Panthers’ Top 10 Prospects Heading Into the 2021-22 Season

The Florida Panthers added to their already deep prospect pool at the 2021 NHL Draft. General manager Bill Zito found diamonds in the rough in rounds two and four, and it’s worth considering where the newly drafted prospects rank within the Panthers’ system.

After two of the Panthers’ top prospects, Spencer Knight and Owen Tippett graduated into full-time NHL roles, and given the deep 2021 NHL Draft class, the Panthers’ newest picks represent four of the team’s top 10 prospects on this list. Floria wasn’t expected to bring in more top prospects, given that they are already a strong team, but the scouting department made sure to add more players who could help the team compete well into the future.

10. Kirill Gerasimyuk (G, SKA-Varyagi Morozova, MHL, 2021 5th Round, 152nd Overall)

After trading the organization’s top goaltending prospect Devon Levi to the Buffalo Sabres for veteran Sam Reinhart on July 24, the Panthers needed to find a new netminder immediately. With the 152nd pick on the same day on the second day of the draft, they found a gem in Kirill Gerasimyuk, who was ranked as high as the 65th-best player in the draft.

Gerasimyuk dominated the Molodezhnaya Hokkeinaya Liga in Russia in his draft year. In 27 games, he posted a 14-13-0 record with a whopping .931 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against-average. Despite playing for a SKA-Varyagi team that missed the playoffs last season, he ranked ninth in the league in save percentage as a 17-year-old.

He is a very composed goaltender for his age. He controls his rebounds and has the mobility to get into position quite easily. He also has a superb glove hand, making nearly all of the glove saves he is asked to make. Gerasimyuk might be a few years away from cracking the Panthers’ roster, but he projects to be a future backup for Knight, at the very least.

9. Serron Noel (RW, Charlotte Checkers, AHL, 2018 2nd Round, 34th Overall)

At 6-foot-5, 216 pounds, Noel has both the size and the skill to become an offensive threat in the future. The 20-year-old played his first season of professional hockey in 2020-21, suiting up for eight games with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch – the Tampa Bay Lightning’s affiliate because Florida’s affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, canceled their season due to COVID-19. He had a goal and four points last season.

Serron Noel Panthers
Serron Noel, Florida Panthers, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the 2019-20 season, Noel split his time in the Ontario Hockey League between the Oshawa Generals and the Kitchener Rangers. He played 48 total games, scoring 18 goals and 47 points. However, his standout season was in 2018-19, when he put up 34 goals and 81 points in 68 games for the Generals and added four goals and 11 points in 14 playoff games.

Noel is a power forward with speed and skill. He possesses a wicked wrist shot that can beat even the top goaltenders at every level. He’s also been able to use his size and speed to power through defenders and get to the net. He has the size to be a great anchor on the power play, screening the goaltender and potting any loose pucks that come his way. He could be NHL-ready in the next couple of seasons and be yet another young depth piece to help the Cats win in the future.

8. Ty Smilanic (C, Quinnipiac University, NCAA, 2020 3rd Round, 74th Overall)

Smilanic is a do-it-all centerman who flies under the radar. He is effective in the defensive zone, cutting off passes and anticipating every move of the opposition while using his 6-foot-1, 179-pound frame to outmuscle opponents and dig pucks out. He is a very potent goal scorer as well, able to clean up pucks in the dirty areas and with the skill to score from the perimeter.

Ty Smilanic USNTDP
Ty Smilanic, USA NTDP U17 (Credit: Rena Laverty)

In his first collegiate season with Quinnipiac, Smilanic had 14 goals and 21 points in 29 games. He was tied for 11th in the nation in goals as a 19-year-old freshman. He was also recognized as a member of the ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference) All-Rookie Team.

He will return to Quinnipiac in the upcoming season, but he has what it takes to become an NHL talent in a few seasons. He has the two-way ability to play a crucial role on the penalty kill and can also produce offensively. With Noel Acciari’s contract set to expire after this season, don’t be surprised if Smilanic is in the conversation to replace him in 2022-23.

7. Vladislav Lukashevich (D, Loko Yaroslavl, MHL, 2021 4th Round, 120th Overall)

Zito’s keen scouting eye found another diamond in the rough at 120th overall. Ranked as high as 47th in the 2021 Draft, Lukashevich is a great playmaking defenseman who could give the Panthers’ defense a dynamic look in a few seasons.

In 36 games with Loko Yaroslavl of the MHL last season, he scored three goals and 19 points and added another assist in five playoff games. In the 2019-20 season, Lukashevich represented Russia in the U17 World Hockey Championship and scored a goal and four points in six games.

He is a playmaking machine, able to make the correct reads on a breakout and with the patience to bait defenders into making the wrong play. He has a fiery desire to beat forecheckers 1-on-1, and his skill and passing ability allow him to beat them quite easily. He’ll need some time to develop overseas, but he can add a two-way presence to the Panthers’ defensive core in a few years.

6. Michael Benning (D, University of Denver, NCAA, 2020 4th Round, 95th Overall)

The 5-foot-10, 174-pound defenseman played his first season of college hockey in 2020-21 and put up some impressive numbers. In 21 games with the University of Denver, he had three goals and 11 points. The season before, Benning had 12 goals and a whopping 75 points for the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Michael Benning Sherwood Park Crusaders
Michael Benning of the Sherwood Park Crusaders (Target Photography)

Benning is a creative offensive defenseman who can bait the opposition into making the wrong read. He can create space with fake passes and dangles and has a precise slap shot. He is an offensive powerhouse and can impact his team in numerous ways.

