Welcome to the August 2023 edition of the DobberProspects 32-in-32 Series. This month, we are diving into the depth of each organization, looking at their recent graduates, risers, fallers, and top-20 prospects.
There has been a bit of a sea-change in Florida’s pipeline lately. After holding and developing a core group of players for the past four or five years, waiting for someone to step up and claim an NHL job, the Panthers will finally say goodbye (for now) to Aleksi Heponiemi, Max Gildon, Logan Hutsko, and Serron Noel.
At the same time, the Panthers snagged a first-round talent in the second round of the 2023 draft (Gracyn Sawchyn), finally signed former Golden Boy Grigori Denisenko to a one-way contract, and won the Ryan McAllister sweepstakes by signing the prized college free agent to a three-year contract. Those three players, combined with several former draft picks developing on promising trajectories, have the horizon looking bright in the Sunshine State, where the present looks equally bright after a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
This is a team firmly in win-now mode, and there is enough talent waiting in the wings to keep them near the top of the NHL standings for the foreseeable future. They will have to weather an early-season storm while they wait for star defenders Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour to return from shoulder injuries, and everyone is hoping that Goaltender of the Future Spencer Knight will be back on track after enrolling in the Player Assistance Program last year. Knight received special permission to join the young Cats at Development Camp earlier this summer, so it looks like he will be backing up Sergei Bobrovsky again to kick off 2023-24.
Read on for a more detailed overview of what has been happening with the Panthers’ prospect pipeline lately.
Grigori Denisenko, LW
It seems that Denisenko is finally in the NHL to stay after signing a two-year, one-way contract with Florida in late June. That “one-way” aspect of the deal is key here because it means Denisenko will make the same salary regardless of whether he plays in the NHL or AHL—usually a strong indicator that a team has faith in a player’s ability to stick at the top level.
After battling injuries for a couple years, he finally put together a consistent stretch of games in 2022-23, scoring a respectable 36 points in 56 AHL outings. He also played 18 NHL games up with Florida—including subbing in for Matthew Tkachuk in the critical elimination game against Vegas—but almost never saw time in Florida’s top six with any of their best players. He was always projected to become a unique, valuable player who could blend skill, physicality, and intensity and contribute in all situations to an NHL team’s middle-six at the very least. It would be very, very interesting to see what would happen were Denisenko to see some time alongside Tkachuk and/or Sasha Barkov.
Lucas Carlsson, D
Carlsson, 26, was just signed by Florida to a one-year, two-way contract. While the “two-way” element suggests he will go through yet another yo-yo-type season in 2023-24, he has certainly done enough at the AHL level to warrant a serious look from the Panthers. His 54 points in 61 games from the back end was second in scoring on the Checkers, tops among Checkers’ defenders by a mile, and only one point behind Christian Wolanin (VAN) for the AHL Defenseman scoring title. He clearly has the chops to play in all situations, including running a power play.
With both Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad out with shoulder injuries to start the year, there is a decent chance we see Carlsson running the Cats’ top power play at times to start the year—even if he eventually gets sent back down when everyone is healthy.
Ryan McAllister, C
McAllister is a deceptive puck handler with decent speed and an above-average shot. He has great positional instincts and loves to clog up passing lanes and strip pucks away from unsuspecting opponents. It is always tricky evaluating the production of overage prospects, however, and even more so with McAllister. Never drafted, he spent three years in the AJHL, a Canadian junior league that NHL-bound prospects usually use as a one-year springboard before going to college. After scoring a meagre 30 points in 39 games over what would have been his Draft and Draft+1 campaigns, he absolutely exploded in his third go-around with the Brooks Bandits, piling up 139 points in only 60 games. He then added 29 more points in only 13 playoff games and then went a ridiculous three points per game in the Centennial Cup (18 points in only six games).
