This past off-season was a busy one for the Panthers. In fact, it was probably the most active the Panthers have been during the summer since the inception of the franchise in 1993. The signing of Denis Malgin to an entry-level contract quickly became lost in the shuffle of free-agent signings and long-term extensions.
Drafted in the 4th-round of the 2015 Draft, the Panthers felt they had found a diamond in the rough as Malgin was passed over by the rest of the league due to his diminutive 5-foot-9, 177-pound frame.
“The next one might be the biggest sleeper in the draft in Malgin,” said then-GM Dale Tallon while describing the picks the team had just made.
“[He’s] tremendously skilled, quick, very smart, sees the well, a dynamic one-on-one player,” said Tallon of Malgin. “He’s gonna be fun to watch.”
Tallon, Finnish scout Jari Kekalainen, and the rest of the Panthers’ scouting staff watched Malgin dominate at the U18 World Championships in April of 2015 where he led Switzerland in scoring with 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games.
Kekalainen was a major factor in the Panthers drafting Aleksander Barkov, Jonas Donskoi (who’s now with the Sharks), Juho Lammikko, and, most recently, Henrik Borgstrom.
During the tournament, Malgin was incredibly effective against an impressive Russian team against which he helped lead Switzerland to a 5-0 shutout with a goal and an assist before falling to Canada in the bronze medal game.
Malgin was a “dominant player every time he was on the ice,” according to Tallon, and former head scout Scott Luce noted how he “single-handedly beat Russia” with his “great vision [and] great instincts.”
“He’s a cerebral hockey player,” said Luce at the 2015 Draft. “He’s not very big but his hockey sense is through the roof. This guy can play hockey at an elite level right now; he’s got great vision and instincts, and his individual skill set is very high. We didn’t think he’d be there [when it was our turn to pick] at all.”
Despite all of that, no one expected the 19-year old to make the Panthers out of camp just a year later.
I mean, how could he? Management went out and signed Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour to cheap deals with a handful of other guys battling for spots on the 4th line? With the top-9 just about set, putting him on the 4th line would be a waste when he can get top-6 minutes in the AHL in order to acclimate to the North American game.
“I can’t imagine [that],” said Colton Sceviour when talking about how Malgin has come to a new country where he’s had to conform to a different style of play.
“I found the jump [from the AHL to the NHL] to be pretty big, it definitely takes some time to adjust. With a little more of an open style European game which they play in some of those leagues over there, he’s had to adjust to not only a possibly higher level of competition, but also a different structured style of game.”
Malgin had just come off his 2nd season in National League A, which is Switzerland’s top professional men’s league, where he played for the ZSC Lions. As barely a 19-year old, he tallied 5 goals and 12 assists in 38 games while playing primarily in the middle-6 with 2016’s 1st overall pick Auston Matthews playing on the top line.
The international dominance continued as he managed to finish 5th in scoring at the U20 World Junior Championships in December by recording 9 points, a total that included back-to-back 3-point games in the relegation round.
Making the team this season started at the rookie tournament in September when Malgin caught the attention of everyone watching. He scored 6 goals, including a hat-trick, in the 3 games and was undoubtedly the best player of the weekend.
“He’s a great player,” said Kyle Rau after the tournament. “Every time he has the puck, something exciting seemed to happen.”
“I knew he had a lot of skill, I didn’t know that he had a 200-foot game, and [his] compete was off the charts, ” said Geordie Kinnear, the head coach of the Panthers’ AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds.
The Olten- Switzerland native continued to impress the Panthers’ brass at training camp and during the preseason, the opportunity arose for Malgin to crack the Opening Night roster when 3rd-line center Nick Bjugstad went down with a broken hand against the Stars on October 4th.
Thanks to his pro experience and possessing maturity beyond his years, Malgin was chosen to fill in right away for Bjugstad, and that decision was only solidified when Jonathan Huberdeau was lost to an Achilles injury during the team’s final preseason game. Even before the injuries, however, Malgin was one of the few non-regulars left on the preseason roster, so it was certainly clear that the Panthers were intent on giving him a hard look.
“It’s nice that I’m here with a week left,” said Malgin before the start of the regular season. “We’ll see what happens. I will work hard and do everything I can. We’ll see.”
Ten games in, Malgin has been one of the Panthers’ most consistent players at both ends of the rink. His defensive play has been incredibly solid, and he’s created tons of chances for himself and his line-mates but wasn’t rewarded until Tuesday night against Boston.
Malgin’s first career NHL goal came in the same arena he was drafted in just over a year ago and it followed in the footsteps of the goals he scored back in mid-September: a top-shelf snipe from the middle of the slot as the lone marker in a 2-1 losing effort.
“He’s playing really good hockey,” said head coach Gerard Gallant. “It’s great to see from a young player who works hard.”
By far one of his more impressive plays (below) since the start of the season came this past weekend in Detroit when he set Kyle Rau up for a shot on goal in the 2nd period. He was able to carry the puck up the left wing, squeak through a check by 6’2″, 211-pound defenseman Brendan Smith, stickhandle from his knees, and send a perfect cross-ice pass to Kyle Rau for a one-timer.
He’s been able to generate offense with his defensive effort as well, as seen below. Against the Bruins, Malgin went in on the forecheck and spun off a defender before the puck ended up at the point of the stick of McCann. Keith Yandle was pressured by two opposing forwards before Malgin came up through the face-off circle and stole the puck back. As he gathered the puck, he recognized a pick made by McCann, and that enabled him to skate into the slot and get a shot off uncontested.
His 2nd goal of the season came on Thursday against the Devils when he was left all alone at the point for a slap-shot which went right by Cory Schneider on the glove side. The best part about Malgin playing so well is the fact that he’s already this good despite not turning 20 until January. He’s played so well that his teammates have been giving rave reviews over the past several weeks.
“He’s been smart defensively and he hasn’t forced anything,” said Jason Demers. “He’s letting the game come to him, and he’s got so much talent that when he does that, he’s hard to play against and he’s fun to play with for a defenseman.”
“He showed flashes of his offense right from the get-go,” said Colton Sceviour. “I think even these last few games, he’s shown more ability to play on the defensive side of the puck and now he’s getting rewarded offensively for it.”
Odds are that Malgin will be with the Panthers for at least the foreseeable future, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them fit him into the lineup even with Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad returning from injuries soon. The Panthers have hardly converted on draft picks past the 2nd- or 3rd-rounds, especially as early as 1 year after a selection, and that makes seeing the success of Malgin even better.
For now, there’s a new addition to the list of Florida Panthers household names: Denis Malgin.
“It was always my dream to play in the NHL, and now I’m here by the Florida Panthers,” he told the Sun-Sentinel.