Much of the Panthers’ success this season can be attributed to the strong performances by the young players whom they’ve drafted over the past several years. While some played top-6 roles, others served as call-ups and filled in for injured players.
Although most of the attention of fans was focused on the NHL club (and for good reason), the players developing in the Panthers’ system – and more specifically those playing in the Canadian Hockey League – also had solid seasons as they look to one day help them bring a Stanley Cup to South Florida. Read on for a look at how each of the Panthers’ CHL prospects fared during the 2015-16 season.
Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL), Right wing
Regular season stats: 58 games, 47 goals, 59 assists, 106 points
WHL Playoffs: 21 games, 7 goals, 23 assists, 30 points
Memorial Cup: 2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points
Jayce Hawryluk essentially cemented himself as one of the Panthers’ top prospects with an incredibly dominant season in his 4th go-around with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Having watched Hawryluk extensively this season, it’s fairly easy to say that he’s almost exactly what the Panthers need in their middle-6; he plays a gritty, hard-nosed, reliable game while also being more than capable of chipping in offensively, whether it be with a sharp wrist shot or a slick pass.
For a majority of the season, Hawryluk played in the Wheat Kings’ top-6 (the top 2 lines often alternated as the first line) on the right wing with center Nolan Patrick, who’s already a projected top pick for the 2017 Draft, and Tyler Coulter on the left wing. The line was one of the best in the entire Canadian Hockey League as they combined for over 200 points and controlled the play most of the time they were on the ice. Hawryluk also had a spot on the power play and the penalty kill while leading the team with 47 goals and 106 points despite missing 14 games due to a suspension and injury. His goal total was second only to fellow Panthers prospect Dryden Hunt who paced the league with 58. Hawryluk also represented the WHL against Russia in this year’s Subway Series by recording a goal and an assist in 2 games played, and he was chosen to try out for Team Canada’s World Juniors squad in December before being one of the final cuts.
His best stretch of the season by far came when he returned to the Wheat Kings’ lineup on January 15th after serving a 5-game suspension for charging. From then until the end of the season, he went without a point just 5 times out of 30 total games and recorded 71 points, including 3 hat-tricks, 5 games with 4 or more points, and WHL Player of the Month honors for February and March. In the month of February, Hawryluk went on an 8-game point streak during which he tallied an incredible 27 points, and he had 24 points during a 7-game point streak in the following month.
His best game of the season came on March 2nd when he scored 5 goals, recorded 1 assist, and earned a +7 rating in an 11-2 victory over the Saskatoon Blades, a team which he terrified with 13 goals and 10 assists in 7 games this season. He lifted his team to the WHL championship title in game 5 of the finals with an impressive 6-point performance which included a hat-trick and 3 assists. Hawryluk had a similar effort in the final game of the regular season when he recorded a hat-trick against the Regina Pats, yet another team that saw his name on the scoresheet so often. In the Memorial Cup, he suffered a concussion in game 1 and went on to play in game 2 before sitting out the rest of the tournament.
Overall, Hawryluk became a much more complete player in his final junior season as he made strides in just about all areas of his game. So far, his development curve matches up nicely with that of Vincent Trocheck who also saw a huge increase in offense in his 4th year in the OHL. Hawryluk definitely has the potential to become a really solid two-way player in the Panthers’ middle-6 and he’s not far off from that at all. In our interview with him earlier in the season, he said he models his game after Canadiens’ forward Brendan Gallagher, and you can see a ton of similarities in their games by watching them. Hawryluk is always the hardest working player on the ice and I’ve personally never seen him give up on a play; his passion on and off the ice is second to none. He’s always one of the first players in on the forecheck, reads every play carefully as he looks for a scoring opportunity, consistently uses his speed to carry the puck through the neutral zone, and his high hockey IQ allows him to make quick passes or create offense out of nothing; he’s truly an exciting player to watch.
In terms of the upcoming season, I wouldn’t say Hawryluk is a lock for either the AHL roster or the NHL roster; at this point, he could go either way. He’s had two really good development camps since being drafted in addition to solid training camps, and with him coming off a career-high season in the WHL, he’s a dark horse candidate for the 3rd or 4th line. If he doesn’t make, he almost certainly have a top-6 spot all to himself with Springfield in the AHL. For a deeper look at Hawryluk, check out our prospect profile of him here from earlier this year.
Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL), Right wing
Regular season stats: 72 games, 58 goals, 58 assists, 116 points
WHL Playoffs: 10 games, 7 goals, 9 assists, 16 points
Before the Panthers signed Dryden Hunt in late-February, he was widely regarded as one of the top undrafted free agents in the CHL. After suffering a series of concussions and being buried in the depth charts of the Regina Pats at the beginning of his WHL career, Hunt emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive junior players as an overager this season with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He scored 11 goals in the first 14 games of the season and that trend continued as he would go on to tally 19 goals in 12 February games, including 5 hat-tricks in a span of just 8 games. His torrent scoring pace allowed him to finish the season with 58 goals, 116 points, the WHL’s Player of the Year award, and First Team All-Star honors, in addition to an entry-level contract with the Panthers. Hunt’s goal total led his team, the WHL, and the entire Canadian Hockey League, and he didn’t stop when the Warriors advanced to the playoffs as he recorded 7 goals in 10 games including a hat-trick (his 7th of the season) on March 29th.
We followed Hunt closely after he was signed by the Panthers and went as far as to completely dissect his style of play to see exactly what the team was getting, and if you’d like, you can check out our in-depth article on him here. To make a long story short, Hunt has all of the tools of a natural goal-scorer. His size gives him the ability to thrive down low, along the boards, and in the cycle game, while his hockey sense allows him to know where to be on the ice and when to be there for the perfect scoring opportunity. When he’s not there, his NHL-caliber shot allows him to score from seemingly anywhere in the offensive zone and catch any goaltender off guard. The more time and space the better, but Hunt showed time and time again this season that he could get his shot off and score even in traffic.
Critics argued that his success was a result of playing with Warriors center and Lightning prospect Brayden Point – a speedy, smart playmaker – however, Hunt was able to keep up his production with him out of the lineup at various points throughout the season. Most of his time was spent on the Warriors’ top line with Point and Noah Gregor, and he also saw significant power play time during which he would sometimes stay out on the ice for the full man-advantage.
Hunt is a very calculating player and isn’t the buzzsaw that Jayce Hawryluk is which creates the illusion that he’s not involved in the play. However, that’s certainly not the case as his positional awareness is very good and eliminates the need for him to skate all over the place. As of right now, his potential is that of a top-6 forward with natural goal-scoring abilities, so it’ll be interesting to see how the 20-year old fares in the AHL, which is his most likely landing spot at least to start the 2016-17 season.
Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (QMJHL), Goaltender
Regular season stats: 47 games, 17-27 record, 2.63 GAA, .901 Sv%, 3 shutouts
QMJHL Playoffs: 11 games, 5-6 record, 2.45 GAA, .925 Sv%, 1 shutout
Currently the top goalie prospect in the Panthers’ system, Sam Montembeault added yet another great season to his QMJHL career. The 19-year old goaltender, who was chosen by the Panthers in the 3rd round of the 2015 Draft, has seemingly been on a seesaw for the past two years with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
In his draft year, the team finished as the 3rd-best team in the league before finishing as the 6th-worst and just barely making the playoffs this season as a result of losing two of the QMJHL’s top-5 scorers from the year before. Kristian Pospisil led the team with 40 points, the lowest mark among team scoring leaders in the entire league, and that’s essentially what Montembeault dealt with all season long. While his goals-against average mark of 2.63 ranked him 5th in the QMJHL and the Armada allowed the 4th fewest goals in the league, wins were tough to come by without goal scorers that most of the other teams had at least one of.
Montembeault’s stellar performance continued during the playoffs as he led the Armada to the biggest upset in QMJHL history after defeating the league’s highest-scoring team, the Val-d’Or Foreurs, 4-2 in 6 games. After losing the first game of the series, Montembeault backstopped the Armada to 3 straight wins during which he gave up a total of 4 goals. In game 5 of the 1st-round series, he allowed 6 goals but bounced back in game 6 with an incredible 54-save performance in a triple-OT victory to take the series. Montembeault shutout the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who would go on to win the QMJHL championship, in game 1 of the 2nd-round series before dropping 4 straight games and therefore eliminating the Armada.
Montembeault was also named the QMJHL’s first star for the month of January after posting a goals-against average of 1.89 and a save percentage of .926 in addition to a 5-2-1 record and 1 shutout. At the end of the season, his career goals-against average of 2.58 placed him second in QMJHL history behind Ondrej Pavelec who owns the league record with a 2.52 mark. Montembeault was a late add to Team Canada’s U20 roster for World Juniors in December after the presumptive starter, Mackenzie Blackwood, was suspended in the OHL for a vicious slash which forced him to miss the first 2 games of the tournament. The Florida prospect didn’t see any ice time behind Mason MacDonald, although it’s an honor to be considered for Team Canada regardless of the situation.
