Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical article. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 Florida Panthers Top Prospects.
For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2023 Florida Panthers Top Prospects
1.) Mackie Samoskevich
Mackie Samoskevich, a forward drafted with the 24th overall selection in the 2021 NHL draft, is coming off a very strong NCAA season. Over the last two seasons, Samoskevich has played at the University of Michigan. As a true freshman, he saw 40 games and scored a respectable 29 points. But last season was his break-out season, showing why the Panthers took him with their first-round draft pick. In 39 games, Samoskevich scored 43 points, including 20 goals. He then finished the year in the AHL, where he played two games and scored two points. Samoskevich is likely going to be in the AHL full-time next season, and may even get a look in the NHL.
Samoskevich is an electrifying player, to say the least. He plays fast and can make defenders look foolish when he is at his best. Simply put, he can be a human highlight reel at times. That’s especially true when attacking off the rush, where he is at top speed. If a defender takes his space away, he’ll make a move to find a teammate, thanks to strong vision and high-end creativity. But he isn’t just all offence, as he has a strong motor and is willing to engage on the back check. While he won’t be a strong defensive zone presence, he does enough to help out, and when a turnover is created, he is excellent at moving the puck up ice.
2.) Justin Sourdif
Justin Sourdif is a former third round pick (87th overall) in the 2020 NHL draft, and is coming off his first professional season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers. In his first season, he played in 48 games and scored 24 points. Not bad production from a rookie in the AHL. This comes after he finished his WHL career with 205 points in 199 games over five seasons.
The young winger, who stands at 5’11” and 172 pounds, is a fast straight-line skater. He is always moving his feet and looking for ways he can impact the game with his speed and aggressiveness. Sourdif has a strong shot and solid playmaking instincts, making him a true dual-threat offensive presence. His defensive zone play is spotty, but he is always engaged and working hard to get the puck back. That said, there’s a base to build off of. The biggest concern is his consistency, stretching all the way back to his time in the WHL. His scoring has largely run hot and cold, and that must be cleaned up. However, he very well could get a couple NHL call-ups this season, and step into a few games.
3.) Grigori Denisenko
The most likely player to get into the NHL on a more full-time basis amongst Florida Panthers prospects is Grigori Denisenko. The former first round pick (15th overall) in the 2018 NHL draft, Denisenko has already gotten NHL games under his belt over the last three seasons. In total, he has played in 26 NHL games, scoring seven points. Last season, he played his most games yet, with 18. Meanwhile, he has played 101 AHL games in that span, scoring 63 points. Last season, he scored a career-high 36 points in 56 AHL games.
Denisenko, who just signed a two-year, one-way contract, is almost guarenteed a spot in the NHL this season. The winger is a modern-day power-forward, playing larger than his 5’11” and 176 pound frame suggests. He is constantly moving his feet and wreaking havoc on the forecheck. He pressures puck carriers consistently. However, though he projects well to the NHL level and may likely land on a team’s middle-six, the scoring upside he once possessed seems to be a far-fetched outcome at this point. Denisenko still has some flashes of his once-promising potential, but it seems that he won’t end up being a top-line contributor as once hoped.
4.) Gracyn Sawchyn
Gracyn Sawchyn, one of the newest arrivals on the Florida Panthers prospects list, was drafted in the second round (63rd overall) in the 2023 NHL draft. Sawchyn, a center who stands at 5’11” and 165 pounds, is coming off a solid WHL season. He scored 58 points in 58 games, at exactly a point per game pace, last season with the Seattle Thunderbirds. The year before, he played with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and scored 33 points in 52 games with the U17 squad, including 22 points in 35 USHL games.
Sawchyn is all gas and no breaks as a prospect. He may not be the best of skaters, arguably just above average in that department, but he is always moving. He attacks on the forecheck consistently, and despite his smaller stature, loves playing physical. However, there are a few concerns about whether he can translate his game.
For one, he can’t get away with his current physicality at the NHL level, he must bulk up. But two, his offensive game is high-risk, high-reward, and at the moment, he has a ton of consistency issues. Plus, he doesn’t have a particularly threatening shot. Sawchyn has to diversify his game and learn when to slow down and make the smarter plays more often. If he can do that, there’s top-six potential.
