Welcome back to Top Shelf Hockey Prospects. As we go through the Summer of 2015 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2015 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
The Florida Panthers were a much improved team in 2014-15 over the 2013-14 edition that finished second last in the NHL. They were in the playoff race at the trade deadline, and even became buyers, adding NHL legend Jaromir Jagr. However things would go downhill during a game in Toronto where both goaltenders got injured. This started a long losing streak that would ultimately leave the Panthers in 20th overall and on the outside looking in for the NHL playoffs. Overall though, it was a good step forward for the young team as the build upon a core that includes Calder Trophy Winners Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Other young talent such as Nick Bjustad, Aleksander Barkov, Dmitriy Kulikov, amongst others give the Panthers hope for the future.
TSP: Florida Panthers Prospects
Top Prospect: Michael Matheson, Defence
Born Feb 27 1994 — Pointe-Claire, PQ
Height 6.02 — Weight 190 – Shoots L
Drafted in the 1st Round, 23rd Overall By the Florida Panthers in the 2012 NHL Draft
The Panthers first round pick in the 2012 Draft, Matheson turned in a third straight solid season for Boston College, before turning pro and joining the Panthers AHL affiliate in San Antonio. He put up three goals and 25 points with B.C., playing a top pairing role, being used big minutes and contributing in all situations. Matheson added a pair of assists in five games with the San Antonio Rampage.
Matheson is an excellent skater. His stride is extremely smooth, and very powerful. He has a great first step, and excellent acceleration which helps him reach top speed extremely quickly. He has excellent edge work, agility, and pivots. This sublime skating helps him in all aspects of his game.
Matheson’s offensive game developed during his time with Boston College. While his slapshot isn’t a howitzer, it does have decent velocity. What’s more important though is that Matheson keeps his shots low and accurate, allowing his teammates to screen goalies, tip in pucks, and pounce on rebounds. Matheson makes a great first pass in the defensive zone which greatly helps the transition game. He has also shown a willingness to pick his spots and join the rush at key times. Matheson has also used his vision and passing skills to make strong plays in the offensive zone and to become a strong contributor on the B.C. power play.
Defensively Matheson continues to improve; he has excellent instincts, and plays a solid positional game. Matheson angles attackers to the outside and forces them into non-dangerous areas of the ice. He tries to keep the front of the net clear, and is quick to pounce on loose pucks. Matheson is willing shot blocker and understands how to cut down passing lanes. Matheson is also willing to engage in battles for the puck. Listed at 192 lbs, he still needs to improve his upper body strength going forward and it will be intriguing to see what he comes in at for training camp. He certainly looked to have gotten stronger over his time in university, but how he is able to handle professionals in the AHL next year will be a good indication of how far he has come, and how much further he needs to go. Still just 21-years-old though, there is plenty of time for this development.
Matheson will likely start the year with the Panthers new AHL affiliate in Portland. He could get some injury callups, and could be in line for a full-time spot by the start of the 2016-17 season if things go well.
#2 Prospect: Rocco Grimaldi, Centre
Born Feb 8 1993 — Auburn Hills, MI
Height 5.06 — Weight 181 [168 cm/82 kg]
Drafted by Florida Panthers in round 2, #33 overall 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Grimaldi impressed in his first professional season, putting up 14 goals and 42 points in 64 games with the San Antonio Rampage. He did well enough to earn an NHL callup, and got his first NHL goal during a seven game stint with the Panthers. Size has always been a concern for the 5’6″ Grimaldi, but he just keeps producing points, no matter where he plays.
Grimaldi is an absolute speedster. He has outstanding top end speed, and excellent acceleration. He can beat defenders wide, and cut to net. He has excellent agility and edge work as well. This all makes him very dangerous off the rush. He can also beat defenders by varying his speed, looking like he will go wide and then pulling up for a shot, or to open up a passing laG. He makes quick cuts, and can be elusive in that way as well. Grimaldi is strong on his skates for his size. He has a low centre of balance which helps him in digging for pucks in the corner and in being strong on the puck.
Grimaldi couples his excellent skating with great hands and is an excellent stickhandler. This makes him absolutely be deadly off the rush. He is a good playmaker, with the vision to find his teammates and the passing skills to move the puck through very tight openings. Grimaldi is best known for his goal scorer’s touch, including an excellent wrist shot and quick release. He also can score from close in, pouncing on rebounds and loose pucks quickly, and with the finesse to beat goaltenders in tight.
Grimaldi works hard on the backcheck, and gets into good positions, but this is the area where he his lack of size becomes a deficiency in his game. Facing bigger opponents, he can be outmuscled in the cycle game. He is limited in his ability to support the defence down low. This may mean that Grimaldi is transitioned from centre to wing, so he will have less responsibility in his own end.
