November 31-in-31: Florida Panthers

Dave Hall

2020-11-13

The 31-in-31 Summer Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in November we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s draft and insights into their off-season movements thus far. Following this up, the December 31-in-31 Series will dive into every team’s prospect depth charts with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs until the season begins!

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If you haven’t been keeping close tabs on the Florida Panthers over the off-season, you may have a hard time recognizing them. With just two playoff appearances in 10 years, the club has taken on a significant transformation in recent days, and it began at the top of the pecking order. Following a disappointing “play-in” series defeat, the Panthers announced their split from tenured General Manager, Dale Tallon. After a decade of failed projects and little success, it was time for a sweep – Cue, Bill Zito, former assistant GM for the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Hired at the beginning of September, the first-time GM had quite the list of tasks and a small window in which to work with. Sunrise has been starving for success, and to achieve that, it would mean shedding some mid-ranged depth and starting fresh. Luckily, with a few household names making up the top half of the group, the foundation of the club is solid, which will hopefully make the process run smoothly. However, with a list of pending UFA’s, a few less-than-stellar contracts, and a disgruntled prospect farm, turning this team around will take both craft and cunning.

He would get to work immediately, shedding one of the largest eyesores on the payroll in Mike Matheson. Zito was able to flip the underperforming defender, with the addition of Colton Sceviour, to the Pittsburg Penguins in exchange for grizzled veteran, and two-time cup champ, Patric Hornqvist. They also let go of another defender in Josh Brown, a move in which they added an additional fourth-round pick for the upcoming draft. While it was just two deals, these transactions set the tone and acted as a precursor to a string of decisions yet to come over the next two weeks. But first, with nine picks over the weekend, it was time to draft.

Draft Recap

Round One, 12th Overall – Anton Lundell, C

Make no mistake about it, Anton Lundell, especially in the 12-hole, is an incredibly spicy pick. Depending on whose rankings you follow, his draft projection ran anywhere from a top-five, all the way through the mid-first round. However, there was one consensus that was set in stone – he is a bonafide NHL player. 

At 19, Lundell carries all the necessary tools to provide instant gratification for this Panthers line-up. He is an incredibly responsible centerman, who plays the game with confidence in all three zones. He plays a “Selke” trophy style, while still holding sneaky offensive abilities. I use the word sneaky, as his offensive potential was one of his (only) knocks, as it was assumed to be capped in and around the 60 point benchmark. However, if his first two years in Liiga action have given us any indication, those concerns are quickly fading into the wind.

Last season, as an 18-year-old, he made his professional debut with HIFK Helsinki and transitioned to the top ranks with pure ease. He posted 10 goals and 28 points through 48 games, finishing second among U20 players. He has since doubled down on those totals and is currently firing at a point-per-game clip, with eight goals (second in the league) and 12 points in his sophomore campaign.

This includes a four-goal effort:

He has committed to remain overseas for the 2020-21 campaign, but could easily make his way over immediately and inject his way into the lineup as a walk-on. With Aleksander Barkov occupying that first-line role, Lundell will serve as a strong compliment on their second unit. 

Round Two, 43rd Overall – Emil Heineman, LW

The Panthers took a flyer on Heineman in the second round and based it solely on his explosive 2019-20 campaign at the J20 SuperElit level. Considering his previous career-high in points was 12, which he posted in 19 games playing in the U16 ranks, his stock was subpar, at best. However, his production burst out of a cannon last year, producing 41 points (26G + 15A) through 29 games, leading the entire J20 in both goals and points. His sudden jump earned him a mid-season promotion to the SHL, where he continues to patrol the ice. He has yet to find his offensive touch at that level, and time will tell if his production spike was merely a product of a strong team, or if he has the gusto to warrant a second-round selection. 

Overall, his offensive skills are somewhat of a gamble to translate into the higher levels, keeping his long-term upside in check. However, he plays a sound 200-foot game and works his tail off to earn his keep. At 6-1, he has the size to play amongst men and is not afraid to mix it up in the dangerous areas to win his battles. 

