July 32-in-32: Florida Panthers

Ben Gehrels

2023-07-13

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The 32-in-32 Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in August 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 in August, we will dive into every team’s prospect depth chart with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs all off-season long!

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From winning the President’s Trophy in 2022 to losing to Vegas in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2023, the Panthers have certainly established themselves now as one of the league’s premier powerhouses. Their playoff success this postseason was particularly impressive because of the ambitious top-of-the-roster overhaul orchestrated by GM Bill Zito after Florida was swept by the Lightning in 2022. Out went the slick playmaking of 115-point scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pairing defenseman Mackenzie Weegar; in came gritty, 104-point scorer Matthew Tkachuk.

Although it took a minute for the Panthers to stretch their muscles and get going, Tkachuk seemed to provide the team’s missing element. After improbably upping his scoring pace to 113 points, he came up clutch again and again and again in the postseason, scoring 11 goals and 24 points in 20 games when all was said and done. His performance included five goals in seven games against the Bruins, who had the best regular season record in NHL history, four goals in a four-game sweep of the powerful Hurricanes, and a couple critical goals in a losing effort against the Golden Knights. Still only 25, Tkachuk and team captain Sasha Barkov, 27, represent two enviable franchise talents who will give the Panthers a chance to win every year for the next half-decade at least.

On the back end, Brandon Montour, 29, had one of the most incredible late-career breakouts in recent memory, scoring 73 points after never topping 37 previously. It sounds strange to say, but Montour may have replaced Panthers stalwart Aaron Ekblad, 27, as “The Guy” on the back end for the Cats. After pacing for 77 points in 2022-21, Ekblad scored at only a 44-point pace and lost out on valuable PP1 time in 2022-23. He still featured prominently (59%) with the man advantage, however, and shot the puck more than ever before (3.1/game). His underlying stats look fine, and he is signed for two more years with an Average Annual Value (AAV) of $7.5 million, so now might be a great time to buy low on Ekblad—especially because he and Montour are both set to miss the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgeries.

Draft Recap

The Panthers’ success is particularly remarkable because it has not been primarily fueled by their drafting. Looking back on the Panthers’ past decade of drafting, there have been quite a few whiffs since they selected Barkov 2nd in 2013 and Ekblad 1st in 2014. Lawson Crouse (11th, 2015) is a solid depth piece now for Arizona but never played a game for the Cats, Henrik Borgstrom (23rd, 2016) was a bust, Owen Tippet (10th, 2017) simmered for years and only blossomed once he left for Philly, and Grigori Denisenko (15th, 2018) now projects as a fringe NHLer. 

Then came Spencer Knight (13th, 2019), Anton Lundell (12th, 2020), and Mackie Samoskevich (24th, 2021), all of whom are still on track to become important pieces for the organization—despite Lundell’s step backwards and Knight’s struggles in 2022-23. By last year, the Panthers had shifted into full win-now mode and did not pick until late in the third round when they selected Marek Alscher (93rd, 2022), who will need to produce more (24 in 60 WHL games) next year to maintain his NHL trajectory. 

This year, Florida managed to hang onto their second-round pick and were lucky enough to snag feisty Seattle Thunderbird, Gracyn Sawchyn.

Round 2, 63rd Overall – Gracyn Sawchyn, C

Sawchyn was ranked as high as 13th (Elite Prospects) and low as 90th (Hockey News), so perhaps it is not surprising that he slipped on draft day. Most outlets viewed him as a late-first or early-second round pick—the consensus was 32nd overall—however, so Florida definitely lucked out snagging Sawchyn down at 63rd.

Part of what made him a difficult read was that he played for a stacked Seattle Thunderbirds team that featured a whopping 14 NHL prospects, including Dylan Guenther (ARI), Brad Lambert (WPG), and Kevin Korchinski (CHI), and finished the year as the WHL champions. His point-per-game performance (58 points in 58 games) was solid but not as eye-catching as many other players drafted in the first round. He will return to Seattle next year while those big three and likely some others will depart, so pencil him in for a more prominent role and imminent production spike in 2023-24.