Expect Grimaldi to start the season in the AHL and get some more development time. However, he has a ton of skill, and if the Panthers have injuries, or struggle to score enough goals, he is a prime candidate to be called up.
#3 Prospect: Ian McCoshen, Defence
Born Aug 5 1995 — Hudson, WI
Height 6.03 — Weight 205 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 2nd round, 31st Overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2013 draft.
Taken with the 31st overall pick of the 2013 draft, McCoshen also played his college hockey at Boston College. He finished his second year with the Eagles, where he was mainly used as a defensive stalwart. While he did get the occasional opportunity on the power play, it was his defensive game that got him huge minutes on the penalty kill and playing against top lines.
McCoshen is a fast skater, but one who still has some aspects to work on before he can be said to be a very good skater. His top end speed and acceleration are both well above average, and he shows this in both his forward and backward skating. He has a good long stride and generates a lot of power. His balance is also very good , and he is difficult to knock off the puck. However, McCoshen could use some work on his pivots and his edgework, as he is not the crispest in changing directions, and could stand to work on these issues to improve his mobility. These flaws however are relatively minor and should be easily correctable with some hard work and focus on his technique. He has the raw footspeed necessary to make the adjustments and excel.
McCoshen plays a very good defensive game. He has great gap control, and is tough to get around one-on-one. He isn’t a big hitter, and could stand to improve that aspect of his game, but he isn’t afraid to battle on the boards or in front of the net. McCoshen is not afraid to sacrifice his body, as he is a tough and willing shot blocker. He has good size and an active stick which helps him to cut down on passing lanes. He is also very aggressive, putting a ton of pressure on opposing forwards when they have the puck and forcing them to make mistakes by hurrying them and cutting down the amount of time and space they have to make a play.
McCoshen has some offensive upside but the question is how much. He has a powerful slapshot, and has really improved at getting it through traffic and on net over the last year. Like Mattheson, the ability to keep it low and on target generates opportunities for his teammates to create plays through screens, rebounds, and deflections. His stickhandling and skating with the puck have improved and McCoshen moves the puck well, but he plays more of a stay at home game at the NCAA level than he did in the USHL. He has improved his passing both in the offensive zone and in starting the transition game with a crisp and accurate first pass. McCoshen could learn to walk the line a little better and keep his feet moving in the offensive zone in order to open up more passing and shooting lanes at times, but again this can come with better footwork and skating technique going forward.
McCoshen returns to B.C. for his junior season. With Matheson and Noah Hanifin both leaving, he could be in line for even more minutes and more opportunity this season. If he develops well, expect him to forego his senior year and sign with the Panthers in the spring, joining the AHL team as Matheson did last year.
Sleeper: Michael Downing, Defence
Born May 19 1995 — Canton, MI
Height 6.03 — Weight 200 [191 cm/91 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by Florida Panthers in round 4, 97th overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Michael Downing put together a solid second season at Michigan, picking up six goals and 22 points in 36 games for the Wolverines. The Canton, MI. native nearly doubled the numbers he put up in his freshman season, and was part of a much improved Wolverines squad.
At 6’3″ Downing has excellent size, and uses it to his full advantage in the defensive end. He uses a long stick to cut down passing lanes, and his size to force attackers to the outside. He plays a strong positional game, and reads the play well. Downing can be physical on occassion, but must show some more discipline as he was suspended for accumulating a number of game misconducts, five over two seasons, at Michigan.
Downing has shown increased offense this past year, being more willing to join the rush, and showing off his hard slapshot from the point. He has also shown a good first pass out of his own zone, which helps the Wolverines transition game. This added offense has also been seen on the power play. He is poised with the puck at the blue line, walks the line to open up passing and shooting lanes, and shows good vision at the back end.
Downing should be back at Michigan this year, and will likely play all four years before turning pro late in the 2016-17 season.
Overall the Panthers are one of the up and coming franchises in the NHL, but the prospect system isn’t where you find that. With all the young players they have already graduated, the depth and high end quality of the pool has been diminished. This isn’t a bad thing though, as having these players producing at the NHL level shows the Panthers strong future. The system isn’t barren though. The Panthers added Lawson Crouse, who can add a power game to their forward group in this year’s draft. Players such as Alex Petrovic, Quinton Howden, and Kyle Rau are all reaching the point where they need to be ready for the NHL or be moved. Jayce Hawrlyuk is a strong two-way player who should be in for a big season with Brandon.
Main Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images