The Florida Panthers have been more like kittens in recent seasons, developing one of the youngest rosters in the NHL. But don’t be fooled by their age, these youngsters have combined to become a skilled club whose speedy play brought them to within one point of the playoffs last season. I took a look at the Cats pipeline and built a prospect pyramid to help group potential talent and see how bright the future truly is for Florida.
Before I get started, it’s important to discuss exactly what a prospect pyramid’s purpose is and how it works. A prospect pyramid allows you to group prospects into tiers instead of ranking them individually. It also helps you avoid useless arguments over who’s better between your 13th and 14th prospects. There are six tiers in the pyramid:
Tier 1 is exclusively for potential superstars and should be very difficult to crack. Tier 2 is for very good players, guys you can build a team around. Tier 3 is for prospects who could possibly be in tier 2 in the future. How NHL-ready these players are usually can determine if they are tier two or three.
Tier 4 is full of prospects who have the potential to be solid NHL contributors. This includes players in the top nine, second pair, defensemen and One-B or backup goaltenders. Players who belong in Tier 5 are NHL hopefuls. Tier 6 is everyone else, whether this is due to a lack of evaluation of the prospect or simply that they are not expected to make the league.
Tier 1: None
Sorry. As I said previously, this tier is difficult to crack. If a player is in this category, he should be making his team’s roster in his draft year. An example would be the number one overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, who will likely be a first pair defenseman with the Buffalo Sabres this season.
Tier 2: Henrik Borgstrom, Owen Tippett
Over recent years, general manager Dale Tallon has developed a soft spot for smooth skating, skilled Finnish players and Henrik Borgstrom is no exception. The 21-year-old center notched 52 points in 40 games for the University of Denver last season and finished fourth in scoring in the NCAA. During his four-game call-up last year, he was able to score his first NHL goal, which is likely to be the first of many as he seeks a full-time roster spot this season.
Owen Tippett is a sniper and can score at any moment with 36 goals in 51 games last season for the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL. He is still a work in progress defensively, however, and understands that in order to earn for an NHL roster spot this season, he will need to improve that area of his game. With his offensive skillset, expect him to compete for a roster spot this year or, at worst, see some action due to injuries.
Tier 3: Heponiemi, Gildon, Denisenko, Noel, Montembeault, Bajkov, Haapla, Repo
Aleksi Heponiemi is a skilled Finnish prospect with great vision. A center, he is a game facilitator and a points machine. During his most recent WHL season, he amassed 28 goals and 118 points in 57 games. His biggest concern is his size. At 19, he stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs around 140 lbs. He will likely have to wait a few years for his body to mature before he thinks of the NHL, which explains his fall to tier 3.
Maxwell Gildon is the Panthers top defensive prospect. He is a fantastic skater for his size at 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds and used his abilities to put up 23 points in 36 games with the University of New Hampshire. Since he is only 19, coaches say he is still a few years away from competing for a roster spot.
The Panthers had a fantastic draft class this year. One of the surprises of the draft was Grigori Denisenko, who fell to them with the 11th overall pick. The 18-year-old Russian winger used his offensive abilities to lead his team to an MHL Championship. But given his age, he has been labeled by some as inconsistent and will need to work to prove that criticism wrong.
With the 34th overall pick in this year’s draft, the Panthers selected Serron Noel. Noel is already a man at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds. Despite his size, he is in fact only 18 years old. Size isn’t the only thing going for him. He also posted 53 points in 62 OHL games last season, which is due, in part, to his excellent skating ability. Because of his NHL-ready frame and skating ability, expect to see Noel in a Panthers jersey in two to three years.
The Panthers goalie situation is an interesting one. Roberto Luongo is 39, which leaves everyone wondering how much is left in the tank for the future Hall of Famer. Furthermore, James Reimer shows himself to be a strong backup but nothing more. That leaves prospect Sam Montembeault as the Cats goaltender of the future.
He has a large frame at 6-foot-3 and 192 lbs, which in a league with plans to decrease goalie pad size, is becoming an increasingly valuable attribute. However, Montembeault still needs to adjust to the speed of tougher leagues as he had an .896 save percentage(SV%) and 3.25 goals against average (GAA) in 41 AHL games last season.