5.) Michael Benning
Michael Benning, the nephew of the Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning, was taken in the fourth round (95th overall) in the 2020 NHL draft. Benning, the under-sized defender, stands at just 5’9” and 181 pounds. Over the last three seasons, Benning has spent his time with the University of Denver in the NCAA. As a freshman, he managed to produce 11 points in 21 games, a moderate statline. But the last two seasons he took a big step forward, with 72 points in 80 total games in that span. Benning likely will play in the AHL this upcoming season, after signing his Entry-Level Contract.
The reason Benning was a fourth round pick is largely due to his size and the fact he played in the AJHL. It’s rare for a defender of that stature to make it, just look at the discourse surrounding Lane Hutson in his draft season. Additionally, he has managed to produce at a much higher level now, despite those size concerns. Outside of the size concerns and the questions surrounding him playing at a higher level, Benning has a ton of talent. The Florida Panthers prospects pool should be happy they got him where they did.
He has an excellent skating ability, with solid four-way mobility and outstanding edges. From the point, he can be a dangerous shooter. But if those shooting opportunities are taken away, he has strong playmaking skills, able to quarterback play from the point. He’s also an exceptional puck mover. His defensive concerns will always persist because of his size limitations, but he has the raw tools to be an NHL defender, and a potentially top-four role is in the cards.
6.) Ryan McAllister
McAllister, who is expected to play in the AHL this season, is an undrafted free agent that was signed by the Panthers. The 5’10” and 183 pound centre is coming off his only NCAA season with Western Michigan University, where he scored 49 points in 39 games. In 2021-22, he played in the AJHL and absolutely dominated, scoring 139 points in just 60 games. The fact he took to the NCAA so quickly is what earned his contract with the Panthers. Meanwhile, he finished the 2022-23 season with the AHL, after wrapping up the NCAA season. He scored five points in four AHL games, then scored an additional two points in three AHL playoff games.
McAllister has done nothing but impress at every stop, right away. The fact he consistently managed to step into a more difficult league and immediately produce is a testament to his skills that every team decided to pass on. The Florida Panthers prospects pool is better for it.
McAllister has a dazzling playmaking ability, where he pairs exceptional awareness and anticipation with creativity to find passing lanes that most wouldn’t. However, he is at best an above average skater. At his size, that could limit him, similar to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Alex Barre-Boulet has been limited at the NHL level.
7.) Evan Nause
Nause, coming off his third QMJHL season, was a second round pick (56th overall) in the 2021 NHL draft. Nause, a left-shot defender, stands at 6’2” and 185 pounds. In 2020-21, his first QMJHL season, he managed a decent 22 points in 32 games from the blueline. The very next season, he took a step forward, recording 46 points in 59 games, building up his resume. However, last season was not the best from the blueliner, as he took a step back with 29 points in 40 games.
Coming into his draft season, Nause was known for being a steady jack-of-all-trades presence. Solid skater with the tendency to make the right plays, but isn’t going to flash elite traits. Defensively, he displays strong awareness and is able to keep the opposition to the perimeter, but again, isn’t a game-changer. While that remains the case, he also hasn’t taken any steps forward. He’s still projectable to the NHL, but without much progress or any dynamic traits that could set him apart from a depth piece, he likely is just a complimentary piece that plays on a bottom pair. But, he is still smart and reliable on the back-end.
8.) Kasper Puutio
Puutio, a former fifth round pick (153rd overall) in the 2020 NHL draft, is yet another defender on the Florida Panthers prospects pipeline. The 5’11” and 181 pound blueliner returned to Finland following his draft season in the WHL. In total, Puutio has played 128 Liiga games over the last four years, not counting the games he has played so far this year. In that span, he scored 24 points, including 11 points in 48 games last season. This season, he has played five games, and has managed one goal thus far.
Puutio is similar in a lot of ways to Nause, but smaller, and more of a concerning offensive floor. While Nause makes strong decisions on the puck that don’t lead to a whole lot, Puutio struggles with processing, leading to tough and costly mistakes moving up ice. Also similar to Nause, those same concerns and questions persist, as he hasn’t made any real progress in those areas. While Puutio is exceptional in his own zone, and his shut-down abilities have translated when playing against men in Liiga, he needs to show more puck skills. If not, he will get bullied by NHL forecheckers, if he makes it that far. But again, he has an excellent defensive game that should earn at least a look at the NHL level, in a bottom-pair role.