His main issue is his size, as he needs to put on more muscle to help him out in defensive zone battles. If he can bulk up and have a good season for Denver next season, his name could be in the conversation for a depth role on the Panthers’ defensive core soon.

5. Evan Nause (D, Quebec Remparts, QMJHL, 2021 2nd Round, 56th Overall)

Nause is a prototypical two-way defenseman, with the size and mobility to contribute at both ends of the ice. At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, he has exceptional skating skills and can move the puck quite well on the breakout. He also uses his sizable frame to body defenders off the puck in a defensive zone scrum while having the speed to keep up with forecheckers.

Evan Nause Remparts de Quebec
Evan Nause, Remparts de Quebec (Photo credit: Jonathan Roy)

While the Panthers selected him at 56th overall, Nause seems to be a steal, ranked as the 22nd best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. He’s only played 32 games at the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League level, but with four goals and 22 points, he’s shown just how much of a steal he was. He also added a goal and two points in six playoff games.

Nause projects to be a solid left-handed defender who could be NHL ready by 2022-23. The Panthers’ depth chart of left-handed defensemen is weak, so he has a shot of cracking the roster if he has a good year in Quebec this season.

4. Aleksi Heponiemi (C, Florida Panthers, NHL, 2017 2nd Round, 40th Overall)

Heponiemi is on the precipice of becoming a full-time NHLer after making his debut for the Panthers last season. Playing in nine games, the 22-year-old recorded a goal and two points. At the AHL level, he had six assists in six games with the Syracuse Crunch. Like Noel, he didn’t see the ice much in Syracuse because the Crunch favored playing Tampa Bay’s prospects more.

Swift Current Broncos center Aleksi Heponiemi
Swift Current Broncos center Aleksi Heponiemi (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He also played 16 games on loan to MODO Hockey in Sweden in 2020-21 and dominated with six goals and 14 points. In his first year of AHL experience in 2019-20, he scored three goals and 14 points in 49 games.

Heponiemi can create space with his agile skating and beat defenders with his foot speed. He can also make decisions on the fly to set up his teammates before the opposition is able to react. He may be in the conversation for a roster spot this season to add more of a dynamic look to Florida’s bottom six. If he doesn’t make the team out of camp, don’t be surprised if he plays a decent amount of games at the NHL level next season, anyway.

3. Matthew Samoskevich (C, University of Michigan, NCAA, 2021 1st Round, 24th Overall)

The 5-foot-11 center is very creative in the offensive zone, having the playmaking ability to embarrass defenders and find his teammates. He is always one or two plays ahead of his opponent and knows where his teammates are headed. He has a high hockey IQ for an 18-year-old, and along with his work ethic, Samoskevich translates to be a very talented NHLer in the future.

Matthew Samoskevich Chicago Steel
Matthew Samoskevich, Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

He showcased that talent in the United States Hockey League last season, where he scored 13 goals and 37 points in 36 games for the Chicago Steel. He also added a goal and nine assists in eight playoff games as the team’s assistant captain.

Although Samoskevich is likely heading to Ann Arbour to play for the University of Michigan next year, don’t be surprised if he battles for a roster spot during the 2022-23 preseason. By 2023-24, he could be a key player on the Panthers’ roster who can provide some playmaking for their goal scorers.

2. Grigori Denisenko (LW, Charlotte Checkers, AHL 2018 1st Round, 15th Overall)

Denisenko is a dynamic forward who can both make plays for his teammates and shoot the puck very well. He has elite skating ability, with both the speed and agility to burst past defenders, and he should be a dynamic member of the Panthers’ roster soon. He made his NHL debut last season, putting up four assists in seven games.

Grigori Denisenko
Grigori Denisenko (Photo: HC Lokomotiv)

Like Noel and Heponiemi before him, Denisenko was another victim of reduced playing time on the Crunch, playing just 15 games. Despite that, he still put up five goals and nine points. The season before, he suited up for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League and scored six goals and 12 points in 38 games while playing against Russia’s best. He shined at the World Junior Championship in 2020, scoring three goals and nine points in seven games while captaining Team Russia.

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Denisenko is on the brink of being a full-time NHLer and could even be on the Panthers’ third line if he impresses out of camp. If not, don’t be surprised if he receives a call-up at some point during the season.

1. Anton Lundell (C, HIFK, Liiga, 2020 1st Round, 12th Overall)

After a dominant season in Finland, Lundell is ready to make his mark on the NHL. Playing in Finland’s top Liiga, he scored 16 goals and 25 points in 26 games while serving as an assistant captain for HIFK. He also recorded six goals and 10 points in seven games as captain of Team Finland at the 2021 World Junior Championship.

Anton Lundell IFK Helsinki
#15 Anton Lundell of IFK Helsinki during the Liiga Regular Season match between IFK Helsinki and Assat Pori at Helsinki 2019 on March 14, 2019, in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Samuli Seila/IFK Helsinki)

He played against NHLers at the IIHF World Championship and dominated, scoring four goals and seven points in 10 games to lead his team in both categories. He signed his entry-level deal with the Panthers following the tournament and will likely be the team’s third-line center next season.

Lundell is a pure sniper at center and can work with and without the puck to put himself in the best position to shoot. He has a quick release, so he doesn’t need much time or space to get his shot off. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Lundell has the speed to dominate on the breakout while having the size to win puck battles. He also has a tremendous hockey IQ and is always in position.

With such a talented prospect pool, the Panthers should be contenders for years to come. Their core is already young, so their Stanley Cup window should be open for the next decade. It’s time for them to pounce.


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