Thoughts: Forward prospects, Montembeault, AHL defensemen

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Continuing with our fresh new format, here’s a new round of Panthers thoughts from the past little while.

1. Bryan McCabe, the Panthers’ Director of Player Development – a slight change from the Director of Player Personnel title he was given following an off-season promotion – recently joined Sirius XM’s Hockey Prospect Radio show to talk about some of the team’s prospects.

First, he spoke about Owen Tippett, the Panthers’ 10th-overall pick from June’s draft who’s now back with his junior team – the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL – after spending about a month in the NHL.

“He’s already got an NHL shot, he’s got NHL speed, and he’s a game-breaker,” McCabe said. “In one shift, the kid can turn it on and go end to end and tie a game or win it for you.”

The 6’1″, 200-pound right-winger recorded his first NHL goal on October 26th against the Anaheim Ducks and now has 19 points in 17 games with the Steelheads. He has recorded an incredible 101 shots in that time.

“I think he got a lot of really valuable experience being able to stick around as long as he did up here even if he only played 7 games,” said McCabe.

“I think it was really beneficial for him to see how guys like Barkov, the Ekblads of the world, how they prepare, how they go about their daily business, what they work on and off the ice, and I think it’ll be a good thing for him to have that experience to take home with him.”

One could assume that Tippett will have another chance to crack the Panthers’ roster next season, although the team – fortunately – seems to understand that rushing him if he’s not ready isn’t the way to go.

McCabe said: “I don’t think you’ve ever heard a team say, ‘Oh we waited too long on this kid,’ but you’ve heard a hundred times, ‘Why did we rush him?’ He’s an 18-year-old kid, he’s gonna be a great player for us for years to come, but the bottom line is, he needs to play quality and still work on some defensive stuff in his game, get stronger, get a little more mature.”

2. Next on the list for McCabe was Aleksi Heponiemi, who you’re probably aware is absolutely tearing up the WHL right now with a league-leading 71 points in 29 games.

Heponiemi, drafted in the second round of the 2017 Draft, hasn’t played in the last three games for the Swift Current Broncos as a result of attending Finland’s World Junior Championship camp, but he still holds a 3-point lead in the WHL scoring race.

“I was out there [a few weeks ago] and saw him play two games and he was lights out the first game: first star, one goal, two assists, controlled the whole pace of play,” said McCabe.

“He has the ability to just draw guys in and make plays in small spaces. He’s got eyes in the back of his head, and he’s actually pretty good on the defensive side of things too. And for a little guy, he won a ton of loose puck battles, like I was surprised, against bigger, stronger opponents.”

Right now, the only real concern with Heponiemi is his size. At just 141 pounds, he’s pretty light, even at 5’10”, but he has time to bulk up.

Obviously I don’t think he’s ever gonna be a big guy,but he just needs to get a little bit thicker in the body and obviously the brains are there already,” McCabe said.

3. McCabe also took some time to talk about Adam Mascherin, who the Panthers drafted in the second round of the 2016 Draft.

The 20-year old had a slow start to the season after undergoing shoulder surgery during the summer. But now, he’s on a 9-game goal streak, during which he has 12 goals, and an 11-game point streak.

He’s fifth in shots in the OHL with 144 in 34 games and is fourth in goals with 23.

“We say that Tippett has a [good] shot, but this Mascherin kid, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone shoot the puck like he does at the junior level from a stand-still; it is hard and accurate,” said McCabe.

“He’s not the tallest guy but he is bottom-heavy and strong on pucks, and he sees the ice extremely well, I think makes the players around him much better. Anyone who gets to play with him I think’s gonna put points up on the board.”

One of the main holes in Mascherin’s game since he was drafted has been his play away from the puck, and it’s something he has worked on with the Kitchener Rangers’ coaching staff to improve.

“The one that sticks out to me is the way he is competing away from the puck this year,” said McCabe. “He’s totally committed to a 200-foot game. I’ve been in contact with [Kitchener head coach] Jay McKee on a regular basis and we’re really proud of the effort he’s put in to grow his game and not just be that guy that’s gonna get you 120 points.”

The other thing about Mascherin is that the Panthers’ haven’t signed him yet, and if they don’t do so prior to this coming summer, he could re-enter the draft at the end of June.

Based on some of these comments and the fact that the Panthers have been in constant communication with Mascherin’s coaching staff, it’d be surprising if he wasn’t signed.

Passing over a player with the offensive potential of Mascherin when the Panthers do not have an overwhelming array of quality forwards coming would be a mistake.

As of right now, there’s no rush, so it’s probably better to let him focus on continuing to make improvements to his game and worry about the contract at the end of his season.

4. Sam Montembeault, a third round pick of the Panthers in 2015, turned pro this season after four years spent in the QMJHL, and that meant he needed a new goalie mask to match his new team and gear.

He turned to Sylvie Marsolais of Sylabrush to create the design for his first pro mask as a member of the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds.

“Since it’s my first year pro this year, I really wanted to focus on the Thunderbirds and a Springfield design for my mask,” said Montembeault in a video interview with the team. “On top here I’ve got the Thunderbirds, I’ve got some lightning strikes too on the top over here because that goes with the Thunderbirds.”

As a fan of ‘The Simpsons” and being that the show is based in a fictitious American city named “Springfield,” Montembeault decided to put Nelson Muntz on the right side of the mask and Bart Simpson on the left. They’re both playing hockey against each other.

“I really like the show,” said Montembeault. “I’ve always been watching it since I was young and growing up. I don’t have a favorite episode, but most of the Halloween episodes I love too and I’m just a big fan of the show in general.”