Despite going undrafted, Patrick Bajkov has been a force in the WHL, increasing his point total in each of his five seasons with the Everett Silvertips and ended this current season with 100 points in 72 games. His hockey IQ in combination with his natural abilities make him difficult to stop and at only 20 years old, he still has plenty of room to grow. It will be interesting to see how he develops over the next few seasons.
Henrik Haapla was plagued with injuries during his 2017-18 campaign, playing in only 20 games for Panthers AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds. However, he was able to grab a point in the NHL during a short five-game call-up. Despite the down year, there is still much to be excited about with him. In Finland’s Liiga, he put up 60 points in 51 games during the 2016-2017 season. Hopefully as he adjusts to the smaller NHL ice, he will be able to put up better numbers.
Enter Finnish prospect number four, Sebastian Repo. He, too, has great size at 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds and uses it to his advantage in front of the net. During his previous season with Tappara Tampere, he put up 14 goals and 12 assists in 50 games. However, the Panthers are stacked at the center position and, because of this, his arrival to the NHL is still undetermined.
Tier 4: Hunt, Greco, Ang, Hutsko, Stillman
Looking to add depth to the bottom-six, the Panthers turn to Dryden Hunt. He had one assist in 11 games for the Panthers last season and although the numbers don’t jump off the page, in the AHL, Hunt posted 46 points in 58 games. If he is able to bring this type of stability to the third or fourth lines, he could bring unexpected offense to the Panthers. Look for him to contend for a roster spot this season.
Anthony Greco was tied for seventh in the AHL in goals last season and put up 48 point in 75 games with the Thunderbirds. He has elite speed and is able to find openings on the ice that allow him to shoot the puck. With 252 shots on net last season, Greco led the team and behind was Hunt with 166. Greco turns 25 this year, which is older than most on this list, but hopefully he is able to earn a roster spot sooner rather than later.
Jonathan Ang was a hard to stop in the OHL last season with 70 points in 65 games. He has world class speed and is a strong two-way player who is looking to carry his success into the AHL next year. At 20 years old, he is undersized at 165 pounds, but as he continues to grow and develop, expect him to start making some noise in future seasons.
Logan Hutsko scored 31 points in 37 games and was the 89th overall pick in this year’s draft. He is a versatile player who played both center and wing last season for Boston College. He is a player you want to see succeed. In 2015, he broke his neck during a hockey game that nearly left him paralyzed.
He preserved and worked his way back into what looks like a promising career. However, his injuries are a concern. On top of the broken neck, he also injured a major ligament in his knee, which is partially why he is in tier 4. If Hutsko is able to remain injury-free, he looks to be a nice addition for the Panthers.
Looking to make his own name in the hockey world, Riley Stillman, son of former Panther Cory Stillman, begins his first season in the AHL after a promising three-year career in the OHL. He has decent size for a defenseman at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds and is a mobile enough skater to be a threat offensively. He is still a little unproven and will be reevaluated after his AHL season.
Tier Five: Hawryluk, Bednard
Due to a lack of consistency last season, Jayce Hawrlyuk is in tier 5. The 22-year-old put up 36 points in 64 games for the Thunderbirds. He also had a 19 game pointless streak and was demoted to the ECHL for six games.
He seems to have been jumped by Hunt and Greco and due to the Panthers’ strength down the middle, he seems to be falling even more. However, a bounceback season may be in the works for him and, if he is able to add consistency to his game, expect him to be right in the mix for a bottom-six call-up.
The second goalie prospect on this list is Ryan Bednard. He finished his sophomore season at Bowling Green State University where he put up impressive numbers. In 29 games, he had a .916 SV% and 2.24 GAA. Due to the murky long-term future of the Panthers goaltending position, this seventh round pick could find himself as a future backup.
Tier 6: Everyone Else
Building a great team starts with prospects and talent consistently needs to be lined up so that replacing current players isn’t stunting the NHL team’s progress. The Panthers have done this well in recent years, making it hard to know exactly where every player who isn’t mentioned on this list will fall. In the coming years, you should expect the names on this pyramid to change a lot and if everything goes according to plan, players at the bottom of the pyramid will work their way up rather than downwards.
South Florida native and avid Florida Panthers fan. From 2016-2017, Mike interned as a content promoter covering the Florida Panthers for SPORTalk.com.