Sawchyn has a Samoskevich-like skill-set that features high-end puckhandling (Elite Prospects score: 7), passing (6.5), and hockey sense (6.5), as well as competent skating (5), shot (5), and above-average physicality (6). For reference, a score of 5 indicates NHL average, so Sawchyn boasts excellent tools across the board without the typical gaps and question marks that accompany later picks. 

While not a huge guy (5-11, 165lbs), he is constantly hounding the puck, harassing opponents, and battling in the corners. With possession, he is poised and deceptive, routinely battling and squirting out of pressure just in time to fire a quick pass to an open teammate. He will need to bulk up to handle the intensity of the NHL, but a couple years from now he could become a middle-six playmaker who elevates his linemates, provides some scoring punch, and fills any role required of him.

Round 4, 127th Overall – Albert Wikman, D

Wikman did not blow up the scoresheet for Färjestad in Sweden’s J20 Nationell this year (12 points in 43 games) but excelled in transition with his plus-level skating. With strong passing ability and solid physicality, Wikman looks like he would do well in a puck-moving, shutdown-oriented, bottom-four role at the NHL level. He has a solid frame (6-1, 194lbs) and produced excellent play-driving metrics on the defensive end. He will need to work on his shot, puckhandling, and defensive-zone retrievals, but he already showed some growth in these areas throughout his draft year; if he continues to improve, the tools are there for him to become a competent depth defender for the Panthers down the road. This was a great snag by the Panthers, getting a consensus top-100 pick down at 127.

Round 5, 159th Overall – Olof Glifford, G

Glifford represents an excellent swing by the Panthers in the fifth round. Goaltenders are always a dice roll, so it makes sense for organizations to slowly accumulate depth in net with later-round picks. Mack Guzda did not have the smoothest transition to the AHL, and Tyler Muszelik (2022, 6th round) struggled in his first year of college hockey. Glifford joins Kirill Gerasimyuk (2021, 5th round) as two of the brightest lights in the Panthers system between the pipes. Starting the 2022-23 campaign in the J18 Region league, Glifford’s numbers actually improved as he graduated first to the J18 Nationell and then the J20 Nationell, where he posted a sparkling 1.65 GAA and 0.949 SV% over three games. Teams love large-framed goaltenders, and Glifford (6-4, 198lbs) certainly qualifies. Continue to monitor his development, but the 18 year old represents as good a bet as any his age to eventually play NHL games.

Round 6, 191st Overall – Luke Coughlin, D

Finishing 87th on Elite Prospects’ final draft board, Coughlin represented terrific value for the Panthers when he was still available in the sixth round. The reason for his drop is likely that he missed the first chunk of the QMJHL season. Prior to 2022-23, Coughlin was selected fourth overall in the Q’s entry draft, so he has greater pedigree than most players taken in the 200-range. He is a smooth-skating, slightly undersized (5-10) offensive defenceman. It feels like that type of player is a dime a dozen these days, and the recent high-profile struggles of similar defenders like Erik Brannstrom (OTT) and Ryan Merkley (free agent) have created an increasing skepticism in fantasy towards players like Coughlin. But even as the NHL’s pendulum swings back towards bigger players again, the league-wide emphasis on speed isn’t going anywhere. Coughlin is a bit one-dimensional, but his above-average skating gives him as good a shot as anyone to make the NHL—likely in a depth role.

Round 7, 198th Overall – Stepan Zvyagin, LW

Coming up through the Belarussian system, Zvyagin is a relatively unknown commodity—hence his availability in the seventh round. He went just shy of a point-per-game in the MHL in 2022-23, which is relatively speaking the benchmark you’d like to see from NHL-bound prospects in that league. And then he also got called up to play with Dinamo Minsk (KHL) for 15 games (one point), which is a promising sign given that he’s only 19 years old. 

He will benefit from playing in a more structured environment, and there are some interesting comments from his coaches in Russia that suggest he might be a bit headstrong and/or undisciplined: “Here are specialists who generally do not condone if a player on the ice does not follow instructions from the bench. Of course, we also did not turn a blind eye to Zvyagin’s mistakes, we worked on them. But the value of this forward is that due to his high hockey IQ, he can create a goal out of nothing.” Zvyagin is the ideal boom-bust seventh-round swing because of his high-end handling skills and creativity with the puck. If he continues to put in the work to play within a system and show some two-way awareness and responsibility, he may have a shot at NHL action down the road.