The Panthers are banking on him being able to refine his offensive toolkit, in which case, he could ease his way into becoming a serviceable middle-six player. 

Round Three, 74th Overall – Ty Smilanic, C

With a pair of two-way players now locked in, the Panthers were pleased to rush for a prominent point-producer with their first, of two, picks in the third round. Ty Smilanic, a 6-1 pivot out of the USDP, is considered a complete package, hybrid offensive threat. While he can certainly thread the needle and find teammates with crisp passes, it’s his shot that stands out. Capable of scoring from both distance and in tight, his release is deadly. Of course, being the high-frequency player that he is, there is a tendency to rush plays, which has lead to miss-opportunities around the net. He needs to work on slowing the game down, taking the time to soak in the entire play around him. 

His skating is considered well-above-average and demonstrates noteworthy speed and terrific edge work. He is hardly a defensive powerhouse, but his overall 200-foot game is certainly passable. He is very a low risk, high reward pick, especially in the third round. 

He has committed to play for Quinnipiac University in the NCAA and will likely play out his first two years of eligibility. Panther fans should be keeping a close eye on his production over the next few seasons, as there is potential for it to be significant. 

Round Three, 87th Overall – Justin Sourdif, RW

The Panthers continued to receive strong value with their picks and now, with Justin Sourdif, that list grows. While there are certain areas in which he can improve, the overall foundation is solid and he holds all the necessary tools to eventually develop into a well-rounded pro. Heading into the 2019-20 campaign, many scouts had him pegged to fall in the late first or early second rounds. However, although his season was respectable, his game did not progress to the extent that many had hoped for. Thus, resulting in a slip in draft position.

He is a swift, hard-working winger who plays responsibly in all areas of the ice. Although it lacks general consistency, he has the workings of a point producer and a keen eye for seeing the game. Yes, he will need to work on bringing it all together as a whole if he is to take his game to the next step. Yet, overall, the Panthers locked in another strong candidate for their pipeline on the backend of the third round.

Round Four, 95th Overall – Michael Benning, D

He is the brother of current NHLer, Matt Benning, the son of former Florida Panther, Brian, and nephew of Canucks GM, Jim – it’s safe to say that Florida’s first selected defender certainly carries a strong hockey bloodline. His progression throughout the years has been a coach’s dream – starting as a primarily defensive-minded player and eventually forming a strong offensive touch. Playing as a sophomore in the AJHL with the Sherwood Park Crusaders last season, he led the league in points by a defender, with 75 (12G +63A) – earning him “Most Outstanding Defender” award. 

Listed at 5-9, Benning relies on his effortless edgework, and terrific hockey IQ to dictate the game. Whether it’s with quick heads up passes or strong rushes up the ice, he can play the game at a quick pace and calculate moves before they occur. He is a prototypical “new-age” defender, and once again, brings good value to the Panthers organization. He will make his debut for the University of Denver in the upcoming season and has the potential to become a strong offensive threat down the road.

Here is a great clip showing off his strong footwork and compete:

Round Four, 104th Overall – Zachery Uens, D

An overaged defender with offensive upside. His skating is above-average and he loves to jump up in the mix during a rush. He delivers a strong first pass and has a keen eye for the game. His play in the defensive zone is a work in progress but will pass as “good” for now. 

His game took strong strides during his freshman year with Merrimack College. Heading in, questions were surrounding his ability to elevate his game to a higher level of play, but he quickly put those reservations to rest. He tallied four goals and 18 points on the year, sitting second among U19 skaters Nationwide. It will be a long road for him to scratch the surface of an NHL top-six unit, however, he is on track to provide solid depth on the backend.

Round Five, 153rd Overall – Kasper Puttio, D

If you are looking for flash, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Kasper Puttio is a no-nonsense defender, who brings a slight touch of everything. He is considered a two-way player, who prides himself on being reliable and responsible at both ends of the ice. He plays well positionally and is a headache to deal with in front of the net. 

