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30 in 30: Panthers have deep prospect pool

by Mike Battaglino

The Florida Panthers prepared for last season expecting their overflowing pool of prospects to provide three players for the NHL roster. Turns out, five from's top 10 list made their NHL debut in 2012-13, with a sixth playing one-third of the 48-game schedule and a seventh setting the stage to become a regular.

One, Jonathan Huberdeau, wound up winning the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year. Another, Jacob Markstrom, enters 2013-14 as the No. 1 goaltender. A third, Drew Shore, skated in 43 games.

Then, Florida's fall from division champion to last in the League gave the organization two more top draft picks to add to a collection that remains among the NHL's best.

"The overall depth and the overall size … there are a lot of players, a lot of good players," general manager Dale Tallon said at this summer's development camp. "That's what I like. I like to see that we've got a solid depth chart now in all positions."

Here's a look at Florida's top 10 prospects, according to

1. Aleksander Barkov, C: He'll forever be known as the player the Panthers took instead of Seth Jones, selecting the 17-year-old Finn with the second pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.

Tallon raved about Barkov (who turns 18 on Sept. 2) before and after the pick, saying a pre-draft interview, when the teenager was adamant about playing in the NHL as soon as possible, sealed the deal. This despite the fact he's recovering from shoulder surgery he had in March.

"He really wants to be a star, he wants to play here, and he wants to play right away," Tallon said at development camp. "It's a little frustrating for him right now that he can't compete with his future teammates, but he's in the gym working really hard and our trainers have worked extremely hard with him. He's excited to be here, he loves it here and wants to stay here, so that's a real positive."

Also on the plus side is Barkov's experience playing for Tappara in Finland's top league, where at a still-growing 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds he was able to more than hold his own. His 48 points (21 goals) in 53 games ranked ninth in the league.

"He's way beyond his age as far as maturity, and I'm anxious to get him playing and I'm anxious to watch him develop," Tallon said.

2. Nick Bjugstad, C: The 19th pick of the 2010 draft made his NHL debut April 6, signing after his third season at the University of Minnesota. It took him until the last of his 11 games to score his first goal.

"It was an eye-opener for me," Bjugstad told the Panthers website. "It was more so for me to learn and get a grasp of what the game is like. It was a short time, but it was a good experience for me. Probably not the best on paper, but I think it'll help me in the future and this coming training camp confidence-wise. I learned a lot and it was a good experience."

At 6-6, 215, the 21-year-old fits the Panthers' stated ambition to be huge down the middle.

"Well, Nick's a giant," director of player development Brian Skrudland said. "First and foremost, physically he's ready for the National Hockey League. We'll continue to work on the little aspects of the mental game and the challenges that he's going to face. He has such great skill and determination, as do a lot of [the prospects]."

3. Alex Petrovic, D: The 36th pick in the 2010 draft made his NHL debut April 18. He did not have a point in six games after getting 17 in 55 games for San Antonio in the American Hockey League.

"I'm ready to make that next step," Petrovic said. "Last year gave me confidence that I can play in the game and be effective too. For me it's just getting stronger in the upper body and coming in with a lot of confidence and just showing them that I'm ready to play here."

The 6-4, 206-pound 20-year-old did have 25 penalty minutes.

"He's a big, lanky guy who can really skate and move the puck; it's rare," Bryan McCabe, manager of player development, said. "He's got a little edge to him; he plays with a little grit. ... He's really coming into his own here."

4. Vincent Trocheck, C: Though one of the few who did not reach the NHL, Trocheck had the most successful season of anyone on this list.

The 64th pick of the 2011 draft was named Most Outstanding Player in the Ontario Hockey League after scoring 50 goals and a league-high 109 points in 63 games with the Saginaw Spirit and Plymouth Whalers, ending with a 21-game point-scoring streak. He had 24 points in 15 playoff games for Plymouth, and helped the United States win gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship.

"My mindset is I'm coming here to try to make the team and I'm going to do whatever it takes to wear that [Panthers] jersey," said Trocheck, who turned 20 in July.

At 5-10, 182, he, along with Rocco Grimaldi, provides a different look among the Panthers' hulking forwards.

