After finishing fourth overall last season the Florida Panthers have arrived as a Stanley Cup contending team. Despite their first-round playoff loss at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champions and State rival Tampa Bay Lightning, the season was a coming out for the team and its young core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad.
The offseason addition of Sam Reinhart, along with last season’s acquisition of Sam Bennett, gives the Panthers three of the top four selections from the 2014 NHL Draft. Ekblad and Reinhart went first and second and Bennett going fourth overall.
Overall, the Panthers have good depth at every position and the recent graduates to the main roster from Owen Tippett and Eetu Luostarinen last year. Spencer Knight and Anton Lundell are at the head of the class this year as rookies this team is loaded for bear.
- Spencer Knight, G – Florida Panthers (NHL)
Drafted: 2019 round one, 13th overall by Florida Panthers
Since becoming a rare first-round goaltender draft pick in the 2019 draft, Knight went to the NCAA to play for Boston College. He posted career stats of 39-12-3 with eight shutouts and a 2.05 GAA. Along the way, he backstopped Team USA to a WJC Gold Medal in 2021. After dominating the NCAA, he signed his ELC after his sophomore season and made his NHL debut at the end of last season, winning all four games he started. Knight even earned two starts in six first-round playoff games.
Given his pedigree and early success, one would think that he is the no-brainer starting goalie in Florida starting now. But the Panthers signed veteran Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year $70 million contract just days after drafting Knight. With five years remaining on that contract the Panthers will have to split their starts between the two until something changes. In Knight, the Panthers seem to have their workhorse potential franchise starting goalie that will lock down the crease for the foreseeable future.
- Anton Lundell, C – Florida Panthers (NHL)
Drafted: 2020 round one, 12th overall by Florida Panthers
During his draft year, myself and many others labeled Lundell as a two-way player, solid defensively with some offensive upside, and projected him as a third-line center. After Florida selected him 12th overall, he returned to his Liiga team HIFK, was named Assistant Captain. In a shortened season increased his goal per game production by almost three times!
His offensive outbreak encouraged Florida to sign him to his ELC and bring him to North America to play in the AHL. After a solid training camp and an injury to Noel Acciari to start the season, Lundell has been on the Panthers roster and is not looking out of place. Scoring five points in his first five games and is seeing time in a top-six role. Lundell has bypassed the AHL and has won an NHL roster spot as a 20-year-old. The Panthers have solid depth and options down the middle with Barkov, Bennett and Lundell all proven top-six options and 26 and under.
- Grigori Denisenko, LW – Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
Drafted: 2018 round one, 15th overall by Florida Panthers
Denisenko is a highly-skilled offensive winger that has superstar upside potential. His skating ability is at a high NHL level, as well as his puck skills and shooting ability. His defensive game is still under construction.
Denisenko moved from the KHL to North America last year and posted five goals and nine points in 15 AHL games. He earned a call up to the NHL and spent time on the taxi squad while seeing time in seven games. He failed to score and posted four assists in his short sample size.
Denesinko has played entirely in the AHL in his second season in North America and will need to learn to play without the puck. He has also been criticized as being a perimeter player and will need to be harder to play against to find his way to the NHL. He has the skating and the skill to be an offensive impact top-line player but will need to learn to play a more complete game to get there.
- Aleksi Heponiemi, C – Charlotte checkers (AHL)
Drafted: 2017 round two, 40th overall by Florida Panthers
Few players have seen their stock rise and fall with the volatility. After being drafted in the second round in 2017, Heponiemi had an offensive breakout in the WHL to the tune of 118 points in 57 games. He followed that up by turning pro in his native Finland posting 16 goals and 46 points as a rookie in the Liiga. He was a standout at the WJC helping Finland win Gold with nine points in seven games. His stock was through the roof and Heponiemi was looking like a first-round talent and future star.
The next step in his development was to sign his ELC and come to North America, but that’s where the bottom of his stock fell out. His rookie AHL season was disappointing with only 14 points through 49 games in Springfield. That blip in his development had him knocked down a few pegs on a lot of rankings, even out of the top ten on some. Last year Heponiemi rebounded a little. Starting overseas on loan to MODO in the Allsvenskan, he found his confidence with 14 points in 16 games. When hockey returned in North America, he came back hot posting six points in six AHL games and was called up to the NHL. As a part of the taxi squad, he played in nine NHL games, and recorded his first career goal.
The undersized Finnish playmaker has had a strong start to the current season in the AHL as an assistant Captain and his defensive game has shown improvement while not compromising his offensive production. I like Heponiemi to make the NHL, perhaps not as a top-line player but in a middle-six role. His two big hurdles to clear are his lack of strength and the depth on the Panthers NHL roster.
- Mackie Samoskevich, RW – University of Michigan (NCAA)
Drafted: 2021 round one, 24th overall by Florida Panthers
Like Denisenko and Heponiemi, Samoskevich is a highly skilled player that has elite-level puck skills. Drafted out of the USHL as a member of the vaunted Chicago Steel, he posted 37 points in 36 games in his draft year. Now a member of another highly talented and stacked team in the NCAA as a member of the Michigan Wolverines, he has been productive as a freshman with nine points in his first 14 games.
Samoskevich brings both skill and speed in his game. More of a playmaker than a shooter, he is most dangerous on the rush combining his speed, skill, and vision. Samoskevich attacks with speed and reacts quickly identifying defensive errors he can exploit with his vision and passing skills. Like many young players, he will need to show some consistency, improve his defensive play, and add some strength.
