Florida GM Dale Tallon has been building Florida up with youth for several years now, and it needs to start to pay off soon. The Panthers have a strong core on the roster of under 25-year-old stars in Alex Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson, as well they have a strong pipeline of prospects on the way.
But at some point, the plan of building for the future via youth – which is a good plan in today’s NHL economic structure – needs to give way to the present and the youth needs to deliver.
While the Panthers core is talented and shows promise, the NHL is a results-driven business, and the kids need to win.
1. Henrik Borgstrom, C – Denver (NCAA)
Drafted: 23rd overall in the first round of the 2016 Draft by Florida
Many thought Florida reached when they picked Borgstrom late in the first round – he was not projected to be a first-round pick by many of the draft pundits – but the Florida scouting staff knew what they were doing, and it is about to pay off. In his D+1 year as an NCAA freshman, Borgstrom posted over a point per game with 43 points in 37 games helping Denver to an NCAA Championship and claiming the NCHC Rookie of the Year Award. Borgstrom is back for his sophomore season and is tearing up the league with 16 goals and 35 points in his first 23 games. Borgstrom is a gifted offensive player. He is a good but not great skater and just needs to hone his defensive game and add some more bulk to his 6-3 frame. He has NHL ready skill, and the Panthers could look to get him signed and start his pro career after this season.
2. Owen Tippett, RW/LW – Mississauga (OHL)
Drafted: Tenth overall in the first round of the 2017 Draft by Florida
The Florida Panthers think they have a gem in Tippett. He started the year in the NHL coming out of his draft, playing in seven NHL games and recording his first career NHL goal. After splitting time between the press box and the Panthers roster, Florida decided to send him back to the OHL. Many assumed he would be a lock for the Canadian World Junior roster, but Tippett failed to crack the roster. Tippett has an NHL level shot, and he loves to shoot. His release is quick, and he has a wide array in his shot arsenal with a hard, accurate one-timer, a laser of a wrist shot, and he is not above banging in tips and greasy rebounds as well. The kid just loves to score goals. Tippett is also a very strong skater, hard to knock off the puck and very fast for a big man. The knock on him is consistency, and compete. When the puck is not on his stick, his impact on the game is questionable. Those are very correctable and coachable skill sets, and he should be able to overcome those and elevate his game to a first line NHL sniper.
3. Jayce Hawryluk, C/RW – Springfield (AHL)
Drafted: 32nd overall in the second round of the 2014 Draft by Florida
Hawryluk is playing in the perfect era to be an effective third line NHL player. Traditionally the third line winger role is usually a gritty/energy role. Today that is still the case, but the player must be able to provide secondary scoring as well. Also, the role players were typically big players and Hawryluk is slightly undersized, but in today’s game that is no longer a deal breaker. Hawryluk can get under the oppositions skin, he is aggressive, chippy, and loves to play an aggressive physical game. He scored over 100 points in his final junior season and that offense translated to the pro level as he scored 26 points in 47 games as an AHL rookie last year. Hawryluk broke his hand in a preseason fight before last season and may have earned a roster look in Florida to start the season had he not been injured. In his second pro season, his production is on par with the prior years, and he is a player trending towards the NHL. He could see his first call-up before the year’s end.
4. Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Swift Current (WHL)
Drafted: 40th overall in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft by Florida
Florida is not afraid to gamble at the draft as they have made all or nothing picks on players like Borgstrom, Hawryluk, and Heponiemi. All have some concern about their file, be it size, compete, defense, etc. but the Florida scouts have done it again and found great value in Heponiemi. In his draft year, he had strong numbers in 86 points in 72 games as a WHL rookie. His sophomore performance is even exceeding Florida’s wildest dreams I’m sure as the Finn is tearing up the WHL on the CHL’s top line with Tyler Steenbergen and Glenn Gawdin posting an eye-popping 23 goals and 88 points in his first 35 games – that’s just over 2.5 points per game. Heponiemi is currently riding a staggering 27 game point streak in which he has 67 points. The only players in WHL history to finish a season with over two points per game are Mike Comrie, Sven Baertschi, and Oliver Bjorkstrand. The obstacle for the 19-year-old to overcome to play in the NHL is size and strength as he is rail thin at 148 pounds.
