frozen Four this year. The Panthers have five players on teams that have made the "dance," and begin competition today. Ian McCoshen at Boston College, Michael Downing at Michigan, Evan Cowley at University of Denver, Joe Wegwerth at Notre Dame, and Chris Wilkie at North Dakota, will represent the Cats in hockey's version of "March Madness." Here is a look at when they play, and how their season's have been:

Ian McCoshen, Boston College: Defense

Watch this kid play. You will thank me for getting you to do so. I had the chance to see him play live over Christmas, and I saw the "wow-factor." There is no NCAA prospect in the Panthers system that deserves as much hype as McCoshen. He is every bit the top prospect with great NHL potential that Dale Tallon hoped he would be when he drafted him in the second round of the 2013 draft.

Now in his third year at Boston College, this big defensemen can play many roles. At 6'3", 207 lbs., he can bring a very physical game, and is downright nasty in front of the Eagles net. He pounds opponents in the corners and has a knack for the big open ice hit as well, which is likely what led to his 84 penalty minutes this season.

McCoshen can also produce offensively, too. In 37 games this season, this former Team USA World Juniors player put up 6 goals and 37 assists, while posting a team-leading plus-29 rating. What really stands out about him is his skating and passing. Hockey's Future recently ranked him the top NHL drafted NCAA defensemen in the country. They had this to say about Ian:

Ian McCoshen tops this year’s ranking of NCAA defensemen. He is the complete package and might be the most NHL-ready of all defensive prospects playing in the NCAA this season. He possesses very sound fundamentals and has continually improved and/or strengthened his overall skill set.

Yes, there is reason to be excited about this young man. McCoshen's Eagles play tonight at 8:00 p.m. E.T. against the Harvard Crimson on ESPNU.

Michael Downing, University of Michigan: Defense

Dale Tallon likes to draft big, physical defensemen who can skate, and we at LBC have no problem with that and encourage him to continue doing so. Downing was yet another of these big d-men drafted by Tallon in the fourth round back in 2013.

Downing has emerged as yet another solid prospect in the Panthers' farm system. How good is Downing? As noted above, McCoshen was ranked the top NHL drafted NCAA defensemen this year. Downing just missed the top-10 on that same list. His normal defensive partner, Zach Werenski (a Columbus draft pick, 8th overall in the 2015 draft) is number two on that list. While Werenski is a smaller, silky skating, offensive blueliner, it is Downing at 6'3," 200 lbs. that brings the physical presence.

Downing can produce offense as well. This season, he has scored 3 goals, added 16 assists, and went plus-20. He also sat for 62 penalty minutes. For the second year in a row, Downing is among the team leaders in offensive production, despite playing with Werenski this year, and Zach Hyman and Werenski last season. Certainly another player to watch as he continues to grow into a top prospect.

Downing and his fellow Wolverines will play Notre Dame today at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

Chris Wilkie, University of North Dakota: Right Wing

Wilkie is a freshman at North Dakota, and the growing pains of adjustment to NCAA play against much older, stronger competition have been on display. In 32 games this season, Wilkie has scored 5 goals and added 4 helpers, while going minus-3. He also has collected 14 penalty minutes.

This 19-year-old forward will continue to put on weight, and is already listed at 6'0", 199 lbs. He was a big-time goal scorer in the USHL, for the Tri-City Storm, who also had no issues scrapping with opponents. He is known for his speed and knack for scoring. As a sixth round draft pick in 2015, Wilkie has the odds stacked against him, and has much to learn at UND.

Wilkie may not see the ice much, but North Dakota will face Northeastern at 2:00 p.m. on ESPNU.

Evan Cowley, University of Denver: Goalie

Cowley has had some ups and downs. Earlier this season it appeared that he had lost the net-share with Tanner Jaillet, but Cowley has come back strong, finishing the regular season with 16 games played, and a 2.07 GAA and .929 SV%. Cowley's GAA and save percentage are better than Jaillet's this season, although the latter played 28 games.

At 6'4", 185 lbs., Cowley has NHL size (especially with the pad shrinking changes that are coming). Like Downing, he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, and still has a year of eligibility remaining at Denver. With Jaillet getting more starts this season, it is hard to tell if we will see much of Cowley in the tournament if Denver can advance past Boston University in the opening round.

Cowley may not start, but his Pioneers face Boston University at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

Joe Wegwerth, Notre Dame: Left Wing

Wegwerth is a BIG freshman left wing at Notre Dame, coming in at a hulking 6'3", 232 lbs. Like Wilkie, Wegwerth is a freshman in his first season of collegiate hockey, and his numbers reflect that. In 30 games played he has 1 goal, 3 assists, and is minus-4. He also has 18 penalty minutes. He's definitely not an impact player yet, but he has that size that the Panthers liked when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.

We may not see much of Wegwerth in today's game, but his Fighting Irish will face off against the Michigan Wolverines (and Michael Downing) at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU

Games start today at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time with North Dakota playing Northeastern in Cincinnati, and continue at 5:30 with Michigan against Notre Dame. At 6:30 Denver will face Boston University in Saint Paul, and tonight at 8:00 p..m. Boston College will face Harvard in Worcester, Mass. All games are set to be televised on ESPNU.

SBN has you covered for more on the 2016 NCAA hockey tournament. Click here to see the teams, schedule and bracket.