Taking all those gaudy numbers with a grain of salt then became more difficult when he transitioned to the NCAA in his D+3 and put up 49 points in 39 games as a “freshman.” Then, after the college season, he joined Florida’s AHL affiliate and posted five points in his first four professional-level games, prompting Florida to sign him to a three-year Entry-Level Contract. And now here we are. McAllister is certainly a riser, but his NHL future remains cloudy for now because players following a trajectory like his have possibly never made it to the NHL, let alone become anything like a fantasy-worthy scoring star. The Hockey Prospecting model, for instance, has given him a 0% chance of becoming a star for the last three years, even though his chances of becoming an NHLer are now up to 35%.
Jack Devine, RW
Devine was drafted by Florida in the seventh round in 2022 because of his strong defensive instincts and responsible two-way play. He spent his D-1 in the USDP, which is increasingly becoming a mark in the plus column when evaluating players because of the quality of that program. He was not one of their top scorers by any means, however, and so flew more under the radar than most of his teammates. He then played with Denver (NCAA) in his Draft year when the Pioneers took home the National Championship. Devine again played a depth role, scoring 19 points in 36 games as a freshman.
In 2022-23, Denver lost much of its star power and Devine was elevated into a more prominent role in which he scored 31 points in 38 games—production more in line with a player hoping to one day lock down a bottom- or middle-six job on an NHL team. He still has a ton of work to do—most of his physical tools were considered below NHL average only a year ago—but he is definitely improving and solidifying his stock as one of Florida’s more valuable assets up front.
Aleksi Heponiemi, C/W
Heponiemi (2017, 40th overall) scored a respectable 43 points in 62 AHL games last year with Charlotte and even saw a ten-game call up with Florida (three points) but still elected to sign with EHC Biel-Bienne of the Swiss National League. He cited several reasons when asked why he made this decision in a recent interview: “I want to improve my game and play hockey that is a little different from that practiced in North America. Also, I can spend more time at home and therefore train better.” Being of such a slight build, his main obstacle to the NHL all along was the physical style of hockey in North America at the highest levels. While the Panthers retain his NHL rights after qualifying him in June, this sounds like a player who may be content with a professional career in Europe.
Logan Hutsko, RW/C
Hutsko (2018, 89th overall) seemed to be on a solid NHL trajectory after an injury-plagued college career. He went over a point-per-game over his third and fourth seasons with Boston College (NCAA), then upped his scoring pace (0.54 ppg to 0.64) over his first two AHL campaigns. Nevertheless, he apparently felt the same lack of opportunity at the NHL level as Heponiemi and decided to sign with IK Oskarshamn in the SHL for 2023-24. He too was qualified by Florida, which will retain his NHL rights for now.
Max Gildon, G
Unlike the others, Gildon (2017, 66th overall) became an Unrestricted Free Agent and was released from the Florida organization. Once their top prospect on defense, Gildon has been on a slow decline production-wise with the Checkers (AHL) over the past few years. After putting up an exciting 19 points in his first 32 games at the AHL level, he managed just 19 points over his next 69 games—a stretch that saw him transferred with no reason given to the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s affiliate. Even without context, that move did not seem positive for his future with the Panthers. Now he has elected to take his game to the DEL, Germany’s top pro league, to play for Adler Mannheim, the team that Mo Seider (DET) played for in his draft year. Like Heponiemi, Gildon is now 24, and his NHL prospects feel quite dim. Were he to return to the NHL at some point, he would be free to sign with whichever team he wished.
Serron Noel, RW
Noel was always going to need a longer runway than most as an exceptionally sized prospect (6-5, 216 lbs), so it is a bit surprising to see Florida walk away from him after a tough 2022-23 where he played only seven games in the ECHL. He too became a UFA and did not receive an offer from Florida. It would not be surprising to see another NHL organization take a swing on the 23-year-old burgeoning power forward, but as of yet he has not signed anywhere.
Organizational Depth Chart
A combination of NHL readiness and upside.
Top 20 Fantasy Prospects
This section is intended to paint a picture of the Panthers prospects whose current trajectory projects them making the most positive fantasy impact at the time that they reach the NHL. Arrival date and NHL certainty have been taken into consideration. However, a player’s potential upside is the most important factor in determining this list.
*** Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @beegare for more prospect content and fantasy hockey analysis.
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