Once he wins his battles, he can find teammates with strong outlets passes and transition the puck well. What’s more, he has a strong shot from the point. While he may not score often, his release is certainly capable of finding holes and beating goaltenders. He is the type of defender that every team wants at least one of, and he certainly wins the respect of his teammates by doing all the of the little things right.

Round Seven, 198th Overall – Elliot Ekmark, C

A smaller-set speedster with a fearless edge, and high-octane work-ethic. Ekmark is 5-9, but it is hard to tell when he is out on the ice. He enjoys dropping his nose, and grinding to get to the net, and does not shy away from taking on any sized defender to do so. His swift skating ability allows him to beat out any defender who attempts to take him on one-on-one.

At 17, his strong play was awarded a sniff in the SHL (last season), and while he failed to register a point through four games, it is a fantastic testament to his game. He will likely have to take the hard road to get to the NHL, but he is one that fans will be cheering for along the way.

Round Seven, 212th Overall – Devon Levi, G

Most don’t usually blink an eye when they see a goalie fall to the seventh, and final round. However, Devon Levi may be an exception to that point. Levi, playing in the CCHL (Junior A) last season, posted a record-breaking 34-2-1 record to go with a stellar 1.47 goals-against and .941 save percentage. His dominant level of play would crown him the winner of a list of awards, including – Top Rookie, Best Goaltender, Player of the Year, and the league’s Most Valuable Player. He is an athletic goalie, who has decent potential considering.

He has committed to play for Northeastern (NCAA), for the 2020-21 season and will likely serve his freshman year as a backup, or at least 1A.1B. Regardless, Panthers fans, and fantasy hockey GM’s, should keep close tabs on his progression over the next few years, there is potential for this could to be a low-key home-run.

To Sum Up

When all was said and done, Bill Zito and their scouting crew did a fantastic job throughout the draft. Of course, nine picks will always make it easier to hit a few home runs, but, you still have to be able to make those picks. I believe that they received solid bang-for-their-buck and truly set themselves up with a strong group to develop.

Offseason Moves

With the draft now out of the way, it was time for the club to dive into the wild west – free-agency. With core pieces such as Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov officially out of the picture, the Panthers had to find ways to replace 25-plus goals, while also keeping their window of contention open. With prospect hopefuls, Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett very much apart of that immediate vision, Zito would just need to find ways to implement surrounding pieces in order to maximize his young talent. Here is what he has come up with so far:

Incoming: Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas, Vinnie Hinnistroza, Connor Verhaeghe, Ryan Lomberg, Scott Wilson, Brady Keeper

Outgoing: Evegnii Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Cliff Pu, Colton Sceviour, P. Thompson, Dayton Hunt, Lucas Wallmark, Dominic Toninato, Mark Pysyk, Thomas Schemitsch, *Erik Haula, *Brian Boyle, *Jack Rodewald, *Ryan Haggerty, *Mike Hoffman, *Joel Lowry, *Danick Martel, *Curtis Valk

*Current Unrestricted Free-Agent

Pending RFA: Henrik Borgstrom, Aleksi Saarela, Sam Montembeault, Emil Djuse

Re-ups: Mackenzie Weegar, Todd Marchment

As you can see, it has been busy. Of course, all of the listed UFA’s could certainly be signed by the club, however, it’s likely that they are all on their way out. Let’s take a look at a few of the incoming crop.

Patric Hornqvist (via trade)

This was surprising for fans of both parties. However, with Mike Matheson failing to live up to his recent 4.875-million dollar deal, this was a glorious move by the fresh GM, Zito. Hornqvist instantly injects into their top-six and brings a level of experience that they have been lacking for some years. He may not replace their heavy hitters in the offensive department, however, he is certainly no slouch and will help out with the grooming of their up and coming crop of talent. 