- Michael Benning, D – University of Denver (NCAA)
Drafted: 2020 round four, 95th overall by Florida Panthers
NHL teams keep overlooking players due to size. Sam Girard, Alex Debrincat and the list goes on. Florida drafted a first round player in the fourth round because he is undersized.
With deep NHL bloodlines, Benning is an elusive player. He boasts quick acceleration that allows him to be first on loose pucks and change up his pace instantly. He has good later mobility and can weave through traffic. Perhaps his best and most promising skill is his vision and deception. He looks off his intended pass target and is always throwing head fakes to disguise his true intentions. Despite his size, he is not hesitant to play the body and clear the crease albeit with limited effectiveness.
After a successful freshman season with 11 points, he is playing a bigger role as a sophomore in Denver and is producing at a point per game offensively. His combination of skating and smarts more than compensates for his lack of height. While in the NCAA he can hit the gym regularly to add the strength he needs to be a successful pro player.
- John Ludvig, D – Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
Drafted: 2019 round three, 69th overall by Florida Panthers
After being drafted by the Panthers, Ludvig returned to the WHL where he enjoyed a breakout season as Captain of the Portland Winterhawks, scoring 17 goals and 62 points in 60 games to eclipse the point per game rate as a defender. Drafted for his size, physical play, mobility and leadership, this newfound offensive upside raises the stock value for this third-round pick.
Last year he was a rookie in the AHL with Syracuse and the offense carried over to the pro level with eight points in only 13 games played. The 21-year-old has been on the injured reserve all season and when healthy will join the Checkers in the AHL for what could be a short AHL career before he finds his way into the NHL
- Ty Smilanic, C – Quinnipiac University (NCAA)
Drafted: 2020 round three, 74th overall by Florida Panthers
Another draft day faller, this time due to the fact Smilanic played through a broken finger injury during his draft year. In his D+1 year, he played as a freshman on the Bobcats with senior Odeen Tufto and enjoyed a strong season posting 14 goals and 21 points in 29 games.
Smilanic plays an aggressive forechecking game as he has a motor the drives his puck pursuit like a dog on a bone. Once he gains possession, he drives the play towards the oppositions goal using his hard, accurate shot. As Smilanic adds more strength to his slight 174-pound frame his physical game will become far more effective. His style of play projects well to the pro level and he is a versatile player that can play center or the wing. His ceiling may cap out as a third-line player, but he will be a highly effective in that role and could move up for short relief durations.
- Max Gildon, D – Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
Drafted: 2017 round three, 66th overall by Florida Panthers
The big Texan was drafted out of the USNTDP program and then had a solid three-year NCAA career at University of New Hampshire.
Gildon is a versatile player as he offers a little of everything. He has good size at 6-3 but could use some bulk. His skating is good, but not great. It is not a liability, but his speed is average at best at the NHL level.
His offensive production has been consistent while in the NCAA and was able to carry that to the pro level as a AHL rookie in Bakersfield. The Florida AHL affiliate has returned after being shut down during the pandemic and Gildon has struggled offensively out of the gate so far. Gildon should stay in the AHL for the bulk of this season for more development as he projects as a solid bottom pairing defender in the NHL that a coach can play in a variety of situations.
- Olli Juolevi, D – Charlotte Checkers (AHL)
Drafted: 2016 round one, fifth overall by Vancouver Canucks
Is Ollie Juolevi a bust? Vancouver fans will say yes, and based on where he was drafted, I would agree. However, that is not to say that he can not play in the NHL and even still be an effective player. While he may never have the impact that several of the players the Canucks passed on when they selected Juolevi, he still can offer some upside.
After the Canucks drafted him, he returned to the OHL and had a stagnant season with the London Knights showing no real progression. Injuries plagued his development further for the following two seasons playing in the Liiga on loan to TPS and with Utica in the AHL. His development rebounded in the 2019-20 season with 25 points in 45 games with the Comets and played a top-four role there. Last year he made the Canucks and split time on the taxi squad seeing 23 games with the Canucks posting three points.
The Panthers acquired Juolevi in the off-season and he has been on the injured reserve to start the season. No longer waiver exempt, the Panthers could assign him to the AHL for a short conditioning stint to see if he is ready to make the big club. Still only 23-years-old it is too soon to write this prospect off completely, but this is a make-or-break season.
Justin Sourdif has shown steady development during his WHL career with Vancouver Giants. The undersized winger plays a power game, but will it translate all the way to the NHL level? Best case scenario is he becomes a bottom-six, agitating winger with offensive upside
Aleksi Saarela After bouncing through several organizations and a solid AHL career, the 24-year-old played in his NHL debut with Florida and had four points in nine games. Poised to make the jump to the NHL, the pandemic hit and he bailed for Europe and signed with Lukko where he was a star player there posting 23 goals and 37 points in 43 games. He added another eight points in 11 playoff games leading Lukko to a Liiga Championship. His second championship in two years after hoisting the Calder Cup with Charlotte in 2018-19. Saarela remains unsigned by Florida who retain his rights, but he could make an NHL comeback in 2022-23
Matt Kiersted was one of the hottest NCAA free agents last year and signed with Florida and made his NHL debut playing in seven games with Florida. The 23-year-old is getting some AHL development this season but is a strong candidate to be recalled.
Logan Hutsko The Boston College graduate is making his pro debut in the AHL. Still only 22-years-old is making an impact with 11 points in his first 18 games with the Checkers.