Having watched Montembeault play on several occasions this season, it’s easy to see not only why the Panthers drafted him, but also why fans and others around the league should be excited for what’s to come from him in the future. He’s so calm and composed in the crease, and it seems as though nothing gets him off his game. His glove hand is lightning quick – almost Luongo-esque – and his reflexes and lateral movements are great. Montembeault is also incredibly athletic, so he can go into the splits or get across the crease quickly as he reads the play. After signing his entry-level contract earlier this off-season, Montembeault could potentially turn pro at the start of the upcoming season, although with the Panthers inking Sam Brittain to a 1-year deal this past week, there’s a good chance that the 19-year old returns to the QMJHL for his 4th and final season. For a more in-depth look at Montembeault, check out our prospect profile of him here.
Kingston Frontenacs (OHL), Left wing
Regular season stats: 49 games, 23 goals, 39 assists, 59 points
OHL Playoffs: 9 games, 7 goals, 4 assists, 11 points
Lawson Crouse joined the Panthers’ system this past season after being drafted 11th overall at the 2015 Draft. While the team, scouts, and fans alike were excited about his size and power forward game, many were also concerned about the “low” numbers he was putting up compared to other top players in the OHL. This year, Crouse managed to put up 11 more points in 7 fewer games compared to last season, although he did tally 6 fewer goals, leading those watching from afar to be worried once again about the top prospects’ offensive abilities.
Crouse played a majority of the season on the Frontenacs’ 2nd line with fellow Panthers prospect Juho Lammikko and several right wingers which included Jason Robertson and Jared Steege. He also got time on Kingston’s top power play unit and top penalty-killing unit which really shows that he was counted on offensively and defensively. One of his best plays of the year came back in October when he dove to break up a pass in the defensive zone and swatted at the puck while lying on his stomach to get it over to his teammate, Spencer Watson, who then scored the overtime game-winner. He also managed to score his 2nd-career hat-trick while recording 3 or more points on 5 different occasions, including 2 games during which he tallied 4 points.
Crouse is known for his ability to get a ton of shots towards the goal as well and that was certainly the case for him this season as he recorded 1 shot just twice in the 49 games he played, while his season-high of 10 shots came against Sarnia on November 29th. His shot average of 4.55 per game ranks him 3rd in the entire OHL and 6th when combined with the QMJHL (the WHL doesn’t make individual shot counts available). Crouse was chosen for the OHL All-Star team and recorded 0 points in 2 games against Russia in November, and in December, he represented Team Canada at the World Juniors tournament where he recorded 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games as an assistant captain.
For Crouse though, stats don’t really tell the whole story as the Frontenancs play a strong defensive style which is shown by their 3rd-lowest goals-against total of 189 compared to their middle-of-the-pack goals-for number. Individually, Crouse is more of a two-way player rather than mostly an offensively-minded player or mostly a defensively-minded player, so while he wants to score goals and create offense for himself and his teammates, he won’t do it at the expense of his defensive game. For his size, Crouse is a great skater and can handle the puck really well in stride, and that’s not something you see often with physical specimens like him. If anything about him is NHL-ready, it’s without a doubt his size, because even in his draft year, he was a man amongst boys, and he uses it to his advantage as well. A fair amount of his goals this season came from the front of the net on both the power play and at even-strength, and a reliable net-front presence is something the Panthers have lacked for many seasons.
Simply put, Crouse had a pretty good season. Sure, he didn’t dominate, but remember, there are also a lot of players who score tons of goals in juniors and have trouble doing the same thing when they reach the professional level. He didn’t have a great season and he didn’t have a bad season, but the fact that he contributes in more ways than one means he did a bunch of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet.
Although he was able to play in one AHL game after his junior season ended, he’s not eligible to start there next season since he doesn’t turn 20 until next June. That said, he’ll have to play in the NHL – where he can play 9 games before the first year of his contract is burned – or be sent back to juniors for another season. Where the issue lies, however, is that Crouse has pretty much outgrown the OHL physically which makes deciding which route to go somewhat difficult. He could certainly thrive in the Panthers’ bottom-6 and those already valuable minutes could go up if injuries occur in other areas of the lineup. What is for certain, though, is that his skill set is extremely valuable and highly sought after in today’s NHL, and he has all of the tools needed to become a smart, two-way, middle-6 power forward for the Panthers very soon.
