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No. 1 pick Ekblad leads Panthers' top 10 prospects

by Mike G. Morreale

The Florida Panthers have been extremely busy building quite a formidable pool of prospects after choosing in the top five of the NHL Draft four of the past five years.

The time has come to begin reaping the benefits of those picks.

"I think bringing in [new coach] Gerard Gallant and his staff, coupled with the dynamic of what our roster looks like right now and what's coming through the pipeline will be a springboard moving forward," Panthers director of scouting Scott Luce told "I think we're going to be a significantly improved team this year. With the way our roster is set up and the great push of players set to come in, that combination will help us get to the next level."

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon echoed those sentiments.

"We don't care about their age," Tallon said. "I want them to feel like they have a fair opportunity to make our team, to make the big club. That starts now."

The Panthers selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft and are optimistic he's one of those players capable of having an immediate impact out of training camp. Despite the fact Ekblad sustained a concussion in an exhibition game against the Czech Republic during Hockey Canada's summer world junior development camp, he is expected to make a full recovery in time for the team's training camp next month.

"The thing Aaron will have to work on is learning the game at a faster pace, but because of his hockey IQ, we don't anticipate that being a tough transition," Luce said. "In order to figure out that pace, especially as a defenseman, he'll need experience and mileage at the pro level to be the best he can be."

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

1. Aaron Ekblad, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 1), 2014 draft

Last season: 58 GP, 23-30-53, Barrie, OHL

Ekblad (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) was named the Ontario Hockey League's most outstanding defenseman in 2013-14, leading all players at his position in goals and finishing tied for fifth in points. He became the third 18-year-old player to win the honor in the past 20 years. He played a top-four role as a 17-year-old for Canada at the 2014 World Junior Championship, scoring one goal and two points in seven games. Ekblad, the first defenseman to be drafted with the No. 1 pick in eight years, had two goals and six points in nine OHL playoff games.

"Aaron is a very mature young individual that's focused," Panthers director of player development Brian Skrudland said. "He is on the right track. He's not only a great hockey individual, but he's a good person off the ice. He seemed to take a leadership role with this group [at development camp in July] right off the hop and ran away with it, and was vocal, was respectful, was everything it takes to be a Panther. His future looks bright."

Ekblad sustained a concussion at Canada World Junior development camp in early August, but the Panthers said they expect him to be recovered in time for training camp.

Projected NHL arrival: 2014-15

2. Michael Matheson, D

How acquired: 1st round (No. 23), 2012 draft

Last season: 38 GP, 3-18-21, Boston College, Hockey East

The 6-2, 180-pound left-shot defenseman led all players at his position in points as a sophomore at Boston College last season. He also proved his overall effectiveness with a plus-18 rating. Matheson, 20, has 11 goals, 46 points and a plus-33 rating in 74 NCAA games. He's expected to serve as captain when he rejoins the Eagles as a junior in September. Matheson was voted an AHCA Second-Team All-American, Hockey East First-Team All-Star and a New England Men's Division I All-Star in 2013-14.

"Mike is an NHL skater right now, but will have to learn to pick his spots more readily at the pro level," Luce said. "He can get away with some things at the college level just due to the fact he's such an immense and dynamic skater, but his transition period to the pro game and NHL will be very quick once he decides to turn pro."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

3. Vincent Trocheck, C

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 64), 2011 draft

Last season: 55 GP, 16-26-42, San Antonio, AHL; 20 GP, 5-3-8, Florida, NHL

Trocheck, 21, closed out a productive rookie season in the American Hockey League and did plenty of work in the offseason. The 5-10, 182-pound center is determined to push for a position out of training camp in September. He exhibits plenty of grit, is willing to battle, is good in the faceoff circle, and has an ability to make players around him even better. The Pittsburgh native usually puts himself in good shooting position on the power play, plays a two-way game and provides much energy.

"Vinny is a player, a hockey player who is a highly competitive guy,'' Luce said. "He leads by example and doesn't take no for an answer when it comes to his production. He feels he can produce at any level. His drive combined with his high skill level bodes well for his future."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

4. Rocco Grimaldi, C

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 33), 2011 draft

Last season: 42 GP, 17-22-39, University of North Dakota, NCHC

Grimaldi, 21, left North Dakota with two years of eligibility remaining to sign a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers in May. A knee injury in his fourth game as a freshman in 2011-12 forced a redshirt season. It wasn't too much of a surprise he decided to turn pro since Grimaldi has always been one to challenge himself. He finished with 31 goals, 77 points and a plus-22 rating in 86 NCAA games and feels ready for next level. The 5-6, 172-pound Grimaldi, MVP of the NCAA Cincinnati Regional, helped the Sioux reach the Frozen Four with a 2-1 win over Ferris State in double overtime. He'll likely make his pro debut with San Antonio this season unless he impresses the coaching staff enough to keep him in Sunrise for an extended stay.