"They're going to be surrounded by tall trees to play with them and protect them," Tallon said of Trocheck and Grimaldi. "Those guys are really good hockey players. They have good hockey sense, good quickness and they know where to go; and both of them are fearless, so it makes up for their lack of size."

5. Colby Robak, D: Drafted No. 46 in 2008, Robak made a three-game NHL cameo in February 2012 before returning a year later. He played 16 games, shuttling back and forth from Florida to San Antonio.

"It's every kid's dream to play in the NHL as quickly as possible," Robak said. "To have the opportunity to do it and try to make an impact and show you want to stay here as a young guy, it's something you have to take full advantage of."

Robak (6-3, 194) had one point for the Panthers, and 23 in 63 AHL games. The season prior he had 39 points in 73 AHL games and was a plus-15. The 23-year-old signed a two-year contract this summer.

6. Quinton Howden, C: The 21-year-old made a one-game NHL debut Jan. 26, then returned March 21 to play in the final 17. The 25th pick in the 2010 draft did not score a point.

"I was frustrated at the time," Howden said. "Everybody wants that goal. But I was helping the team, contributing in ways, and that's all I really wanted to do. As long as I can come back and contribute in those little ways, then that's all I want."

Howden (6-2, 189) did have 209 points in 177 games in his final three Western Hockey League seasons, and had 30 in 57 games with San Antonio last season.

7. Michael Matheson, D: The 19-year-old is bound for his second season at Boston College, but seems ready to graduate to the NHL.

"He's a great skater, everyone knows that. He's just got to mature and get some more experience," McCabe told the Miami Herald. "As a freshman at BC he played a lot of minutes. He had a great season. This year, we're looking for him to hopefully make the [Canadian] World Junior Championship team. It would be a great experience for him to play internationally."

Matheson (6-2, 180) had eight goals and 17 points for the Eagles. The 23rd pick of the 2012 draft will be college teammates with Ian McCoshen, chosen by Florida with the 31st pick in 2013.

"Both of us going through the same situation will help both of us, hopefully, get to this organization," Matheson told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "Definitely, in the next year or two, I'll try to make this team. I don't think I'll stay at BC for all four years.''

8. Rocco Grimaldi, C: He responded after missing almost all of his freshman season at North Dakota with a knee problem by totaling 13 goals and 36 points in 39 games as a sophomore.

At 5-6 and 160 pounds, the 20-year-old is an annual attention-getter at development camp.

"I like playing like a big guy, I guess," Grimaldi said. "I'm not going to throw my body around all the time, but when the opportunity presents itself, that's what I'll do. So it's no big deal. I just like playing hard, I like being hard to play against, I like annoying the guys, come out of nowhere because I'm small. I use my size to my advantage, and I love giving defensemen a hard time when they're playing against me. It's one of the fun parts of the game for me."

The 33rd pick of the 2011 draft will return to school as MVP of the gold-medal game at the World Junior Championship, when he scored two goals in the Americans' 3-2 win against Sweden.

9. Jonathan Racine, D: A rare stay-at-home defenseman in the system, the 87th pick in the 2011 draft played eight games for San Antonio last season after accumulating 138 penalty minutes with the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"I work hard in practice; I'm a tough guy," Racine told the Sun Sentinel. "I'm not a skilled guy like those guys. … This is why no one talks a lot about me. I don't care. I do my thing on the ice. I think I will have my time.''

Racine (6-2, 202) was plus-36 in 122 QMJHL games the past two seasons. He turned 20 in May.

10. Michael Houser, G: It is almost impossible to believe the 20-year-old is on the brink of playing in the NHL.

Houser was born with bilateral club feet, had 15 surgeries on each foot before he turned 4, then two more when he was 12. Passed over in three NHL drafts, he attended 2012 development camp as a tryout and was given a three-year contract.

With Jose Theodore not expected back, Houser (6-1, 185) sits third on the organizational depth chart behind Markstrom and Scott Clemmensen.

"It's exciting, but at the same time it forces you to work that much harder," Houser said. "You know you could get the call at any time to come up. It's exciting, but at the same time you want to stay level-headed and work your way up, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get here."

The 2012 OHL Goalie of the Year, Houser was 17-10-2 with a 2.55 goals-against average for Cincinnati in the ECHL last season. correspondent Alain Poupart contributed to this report.

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