The Off-Season

Incoming:

Rasmus Asplund, signed a one-year contract

Evan Rodrigues, signed a four-year contract ($3 million Average Annual Value)

Will Lockwood, signed a two-year contract

Gerald Mayhew, signed a one-year contract

Mike Reilly, signed a one-year contract

Grigori Denisenko, re-signed a two-year contract

Anthony Stolarz, signed a one-year contract

Alexander True, signed a one-year, two-way contract

Lucas Carlsson, signed a one-year, two-way contract

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, signed a one-year contract

Dmitry Kulikov, signed a one-year contract

Kevin Stenlund, signed a one-year contract

Mackie Samoskevich, signed a three-year entry-level contract

Outgoing:

Anthony Duclair, trade to Sharks

Patric Hornqvist, retired

Henry Bowlby, became an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA)

Marc Staal, UFA

Giavani Smith, UFA, not tendered a qualifying offer

Anthony Bitetto, UFA

Casey Fitzgerald, UFA

Connor Bunnaman, UFA

Steven Lorentz, traded

Radko Gudas, UFA

Max Glidon, UFA, not tendered

Eric Staal, UFA

Serron Noel, UFA, not tendered

Colin White, UFA, not tendered

Evan Fitzpatrick, UFA

Alex Lyon, UFA, signed by Detroit

J-F Berube, UFA

There have not been a lot of fantasy-worthy developments so far in the Panthers’ offseason. Samoskevich is the team’s top prospect, so seeing him signed to his ELC is fantastic news. He has an outside chance at cracking the lineup out of camp, but I expect to see him report to Charlotte to kick off the campaign. He has top-six potential and should be owned in all leagues and formats.

As Dobber wrote in the Fantasy Impact article for the Rodrigues signing, the addition of the versatile winger likely hurts Denisenko the most. The former blue-chipper is now on a one-way contract and should finally make the team full time in 2023-24. When Tkachuk went down in the finals facing elimination, Denisenko was subbed into the lineup in his stead. But even with Anthony Duclair being traded to the Sharks, the addition of Rodrigues will likely keep Denisenko in the bottom six for now—unless he earns more opportunity with his play.

It’s unfortunate to see the Panthers part ways with Noel (2018, 2nd round), who once seemed like a promising power forward in the making. At 6-5 and 209lbs, he was always going to need quite a long runway to hit his eventual upside, but after a decent Draft+1 OHL campaign (81 points in 68 games), his production declined in his D+2 and he failed to make a mark at the pro level last year with the Checkers (20 points in 64 AHL games). It would not be a surprise to see another team take a chance on him.

Max Gildon is a similar case to Noel and Denisenko—high draft picks who disappointed. Once considered Florida’s top prospect on the back end, Gildon struggled with injuries and just never really took that next step forward. He had pro size and above-average skating ability but the scoring dried up over the last couple years.

Florida has effectively replaced Marc Staal and Radko Gudas with Mike Reilly, Dmitry Kulikov, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. I don’t know if this swap makes them much better or much worse. Ekman-Larsson and Gudas might be the best of the bunch; Staal played big minutes for the Panthers but struggled despite being relatively sheltered.

Development Camp

The biggest storyline from Florida’s development camp is that Spencer Knight, 22, has exited the Player Assistance Program, which he joined in February of this year, to take part in the Panthers’ Development Camp—despite the fact that he has aged out. Knight is still considered Florida’s goalie of the future, but real-life issues (whatever they may be) take a back seat to hockey. It is great to see him back on the ice, where he will compete with Anthony Stolarz for the back-up job behind Sergei Bobrovsky in 2023-24.

Samoskevich and Sawchyn are the biggest names at the camp. Mike Benning is not in attendance for some reason. Here is the full roster:

The camp concludes on Friday, July 14th. We’ll be seeing training camp announcements and dropping the puck on the 2023-24 season before you know it.   
Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @beegare for more Panthers coverage, prospect content, and fantasy hockey analysis.

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