December 31-in-31: Florida Panthers

Dave Hall

2020-12-13

The 31-in-31 Offseason Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in December we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s prospect depth chart, riser & fallers, and top prospect ranking. 

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As mentioned in the November 31-in-31, it has been a whirlwind of an off-season for the Florida Panthers. The club has just wrapped up a complete overhaul – stretching through management, coaching staff, and of course, the players. With Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman officially out of the equation, the new management team will have their work cut out for them as they search to not only make up for those goals but add more to them. 

Barring any significant signings, it looks like they will bank on a few prospects to pick up the slack. Luckily, their prospect pool, especially up front, is rather deep and there are certainly a few eager names worthy of jumping in to make an impact. Will that impact be enough to propel them towards a postseason push? Time will tell. However, one thing is for sure, this will be a pivotal season for the club’s list of youngsters as many of them have struggled to develop at the rate that was initially targeted. 

Graduating players

First, the graduating players. As mentioned, the club has a vast list of prospects chomping at the bit to make the push. Here are players who should be contesting for those roles right out of the gate.

NHL

Grigori Denisenko (LW) – The wait is over. Denisenko has officially inked his entry-level deal and will make his way over to North America for the 2020-21 campaign. As is the theme of the club right now, his placement is currently uncertain. Training camp will give us a better look at his immediate translation, but it would not be a shock to see him catch some time in the AHL to gain a few reps before making the jump. On the other hand, that path has not been kind to the Panthers as of late, so he may just find himself on the club’s middle-six out the gate.

He has a ton of skill, with an added benefit of sandpaper – both of which will be a much-welcomed addition to the club. I have him as an NHL graduate, as I do believe he ultimately makes the team out of camp and deploys on their third-line.


Owen Tippett (RW)
– It has been three seasons since Tippett was drafted, and following a respectable rookie campaign in Springfield last year, he should be making the jump permanently in 2020-21.

The 2017 first-rounder sat third in AHL rookie point-per-game with 0.87 last season (among players with five games or more) and scored seven of his 19 goals on the man-advantage. Assuming he enters camp fit and ready to play, do not be shocked to see him among the club’s top-six and power-play units rout of the gate. He not only looks ready to dive in but the club’s weak right-side will make this almost a guaranteed outcome. 

On the cusp

The Panthers hold a well-documented grey zone in regards to their prospect pool. They have run into some obvious developmental roadblocks and now find themselves with a stockpile of prospects sitting right on the cusp of being NHL ready – some more than others. Even with Denisenko and Tippett on the team, there may be room for one more player among the roster. If so, here is the list that will be gunning for that role.

Anton Lundell (C) – Don’t jump out of your seats just yet, if Lundell is to make that immediate move, it will not be until after the Liiga season has wrapped up. However, at just 19-years-old, it is safe to say that he is NHL ready.

Serving as their assistant captain, Lundell is in his second year with Helsinki (Liiga) and is lighting the league on fire. He has long been praised for his terrific two-way ability, and now, he is showing off what he can in the offensive department. He currently sits fourth in league scoring and has made a strong case for himself as one of the NHL’s top prospects out there. 

Fans will get a good look at him in just a few week’s time, as he will be suiting up as Team Finlands’ captain in this year’s WJC. I expect him to have a very strong tournament, one that he was forced to miss last year, due to an injury. Sit back and enjoy.


Henrik Borgstrom (C)
– We all know the story. Borgstrom, originally a highly touted offensive threat, has taken three steps back in his development. After a strong NCAA career, the Panthers were glad to bring him in a secondary scoring role, in hopes to elevate some of the pressures placed on the top half of their line-up. Unfortunately, he has failed to translate that success and is veering frighteningly close to the dreaded “bust” zone. 

He now finds himself unsigned by the club, and will certainly have to prove that he can regroup, and find his rhythm back. He is currently in Finland, looking to regain a spark in his game. He sits with three points (1G + 2A) over five games with Helsinki HIFK. 

Aleksi Saarela (RW) – Saarela has been a very consistent producer at the AHL level for three seasons now, one within the Panthers organization. Now that he has proven his worth at the pro level, he looks ready to his game to that next test – a permanent residency in an NHL lineup. He managed to squeeze in the line-up for a brief stint last season, where he posted four points through nine games on the club’s bottom-six. 

He’s added an exclamation mark to those numbers this season, as he sits tied with fellow teammate, Anton Lundell, for second in goals league-wide (Liiga). This should be the year in which fantasy owners see more of him. 

Aleksi Heponiemi (RW) – He certainly finds himself on the cusp of NHL deployment, but in my opinion, is not ready to do so yet. Despite his beaming statistical production in years prior, his first year as a North American pro last season sent off alerts of concern. Not only did he produce just 14 points for the Springfield Thunderbirds, but he also looked flat and did not bring much of anything else to the table, including offensive scoring chances – which is his bread and butter. If he is to be successful, he must work on slowing his game down and work on making the simple play. As a creative offensive player who relies on slippery moves, he has to find other avenues to create opportunity.