5. Adam Mascherin, LW – Kitchener (OHL)
Drafted: 38th overall in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft by Florida
Mascherin has been a model of consistency in his OHL career seeing his point totals rise year after year, finally reaching the 100 point mark in his D+1 year. With the Rangers adding some complimentary star power for a playoff run this year, Mascherin will be looking for some big game experience as he has limited international and playoff experience on his resume. While under six feet, Mascherin is a very strong, and speedy winger with a non-stop motor that often leads to outworking opposition. He is a prolific goal scorer and an accomplished playmaker with good hands, quick feet and a head for the game. Aside from being taller, he has it all, hands, feet, head and heart. Mascherin may need a year or two in the AHL, but he already plays a pro-style game and should transition smoothly after this year.
6. Dryden Hunt, LW – Springfield (AHL)
Drafted: Undrafted, signed as a free agent in 2016 by Florida
In addition to taking off the board gambles in the draft, Florida has also done an excellent job of scouting and signing free agent prospects, and Hunt tops that list. After a monster breakout overage season with Moose Jaw where Hunt exploded for 58 goals and 116 points earning WHL Player of the Year Award, the Panthers snagged him. Hunt made his pro debut the following season cutting his teeth in the AHL posting a solid 13 goals and 31 points in 70 games as a rookie. Hunt is having another strong season as one of the Thunderbirds top producers and earned his first look at the NHL playing in 11 games recording his first career NHL point. A late bloomer that looks to be a player.
7. Maxim Mamin, LW/RW – Springfield (AHL)
Drafted: 175th overall in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft by Florida
The Panthers scouts found another gem late in the draft in ’16 with Mamin. The overage Russian had a breakout D+1 season in the KHL with 25 points in 42 games with CSKA Moskva. Mamin has since crossed over to North America, and as an AHL Rookie, he has adjusted well with nine goals and 22 points in 28 games. He’s currently riding a four-game point streak with three goals and seven points in that span. Mamin made his NHL debut wearing number 78 and is a prospect on the rise within the Panthers organization.
8. Max Gildon, D – University of New Hampshire (NCAA)
Drafted: 66th overall in the third round of the 2017 NHL Draft by Florida
Gildon is another prospect on the rise for Florida that is developing an impressive resume; Gildon won the WJC Gold Medal in 2017 with USA scoring four goals and six points in seven games. As a member of the USDP team he recorded 56 points in 63 games, and as an NCAA freshman the 18-year-old has seven goals and 18 points in 24 games. Gildon has good size and is a good but not exceptional skater that has excellent offensive instincts. Gildon can run a power play, distributes the puck well, and has a good accurate shot. He needs to refine his defensive game and will have plenty of time to do so in the NCAA and likely a short AHL conditioning tour before he cracks the Panthers roster. Gildon is a prospect to watch.
9. Samuel Montembeault, G – Springfield (AHL)
Drafted: 77th overall in the third round of the 2015 Draft by Florida
After a stellar junior career in the Q with the Armada, Montembeault has started his pro career in the AHL with Springfield. The 21-year-old rookie has been solid with a 3.07 GAA and a 12-14-2 record with one shut out. Montembeault looks to be the Panthers goalie of the future and the timing of his graduation likely hinges on the play of 38-year-old Roberto Luongo.
10. Juho Lammikko, C/W – Springfield (AHL)
Drafted: 65th overall in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft by Florida
Lammikko had a difficult AHL rookie year last year posting just 11 points in 47 games. But the former WJC Gold Medal winner has rebounded in his sophomore season. In his first 43 games has already doubled his point total from last year with eight goals and 23 points. Lammikko is a big winger that plays a smart two-way game. He is very effective defensively, is a threat to score short-handed, is strong on draws and is versatile enough to play any forward position. Never a prolific scorer, but Lammikko has enough skill to play a complementary role with higher end skill players and be the defensive responsibility on the line.