As the dog days of summer roll on, it’s an opportunity to look at the top Florida Panthers prospects.
The criteria used for this breakdown includes any player the Panthers currently have signed to a contract or hold that players’ rights, who has appeared in fewer than 10 NHL games and is 25 years old or younger as of Aug. 1.
In addition, we will offer a prediction on each prospect for the coming season.
Owen Tippett – Right Wing
Owen Tippett tops the current list of Panthers prospects. The 10th overall pick in the 2017 Draft, he played seven games with Florida to start the 2017-18 season before being returned to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he has been a top scorer.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound wing was drafted by the Panthers for his pure goal-scoring ability, and, after averaging nearly 35 goals and 75 points the past two seasons in the OHL, he appears ready to earn a full-time spot in the Panthers lineup this season.
Along with scoring goals, the 20-year-old sniper has focused the past two seasons developing his 200-foot game and playing away from the puck, so that he can play in the NHL this season.
Tippett signed a three-year entry-level contract (ELC) in 2017, however, his contract has slid or extended each season, so this season would count as the first year of his three-year contract, so his salary cap hit will be minimal for the next three seasons.
2019-20 PREDICTION: Tippett makes the Panthers’ opening night roster and plays 40-plus games, scores more than 10 goals in his rookie season and helps the Panthers earn a playoff spot.
Spencer Knight – Goalie
Spencer Knight was the highest-rated goalie in this year’s draft class, and the Panthers made him the first goalie selected with the 13th overall pick in hopes that the 18-year-old from Darien, CT develops into their future franchise goaltender.
After playing with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP) for the past two seasons, he is slated to play at Boston College this season. The Panthers have the luxury of allowing him time to mature and develop after the franchise signed free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract this offseason.
“Most good goalies are 24, 25, 26 before they really hit it big in the NHL,” Florida general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s (Knight) aware. I had a good talk with him. I suggested this might happen. He knows the plan and he’s good with it. He’s got time now to mature and develop at his pace. But we’ve got high hopes for him.”
His 6-foot-3 stature, along with his side-to-side movement and rebound control are his strengths.
“I’ve worked with goalies for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid so physically and mentally ready for the next level than Spencer,” said USNTDP goaltending coach Thomas Speer.
Last season, he went 32-4-0, while posting a 2.36 goals-against average (GAA) and .913 save percentage (SV%) with the USNTDP, along with a 1.51 GAA and .936 SV% for Team USA at the 2019 IIHF U18 World Championship, where the Americans won a bronze medal.
2019-20 PREDICTION: Knight will start 20 to 25 games at Boston College and will represent Team USA at the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic.
Serron Noel – Right Wing
Even though Serron Noel may still be a couple of seasons away from seriously contending for a spot in the Panthers lineup, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound forward has shown significant progress the past three seasons with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals.
As a 16-year-old in 2016-17, he scored eight goals and 13 assists, the following season, he improved with 28 goals and 25 assists, and, this past season, he improved to scoring 34 goals and 47 assists and was named the top forward on the Generals.
This past April, he scored six points for Team Canada at the world U18 Championships.
The Panthers 2018 second-round pick models his game towards that of Wayne Simmonds as he combines his large physical presence with his above-average offensive skills.
“This summer is going to be a huge summer for me,” Noel told the Panthers official website. “I need to focus on my nutrition and diet and try and get some muscle mass and get a little bit bigger and stronger just so I’m able to use my size a little bit better than I’ve been using it. Obviously playing against younger kids in the OHL, I haven’t needed to be super strong to dominate along the boards.”
2019-20 PREDICTION: Noel will score 40 goals and 90-100 points in Oshawa, and will be one of the top 20 scorers in the OHL.
Grigori Denisenko – Left Wing
The Panthers top draft pick last year, Grigori Denisenko, is a highly skilled Russian forward that many folks have rarely seen play, as he stayed in Russia after being drafted and is under contract for one more season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
Along with fellow Panthers’ draft pick Aleksi Heponiemi (Finland), Denisenko led all scorers at the 2019 World Junior Championship with nine points in helping Russia to a bronze medal finish.
Based on his lack of experience playing in North America, he may still be two to three seasons away from contributing at the NHL level, but it will be interesting to see how he develops and performs in what may be his final season in Russia.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound forward may have slipped to the middle of the first round in 2018 based on his two-year KHL contract but his skill and playmaking ability attracted the Panthers enough to invest their first-round pick and wait for his Russian contract to expire.
Prior to the 2018 Draft, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman evaluated Denisenko, “Denisenko is one of the most skilled players in his draft class. On a pure talent level, he’s one of the top Russians in this draft class (up there with Andrei Svechnikov, but without the size). Denisenko manipulates the puck so well and does so at high speeds.” (from ‘Pronman: Grigori Denisenko is a top prospect for 2018 NHL draft, despite his numbers’, The AthleticNHL – 3/19/18)
2019-20 PREDICTION: Denisenko will score 10-plus goals and total 25-plus points in the KHL regular season while also earning a spot on Russia’s squad for the 2020 World Junior Championship.
Aleksi Heponiemi – Center
Heponiemi, the Panthers 2017 second-round draft pick, signed a three-year ELC in May, keeping the 20-year-old Finnish playmaker’s rights with the club.
Based on the team’s strength up the middle at center, it’s likely he is still a year or two away from a full-time spot at the NHL level.
Lacking NHL experience, he may follow a similar path to that of fellow Finn, Henrik Borgström by starting the season in the American Hockey League (AHL). Last season as a 21-year-old, Borgström started the season in Springfield before earning a promotion and playing 50 games with the Panthers to close out the 2018-19 campaign.
As mentioned previously, Heponiemi tied Denisenko with nine points as the leading scorers at the 2019 World Junior Championships as Finland captured the gold medal.
He played last season with Kärpät in Liiga, the top hockey league in Finland, leading the team with 30 assists and adding 16 goals in averaging nearly a point per game in 50 games.
Before returning to play in Finland last season, he ripped up the Western Hockey League the previous two seasons with Swift Current, scoring 86 points in 2016-17 before averaging over two points per game the following season, posting 118 points in just 57 games.
2019-20 PREDICTION: Heponiemi will play in Springfield this season, have 25-plus assists, and if injuries strike the club’s centers, perhaps he sees time at the NHL level.
I have followed the NHL since the early 1980s, when offense was king. I lived in the midwest until 2013, when I relocated to south Florida.