He certainly holds offensive strengths that allow him to be a middle-six threat, but he will need to show that he can translate that to the AHL level before he takes any step forward. Given that his offense is his main, and perhaps only tool, he will need to figure it out sooner rather than later.

Here can still score overseas, that is confirmed.

 

Additional Organizational Graduates

AHL

Serron Noel (RW) – Serron Noel endured a slight dip in production during his fifth, and final season in the OHL – by 34 points to be exact. While it certainly does not bode well for his aesthetic resume, I would not let his decline get in the way of his future upside. 

He still holds an NHL-ready frame, solid skating legs, and hands to capitalize in tight. He will turn pro this season, and will almost certainly begin his journey in the AHL. This will be a good year for both the club and fantasy owners to get a better judgment on his true potential and where he will fit among the pro ranks. He sits comfortably in a top-nine projection. 

John Ludvig (LD) – Ludvig broke out offensively during the 2019-20 campaign with the Portland Winterhawks – and I mean broke out. His production spiked from 18-to-62 points from the year before, a total that saw him finish third in the league among defenders. What’s exciting about this offensive spike, you ask? Ludwig has a history of taking care of business in his own zone, providing strong shutdown abilities, and earning strong plus/minus statistics. If he has suddenly added an offensive touch to his resume, his upside could be taking an interesting turn.

He will be an American League defender for next season, and likely the next. However, there looks to be some untapped potential looming. Keep an eye out. 

Max Gildon (LD) – Gildon could benefit from the potential of “extended rosters” for the 2020-21 season, as he looks more than ready to jump to the pros straight out of his collegiate career. He is coming off a strong run with the University of New Hampshire, where he posted 73 points, firing at a 0.72 clip. He has the size to hold his own and is developing into a very well rounded defender. There is a chance that he squeezes in for some fill-in duties should the Panthers catch the injury bug. 

NCAA 

Ty Smilanic (C) – I have a feeling that Panthers fans are going to enjoy watching Smilanic develop. He is a pure goal scorer, with an elite and pro-ready release. He brings soft hands and a drive to find the scoresheet. He will need to work on his play in his own zone, which is par for the course for a player of his mold. However, he will certainly pass the eye test when watching him in scoring areas.

He is on his way to make his NCAA debut with Quinnipiac University when their season finally kicks off. 

Michael Benning (RD) – Speaking of the Panthers watchlist, make sure to add Michael Benning to the top of that list. He has made the jump from the AJHL – where he racked up a phenomenal 136 points – to the NCAA, where he’s off to a strong start with Denver University. At just 18-year-old of age, he leads the NCAA in points by a defender with seven and is currently quarterbacking the club’s top power-play unit. 

He is a fluid, modern-day defenceman with tremendous edgework, hands, and vision. He was taken in the fourth round in this year’s draft and is rapidly proving that he should have gone much higher. 

Devon Levi (G) – As mentioned in my November installment, Devon Levi is set to make his NCAA debut with Northeastern. He has been dominant throughout his career thus far and will have an opportunity to showcase that with Team Canada in this year’s WJC. He has made the final cut and could win out the team’s starting job. 

Risers

There have been quite a few Panthers prospects performing well as of late, many of which I have already mentioned. 

Anton Lundell (C), Aleksi Saarela (RW), and Eetu Luostranen (C) – All three have been enjoying strong seasons overseas and are all contributing in the top half of the league in regards to point totals. The Finnish trio is living up to their potentials and all could see NHL action this season. Lundell holds takes the cake with top-six (immediate) deployment potential, while both Saarela and Luostranen sit on the cusp as bottom-six role players.

Spencer Knight (G) – Knight is currently in Edmonton and will likely be backstopping Team USA in this year’s WJC, while he sits with a 4-0-0 record with two shutouts for Boston College. 

Logan Hustko (RW) – On that same BC team, Hutsko leads the way in points, with nine. Now healthy, Hutsko looks to be playing with much confidence and should enjoy a strong senior season.

Michael Benning (RD) – As mentioned, the Panthers are also enjoying a strong performance from their most recent fourth-round investment. While they certainly saw his potential when drafting him, I am sure they did not expect to have a top-producing freshman defender out the gate. 

Fallers

The current fallers among the organization are quite obvious. With the majority of their prospects keeping up to speed or surpassing expectations, there have not been any drastic changes. Both Borgstrom and Heponiemi will have to get back on track if they are to see any deployment in the NHL in the future.

Prospect Depth Chart

Left Wing Centers Right Wing
Grigori Denisenko
Anton Lundell Owen Tippett
Emil Heineman
Henrik Borgstrom Aleksi Heponiemi
Henrik Rybinski
Cole Schwindt Aleski Saarela
Justin Schütz
Eetu Luostarinen Logan Hutsko
Mason Marchment
Ty Smilanic Seeron Noel
Maxim Mamin
Owen Lindmark Justin Sourdif
Alexander Delnov
Juho Lammikko Jonathan Ang
Left Defence Right Defence
Max Gildon Chase Priskie
John Ludvig Michael Benning
Carter Berger Brady Keeper
Vladislav Kolyachonok