Montembeault put the Panthers’ logo on the mask’s backplate and not just because it’s the parent club of the Thunderbirds.

“Since I really focused on Springfield all around my mask, I really wanted to put the Panthers’ logo on the back because that’s my main goal, that’s where I want to play later, and I think it looks good too.”

He also added the logo of Foundation Alecxange, which is his aunt’s foundation that raises money for children with cancer, and the words “No Excuses,” a saying he noticed on the walls of the Panthers’ locker room last year.

“I just put [that] because it’s just always good to not use excuses,” said Montembeault. “Even if you’re having bad times, you gotta just work harder.”

And that’s exactly what the 21-year old netminder has done this season.

With a .899 save percentage and a 3.17 goals-against average through 18 appearances, his stats aren’t exactly pretty, but they also aren’t particularly indicative of his play.

He posted his first career shutout on November 17th after stopping all 32 shots faced against the Charlotte Checkers. He has faced 30+ shots in 10 of his 17 starts and has been impressive for a young goaltender playing behind inconsistent defensive efforts.

He still has plenty of learning to do, but Panthers fans should be excited about what’s coming.

5. Speaking of the Thunderbirds, the Panthers were involved in a couple of AHL moves on Tuesday.

The Edmonton Oilers loaned veteran defenseman Mark Fayne to the Thunderbirds and traded 22-year old forward Greg Chase to the Panthers.

Chase, who has 17 points in 17 games this season with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder, was assigned to Springfield. He is the final season of a 3-year entry-level deal and doesn’t appear to factor into the Panthers’ future.

But the interesting part about these moves is the fact that the Thunderbirds already had nine defensemen on their roster prior to the Oilers loaning Fayne.

After losing 12 of their first 14 games this season, Springfield practically rebuilt its defense on the fly.

They signed journeyman Tim Erixon at the end of October while the Panthers traded Reece Scarlett to the Dallas Stars for Ludwig Bystrom in early November.

Maxime Fortunus, a veteran of over 800 AHL games, signed a professional try-out with the Thunderbirds shortly after, and Rob Hamilton earned a call-up from the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs.

A young defensive core consisted mostly of Panthers draft picks that started the season –  Josh Brown, Michael Downing, Thomas Schemitsch, and Ed Wittchow – mostly vanished just over a month later.

Erixon, Bystrom, Fortunus, and Hamilton have all logged big minutes, especially the former three, in all situations while forming most of the Thunderbirds’ top-4.

Oddly enough, Wittchow has played as a forward on the fourth line in several games over the last few weeks.

With Fayne expected to slot right in for the Thunderbirds, that makes it five regular defensemen who project to have no future with the Panthers’ NHL club, leaving one spot open for Brown, Downing, Schemitsch, and Wittchow.

For years, and even as recently as this year’s training camp, general manager Dale Tallon has rattled off those names as being part of a deep defensive core on the team’s depth chart.

Head coach Bob Boughner was also impressed by Brown and Wittchow, the latter of which surprisingly converted his AHL deal into an NHL contract just prior to the start of the season. Both were also two of the final cuts from camp.

Have feelings changed or are they not as close as previously thought?

Winning is always paramount, and that’s no different in the AHL being that it’s an important part of the development process.

But loading up on players which in turns blocks spots from draft picks and young players who presumably have a chance to crack the NHL roster one day is certainly an interesting approach.

If they aren’t going to play over any of the veterans, the Panthers will need to find a way to get them some playing time.

The Thunderbirds face the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on Friday. We’ll have to see how it all plays out.

6. A small note on Tom Rowe, who’s technically still listed as a “Special Advisor to the General Manager” in the Panthers’ staff directory.

Rowe, who went from the Panthers’ General Manager to interim head coach to advisor all within the span of five months, spent time in early December in Switzerland as EHC Biel, a team in NLA, the country’s top men’s league, had been considering the 61-year old to be their new head coach.

Rowe was a front-runner for the position and was one of two final candidates, the other Antti Törmänen, an outsider who coached in Finland’s Liiga last season.

“He’s a strong personality,” said Biel’s General Manager, Martin Steinegger. He went on to compliment Rowe’s “detailed knowledge” of the team, but in the end, Törmänen won the coaching job.

Despite Rowe’s title with the Panthers, it’s unclear if it’s a formality or if he’s actually involved in decisions involving the team. Upon being reinstated as the team’s General Manager in April, Dale Tallon mentioned that Rowe would be consulted regarding “future trades” and would help “recruit college free agents.”

Again, it’s not clear if that’s still the case or how active he still is within the organization.

7. On Tuesday night against the Coyotes, Jamie McGinn, Radim Vrbata, and Connor Brickley each had zero shifts in the third period as head coach Bob Boughner shifted to a three-line rotation in an attempt to create some offense.

That’s three players acquired during this past off-season to create some depth up front, and none of them were deemed good enough to see even a second of ice time with Florida down by a goal.

Very interesting.

Micheal Haley, also acquired over the summer, was a healthy scratch for the first time this season, although Boughner stated it wasn’t a demotion but rather a way of balancing the lines.

Maybe you could get by having Haley – who is in no way known for his offensive production – in the lineup with a deeper forward group (read: not Florida’s), but the Panthers have been struggling to score lately, so one can hope that’s actually one of the reasons why he was scratched.

It’s a hard line to walk; players say they like having him in the lineup because he has their back and let’s them play their game.

But are those 8, 9, 10 minutes of ice time better spent on someone else, especially when goals have been hard to come by?

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