9.) Jack Devine
Devine, a seventh round selection (221st overall) in the 2022 NHL draft, was arguably a third-round talent that the Florida Panthers prospects pool was lucky to steal in the seventh round. In his first NCAA season with the University of Denver, the 5’11” and 181 pound winger scored 19 points in 36 games. But last season was his coming-out party, as he scored 31 points in 38 games en route to the NCHC regular season title. That comes after Denver won the National Championship in his freshman season.
Devine is a winner, as he has won five championships (spanning from the 2016-17 season) including two regular season NCHC titles. While it is a team sport, there is value in getting players with a winning pedigree, and he is one. Devine isn’t going to be a top producer in the NHL, if he gets there. Instead, he plays more of a shut-down role, with a solid playmaking ability that could generate chances. But he largely plays smart, and doesn’t really go for the big swing plays. He opts to remain aware of his defensive responsibilities. That said, he will likely be a strong piece of a bottom-six, maybe even a middle-six piece if he keeps producing well in the NCAA.
10.) Ludvig Jansson
Jansson, a right-shot defender in his first SHL season, was picked in the fourth round (125th overall) in the 2022 NHL draft. Jansson stands at 6’0” and 176 pounds, making him slightly undersized for a blueliner. However, that hasn’t stopped him from getting four games thus far in the top men’s Swedish league, where he has an assist. Last season, Jansson played most of the year in the Allsvenskan, where he produced 10 points in 44 games. However, it’s important to remember that the Alssvenskan is the Swedish equivalent of the AHL, so he was playing against men.
Jansson is an excellent skater, and that mobility has been apparent, even against men. Meanwhile, he is an aggressive presence from the blueline when attacking the offensive zone. The biggest concern is the fact that he can play well against players in his age group, but struggles against men. Generally speaking, he tends to put too much on his plate when attacking, and that has led to mistakes and turnovers. What Jansson needs is more experience and patience to refine his skills against tougher competition. But those mistakes are mental, and the concerns are fair as to whether he can actually make it to the NHL. The tools are there, but he needs to put it all together, which is easier said than done.
HM (Round 4 or Later): Mack Guzda
Guzda, a 6’5” and 216 pound goalie, is coming off his first professional season in the AHL. The undrafted free agent signing played 171 OHL games, spanning five seasons, and finished with a .895 save percentage (SV%) and 3.18 goals against average (GAA). Those stats don’t look great, but his final season, he played 41 games split between two teams, and had a .915 SV% and 2.59 GAA. Last season, he played 29 AHL games and managed an .897 SV% and 2.88 GAA, which isn’t terrible as a rookie goalie.
Guzda is a big goalie, taking up most of the net. On top of that, he has done a solid job adjusting his positioning in the crease. Meanwhile, he has decent athleticism, aided by how tall he is and how much space he eats when moving laterally. But it took him a while to perform well in the OHL. While he wasn’t bad in the AHL out of the gates, the question is, how long will it take him to improve? He has time to develop, with Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight (who is looking to make a return) in the Panthers organization for now.
In The System
The Florida Panthers prospects pool has some names, but little depth. Meanwhile, players younger than 26 who have already graduated to the NHL level include Matthew Tkachuk, Eetu Luostarinen, Anton Lundell, and the aforementioned Knight shows there is little youth still left at the top level. Notable names not mentioned in the top-10 that are currently under contract include Calle Sjalin, and Marek Alscher. Names who just missed the top-10 who aren’t under contract include Sandis Vilmanis, Carter Berger, Vladislav Lukashevich, Albert Wikman, and Tyler Muszelik.
The Panthers don’t have a whole lot of youth, and while they have a couple strong stars like Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov, they need more. While the Panthers just competed for a Stanley Cup, falling just short, they may not be able to maintain that Cup contender status for long if they don’t see more from young up-and-comers. Time will tell, but the Florida Panthers prospects pipeline leaves a bit to be desired to this point.
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