"He's a driven hockey player and driven person," Luce said. "I think he's going to push some of our wingers with the big team just because he brings that dynamic dimension. He's effective on the power play, and that's an area we can improve on. Rocco has learned to become an unselfish player with the puck, and that's going to allow his transition to the NHL come faster than normal."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

5. Ian McCoshen, D

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 31), 2013 draft

Last season: 35 GP, 5-8-13, Boston College, Hockey East

After three seasons with the Waterloo Black Hawks in the United States Hockey League, McCoshen (6-3, 205) closed out a solid freshman season with the Eagles. He scored the first goal of the season for Boston College in his first collegiate game at Michigan on Oct. 10. He earned rookie of the week honors for his game winning goal against the University of Massachusetts-Lowell during the NCAA tournament to propel his team into the Frozen Four. McCoshen, 18, also represented the United States at the 2014 WJC.

"Ian is one of those guys where less is more; he plays a very steady, almost mistake-free game and has an underrated, secondary offensive ability," Luce said. "He's quietly effective in his role and he understands what he needs to do as a player moving forward, and he'll play that role."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

6. Jonathan Racine, D

How acquired: 3rd round (No. 87), 2011 draft

Last season: 51 GP, 0-6-0, San Antonio, AHL; 1 GP, 0-0-0, Florida, NHL

The 6-foot-1, 181-pound stay-at-home defenseman received glowing reviews at the team's development camp in July. Racine, 21, trained hard in the summer and will be one of those young blueliners looking to take a position with his strong positional play. While he won't quarterback a power play or contribute huge offensive numbers, he's one who prides himself on shutting down the best players on the opposing team.

"Jonathan is a shutdown defender, plain and simple," Luce said. "He'll play against the other team's top line, and he played that role in junior [in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League]. He knows his identity and plays it well. He plays with tenacity, and we really feel we got a good value pick in the third round with Jon."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

7. Jayce Hawryluk, RW

How acquired: 2nd round (No. 32), 2014 draft

Last season: 59 GP, 24-40-64, Brandon, WHL

The 5-10, 190-pound right-shot forward is a prototypical agitator with some offensive pop to his game. He performs with passion and grit, and can play wing and center, although Luce feels he is much more effective as a wing. Panthers fans will learn to love Hawryluk once he becomes an established player in the NHL. Hawryluk, 18, has 42 goals, 107 points and 90 penalty minutes in 120 career games in the Western Hockey League spanning two seasons. He scored once to help lead Canada to a gold medal at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.

"His compete level is second to none and he'll be that guy to throw people off their game, but at the same time be able to produce offense," Luce said. "We view him as a complementary forward who could fit in on any line on the depth chart; he has enough skill to be a top six and enough tenacity to sort of be in that bottom half as well. He leads by example and wears his emotions on his sleeve."

Projected NHL arrival: 2017-18

8. MacKenzie Weegar, D

How acquired: 7th round (No. 206), 2013 draft

Last season: 61 GP, 12-47-59, Halifax, QMJHL

Weegar (5-11, 207), 20, has 20 goals and 103 points in 123 games spanning two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Mooseheads. He ranked fourth in scoring among all defensemen in the league last season and contributed six power-play goals. He will likely begin his first pro season in San Antonio in 2014-15 and be re-evaluated after the season.

"He has ice in his veins with the puck," Luce said. "He's confident in his offensive abilities and although not strong in stature, has a strong base and is able to play against bigger forwards down low from a strength point of view. He's a guy we feel could eventually be our strong offensive transitional guy that will work the power play and put up some points at the NHL level."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17

9. Yaroslav Kosov, RW

How acquired: 5th round (No. 124), 2011 draft

Last season: 32 GP, 2-2-4, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, KHL

Kosov (6-3, 205) was limited to less than 10 minutes a game playing a checking and defensive role in the Kontinental Hockey League last season, which probably led to his paltry offensive numbers. It's still to be determined where the 21-year-old will play in 2014-15 but the scouting staff believes Kosov has plenty of NHL upside. Luce feels when Kosov finally does decide to play in North America, he will open plenty of eyes with his style of game.

"He's a big, responsible player that can play with skill, but is also tough to contain down low because of his size," Luce said. "We've been seeking for that thick, skilled wing in the organization and thought we would roll the dice and select Kosov in the fifth round a few years ago. He's been under the radar for us, but we project he could develop into a second- or third-line type player with the proper training and development."

Projected NHL arrival: 2015-16

10. Sam Brittain, G

How acquired: 4th round (No. 92), 2010 draft

Last season: 39 GP, 19-14-6, 2.22 GAA, .929 save percentage, University of Denver, NCHC

Brittain (6-1, 216) will likely spend this season in San Antonio, where he'll continue his development. He led Denver to the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference championship and was named 2014 NCHC Goalie of the Year after posting five shutouts as a senior. Brittain, 22, was also one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the goalie who best displays outstanding skill on the ice, along with academic achievement, sportsmanship and community service. The Calgary native played in 97 games for Denver and finished 51-34-11 with seven shutouts.

"Sam is driven and a student of the game," Luce said. "He's a guy who will have to battle in the American Hockey League to begin his professional career, but he's on that path and, as a goalie, will take longer to get there. We like his attitude and the fact he's had success wherever he's been. His work ethic is impeccable and he wants to be an NHL player. How quickly he gets there is entirely up to him."

Projected NHL arrival: 2016-17


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