Kingston Frontenacs (OHL), Center
Regular season stats: 59 games, 22 goals, 33 assists, 55 points
OHL Playoffs: 9 games, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points
Juho Lammikko is easily one of the more underrated prospects in the Panthers’ system, and he had yet another solid season with the Frontenacs while playing alongside Lawson Crouse. He managed to put up 11 more points despite playing in 5 fewer games than last season and he also broke the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. Amongst players in the OHL that took at least 1000 face-offs, Lammikko ranked 17th with a win percentage of 52.18, and that’s pretty good for a 2nd-year player. If you take out the players who are 20 or older, Lammikko ranks 9th, so again, experience does play a role in face-off success. Two of his better games in the circle came when he won 14 of 18 draws against Flint on January 15th and 21 of 32 on January 29th against Owen Sound.
The 19-year old center also recorded his first career OHL hat-trick on February 15th, and although he doesn’t have pure goal-scoring abilities, he does have a very good wrist shot and can also put the puck in the net off rebounds or from the dirty areas around the net. He did play on the power play this season and had a huge role on the Frontenacs’ top penalty-killing unit where he was able to tally a team-leading 3 shorthanded goals.
Kingston’s penalty kill was ranked 3rd in the OHL with a success rate of 83.5 percent, and this is something that both Lammikko and Crouse contributed a lot to. As I mentioned with Crouse, the two played on the 2nd line together, and it ended up being one that was relied heavily upon at both ends of the rink rather than mostly in the offensive zone like the top line of Michael Dal Colle and Spencer Watson was. In December, Lammikko won gold playing for Team Finland at the U20 World Junior tournament, and although didn’t record any points in the 7 games he played, head coach Jukka Jalonen had a ton of trust in him as a 4th-liner in key situations.
After turning 19 in January and signing his entry-level contract in April, Lammikko seems destined for the AHL where he’ll suit up for the Springfield Thunderbirds. As a solid defensive player with a decent scoring touch, he won’t be immediately relied upon to score goals but instead take important face-offs, whether they be in the defensive zone or late in the game, as well as potentially getting time on the penalty kill. Lammikko also plays with some grit, so he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty or get physical along the boards. He already played one AHL game this past season for the Pirates after his OHL season ended, and all things considered, he look pretty good and even forced a few turnovers. A bottom-6 role with the Thunderbirds may make the most sense for him – at least for the upcoming season – as the big guns will fill out the top half of the lineup.
Owen Sound Attack (OHL), Defenseman
Regular season stats: 51 games, 9 goals, 22 assists, 31 points
OHL Playoffs: 5 games, 0 goals, 4 assists, 4 points
This season was Thomas Schemitsch’s first in the Panthers’ system and it certainly didn’t start off the way he or the organization would’ve hoped. The 19-year old defenseman broke his wrist in a rookie tournament game on September 12th against Washington and underwent surgery which forced him to miss about 6 weeks. He made his season debut on October 28th and recorded 2 assists in the game before tallying a total of 6 points in his first 5 games back from surgery. Schemitsch also suited up for the OHL All-Stars in 2 games against Russia and recorded 1 assist.
Schemitsch played most of the season in the top-4 with Jacob Friend and made up what was a fairly deep Owen Sound defensive core. On most nights, he faced the top lines of the opponent and was put to the test during the playoffs when the Attack faced the high-powered London Knights offense – which consisted of Mitch Marner, Christian Dvorak, and 2016 Draft-eligible Matthew Tkachuk. He tallied assists in 4 of the 6 games and played pivotal roles in game 2 during which he assisted on the game-winning goal and helped silence the London offense in a 2-0 shutout on the road. His lone multi-goal game of the season came on February 15th against the Oshawa Generals and he also had a 3-assist, +5-rating game 9 days later against Mississauga which helped him finish 2nd in team scoring among defensemen.
The interesting thing about Schemitsch is that he transitioned from being a forward to a defenseman during the 2011-12 season when he was playing minor midget AAA hockey, and that has led him to be a bit raw and more of a project when it comes to his defensive game. He had a productive draft year tallying 49 points in 68 games, however the Panthers knew when they selected him that he still had some room to grow. Considering the circumstances, he’s developed pretty quickly, and it’s his skating and offensive abilities that make him an exciting prospect. Although he’s eligible to play in the AHL this season as a result of turning 20 before December 31st, he’s yet to sign a contract with the Panthers, so it’s likely he’ll return to the OHL for his 4th and final season.