The 2015 NHL pre-season has come to an end and we now know that the Panthers’ opening night lineup will feature several solid veterans, including 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, as well as an array of young talent, which includes Connor Brickley who has surprised many with his offensive production and hard work. After several years of quality draft picks and consecutive off-seasons of solid player acquisitions, the Panthers finally have solid depth at all positions…and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
If this year’s pre-season and training camp proved anything to us, it’s that the Panthers have great depth up and down the roster, and several players have even risen through the ranks to make the team this year. Also, many of the Panthers’ draft picks from years past are beginning to come to fruition, and they’re doing so at a pivotal point in the team’s history. Let’s have a look at some of the players:
We wrote an article a few days ago about Brickley being essentially NHL-ready, and he certainly showed it this pre-season. He scored 3 goals in 3 games during the rookie tournament in mid-September and worked incredibly hard during each preseason game he played in. He really began to emerge last season rather than just the past few weeks considering he put some really good first-year numbers in the AHL, so we’ve had an idea of what to expect for some time now. Either way, it’s refreshing to see things beginning to pay off for Brickley in the NHL.[tweet https://twitter.com/hfialkov/status/651124273176641540]
Howden is another player who has slowly but surely made his way to the NHL. Although he’ll likely never fully live up to his draft position (1st round, 25th overall, 2010), his style of play is important for the Panthers to have and is effective nonetheless. He’s already had two stints with the Panthers that totaled 34 games, but it’s likely that this one will be his most impactful. He was impressive and very noticeable during the Panthers’ final pre-season game on Saturday against the Lightning, and his speed added a new element to the lineup. Howden was all over the place playing on the PK and on the forecheck all night, and he had a huge hand in the Panthers’ first goal of the game. If he can stay healthy, there’s no doubt he’ll be playing an important role on the team all season long.[tweet https://twitter.com/hfialkov/status/651127173391060992]
The Panthers’ 2015 11th-overall pick played three games during the pre-season and also participated in the rookie tournament. Crouse managed 1 assist in the 3 games he played, and while he didn’t look out-of-place thanks to his size and forechecking ability, he wasn’t out-of-this-world impressive either. He still needs to work on his offensive game as well as the little things on the defensive side of the puck, and he’ll get the opportunity to do so now that the Panthers have returned him to his junior team. Crouse will most likely get top-line minutes and could even be paired with fellow Panthers draft pick Juho Lammikko. There’s no doubt Crouse has all of the tools to become an everyday NHLer, but there’s certainly no harm in giving him the most amount of ice-time as possible rather than rushing him and forcing him into the lineup.[tweet https://twitter.com/hfialkov/status/651124571752402944]
Mike Matheson + defensive depth
Matheson had an impressive pre-season and training camp and will undoubtedly be a top-6 defenseman in the near future. Among the several standout plays he made was his OT goal in the second game of the Panthers’ doubleheader against Nashville. While backpedaling, he received a pass and lost the defender in front of him with his stickwork and then shot the puck five-hole on Juuse Saros. Overall, his incredibly smooth skating and high hockey IQ made it tough for the Panthers to send him to the AHL, but the jump from college to the NHL is difficult. He’d be better off getting top-pairing minutes with Portland which would enable him to potentially be called up at some point or return next year better than ever. Then there’s also the logjam that the Panthers have at the blue-line with Steven Kampfer, who showed he can be a reliable bottom-pairing defenseman last year, and Alex Petrovic who has started to come into his own and will compete with Kampfer for the 6th spot.
The defensive depth doesn’t stop there though. MacKenzie Weegar had a strong showing during the pre-season and began showing flashes of promise and why Dale Tallon has been raving about him see he drafted Weegar. Weegar appeared more defensively and offensively aware and less raw than last year which was his first in pro hockey. Jonathan Racine, a tough defensive defenseman, is entering his 3rd AHL season and isn’t too far off, Josh Brown will be playing his 1st pro game when the AHL season begins this month, and Ian McCoshen will serve as assistant captain for Boston College this year. Don’t be fooled though; the Panthers also have guys such as the recently-drafted Thomas Schemitsch and 2013 draft pick Michael Downing who are poised to patrol the NHL blue-line in the coming years.
Off-season acquisitions + forward prospects
The Panthers made several moves during the off-season to build up the roster of their new AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. They signed Brett Olson to a 1-year deal, Chase Balisy to a two-year contract, and acquired Greg McKegg from Toronto in the Zach Hyman deal a month later. They also added forwards Shane Harper and Rob Flick through free agency as well as defensemen Brett Regner, Sena Acolatse, and Cameron Gaunce. Shane Harper could be at the top of the list if the Panthers need to call up a forward especially after recording 32 goals and a career-best 50 points in the AHL last season for the Chicago Wolves. He performed well in the pre-season, tallying a goal and an assist in 3 games, and he made it past two rounds of cuts, so he’ll certainly be an option for GM Dale Tallon. McKegg and Balisy have put up fairly decent AHL numbers as well, however they were average in the few preseason games they played in. Both are 23-years old and have a little bit of developing left to do before they’ll have a chance at cracking the Panthers roster.
Last year’s 2nd-round draft pick Jayce Hawryluk also attended the Panthers’ pre-season festivities. He participated in the rookie tournament where he was active offensively, generated a couple breakaway chances with his speed, and scored a game-winning shootout goal. He played in one pre-season game before being sent back to his junior team in the WHL where he’ll look to lead the Brandon Wheat Kings to the Memorial Cup after falling just short last year. This year will be his last in juniors so finishing somewhere near the top of the league in scoring will be a good sign that he’s continuing to develop. He scored 4 goals and added 1 assist on Saturday against the Regina Pats so perhaps eclipsing his career-best 64 points may not be difficult at all for Hawryluk.
We didn’t get a good look at the goalies making their way through the system during the pre-season aside from Sam Brittain and Colin Stevens, both of whom entered games halfway through. It’s difficult to gauge the performance and ability of a goalie through pre-season especially when they’re playing behind potentially less-experienced forwards and defensemen, and it’s also difficult to analyze goalies with a small body of work. For what it’s worth though, Brittain made 9 saves on 9 shots in relief while Stevens allowed 2 goals on 10 shots in relief. Veteran Mike McKenna looked decent during the small amount of time he played, and it’ll be good to have solid goaltending in the AHL for prospects and depth players to play in front of.
However, our own Connor Jordan wrote an article a couple of weeks ago reviewing the current state of the Panthers’ goaltending depth and where those goalies are headed this season and you can check that out by clicking here. In short though, the Panthers’ goalie depth is alive and well, and there are several viable options that will be ready soon and in several years from now.
In the end, it’s easy to see how the Panthers’ depth is the best they’ve had in a long time. Of course, not every player will develop exactly how they’re expected to, but the talent level throughout the organization is solid and the competition for jobs has never been greater. There haven’t been many times where the competition level has been so high that the opening night roster decisions went right down to the wire, but it’s certainly exciting to have reached that point. With the Panthers expecting to make the playoffs this year, it’s likely to take more than whoever plays on opening night to make it through the season, so it’s possible this new-found depth will need to be put to use.
You can check out our full depth chart in our season preview by clicking here.