Alexander Wennberg (signed one-year, 2.25 million)

Wennberg failed to live up to expectations following his breakout campaign in Columbus just four years ago. Resulting in the Blue Jackets, despite being desperate in the middle-six center position, buying out the remaining dollars of his contract. The Panthers, in a similar position themselves, bring him in with hopes that he can rekindle some of that spark, and catch some fire on the club’s second unit. This will hold them down until the calvary, aka Anton Lundell, can make his way over and likely take over that spot in the top-six role. With just a 2.25 cap hit, it’s a small gamble, in hopes that it will pay off big. 

Markus Nutivaara (via trade)

A fly under the radar type defender. He is not a flashy player but gets the job done in every aspect. He is a left-shot, two-way defender who can play minutes on both your penalty kill and secondary powerplay if needed. He will give you consistent depth on a night-to-night basis, and generally play mistake-free hockey. He is a nice reliable option who can play on the right-side.

Vinnie Hinostroza (signed one-year, one-million)

While he wasn’t the most prominent point-getter, Vinnie Hinostroza seemed to be a fan favorite in Arizona and a player that will surely be missed. He can play both the wing and up the middle and plays a fast pace game – one that hopefully mimics the play of the new-look Panthers. For one-million in cap space, this is a low-key, but solid pick up for the team.

Loaned Prospects

Henrik Borgstrom (loaned to HIFK Helsinki)

He is Florida’s most talked-about prospect, and unfortunately, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Coming in hot from a strong career in the NCAA, many had hoped that Borgstrom would provide instant benefits for the club. That was not the case. However, the now RFA has made his way overseas and has officially made his Liiga debut alongside (hopeful) future teammate, Anton Lundell.  If he can gain a spark, sign a deal, and eventually work his way back up the system, there is hope that he becomes a positive comeback story.

Eetu Luostarinen (loaned to KalPa)

This was supposed to be Luostarinen’s coming out party as his first full season within the Florida Panthers organization. Sadly, thanks to the pandemic, he finds himself back home, suiting up for KalPa (Liiga). The 6-2 pivot has shown great success in this league before and was able to transfer that success into the North American game, with 25 points in 44 matches with Carolina Hurricanes’ affiliates. Once the season returns, it looks like there is a possibility that he challenges for a spot in Sunrise. His reliable, two-way game fits perfectly in a bottom-six role.

Aleksi Heponiemi (loaned to Modo)

Following a disappointing AHL rookie season, Heponiemi finds himself in Sweden, suiting up in the Allsvenskan league for Modo. He looks to have regained some of his juice, as he already sits with nine points through 11 games. The former second-rounder was a beast in Liiga play just two seasons ago, so the skill is certainly there. He must find a way to hone in on those skills and bring them into action in North America.

Aleksi Saarela  (loaned to Lukko)

Saarela has proved that he can be a strong producer at the AHL level, and is now following it up with a hot start in Lukko (Liiga). Through his first 11 games, the high-flying forward currently sits second in goals (8) and looks like he may be ready to take on full-time NHL deployment. Of course, sitting as a Restricted Free-Agent, he will need to settle on a deal.

Vladislav Kolyachonok (loaned to Dinamo Minsk)

The former Flint Firebird (OHL) is currently playing in the KHL, where he is taking his first strides as a professional hockey player. Suiting up for Dinamo Minsk, he sits with three points (1G + 2A) through 20 games, while also contributing 12 penalty minutes. Once the season is back up in running, he should make his North American pro debut with the Panthers’ new affiliate squad in Charlotte.

Going Forward

All-in-all, there is still a lot to be done to this line-up. However, if a few of their young guns can come into camp and produce immediately, things should progress quickly. They still have over eight million available in cap space, despite having four RFAs, so there is still plenty of room and time to fill in gaps. But, with their core currently sitting right in a “win now” zone, and their goaltending filled for the next few years, they must ice a contending team as soon as possible.

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Look out for the December update, which will hopefully bring a better understanding of what this roster will look like.

Follow me on Twitter @hall1289 for all prospect news and updates.

 

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