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5 Thunderbirds Who Could Make Their NHL Debut in 2018-19

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

A lifelong dream could be in reach for several members of the Springfield Thunderbirds.

As the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Florida Panthers, Springfield serves as the proving grounds for not only many of the organization's top prospects, but also plenty of minor-league journeymen still in search of the right opportunity to catch on with a club.

This past season, eight different players made their NHL debut with the Panthers, with six of them suiting up for at least one game with the Thunderbirds before getting the call. Of those players, forward Maxim Mamin saw the longest look with Florida, competing in 26 games.

Springfield general manager and Panthers assistant general manager Eric Joyce recently told FloridaPanthers.com that the organization has made a strong effort to build a culture over the past several seasons in which "the players playing their best in our system get rewarded."

In taking a closer look at the last two years, Joyce's statement certainly holds true, as all three of the Thunderbirds point leaders in 2016-17 earned at least one call-up that season, while two of the top three scorers from last season's team (Curtis Valk and Dryden Hunt) did the same.

"I consider every guy on our team a prospect of the Florida Panthers," Joyce said. "The [locker] room knows who should get called up throughout the season. When you have that system in place, it makes life a lot easier. Guys understand where they're at."

So, who's next? Here are five T-Birds that could potentially make their NHL debut this season…

Anthony Greco

An undrafted free agent out of Ohio State in 2016, Greco joined the Thunderbirds prior to the start of the 2016-17 season after a brief one-game stint with the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

In his first season with the Thunderbirds, Greco made his presence felt immediately, scoring 16 goals and 31 points as a rookie. This past season, however, he was even better, setting a slew of new career-bests, including scoring a team-high 29 goals - the seventh-most in the AHL.

A high-volume shooter, Greco led the league with 252 shots on goal, which was the most by an AHL player since the 2014-15 season. At 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, he makes up for his lack of size with incredible speed, making him especially dangerous on the penalty kill. Of Springfield's 13 shorthanded goals scored this past season, a league-high six came from Greco.

"He was one of our three most valuable players we had down there last year, if not the most valuable" Joyce said. "Great expectations for him this year. He's excited. He's been here all summer. He's really working on the things that we talked to him about. I think he has a real opportunity… He has great speed, great feet, great acceleration, great quickness."

Sebastian Repo

A sixth-round pick (184th overall) of the Panthers in 2017, Repo will make the jump from his native Finland to North America this season, bringing with him neither the lack of size or experience that you'd expect from a soon-to-be rookie.

At 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, Repo has been described as "a beast" by Panthers director of player personnel Bryan McCabe. At just 22, he's already well-versed in professional hockey, having suited up in Finland's top circuit, Liiga, in each of the past four seasons.

In 50 games for Tappara Tampere (Aleksander Barkov's former club) in 2017-18, Repo tallied 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists), adding four goals and three assists in 15 playoff games. In the season before that, he scored six playoff goals to help lead Tampere to a league title in 2017.

A versatile forward that can line up at either center or on the wing, Repo plays a strong physical game and excels at winning battles in the dirty areas. He led Tappara in penalty minutes in each of the last two seasons, accumulating a total of 146 PIMs in that time.

"Big kid that loves to go to areas that are hard," Joyce said. "He loves to be a nuisance on the ice. He understands that his role is to not only score, but to also be physical, heavy and hard to play against. He uses his size to his advantage. He's one of the most fit kids I think you'll ever find."

Josh Brown

The longest-tenured Thunderbird on this list, Brown is entering his third season with Springfield after being selected by the Panthers in the sixth round (152nd overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft.

After being the last defenseman sent home from last summer's training camp, the 24-year-old defensemen went on to appear in 66 games with the Thunderbirds, posting 10 points (one goal, nine assists). A leader on the ice, Brown profiles as a shutdown defenseman, using his hulking 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame to knock opponents off the puck and win battles in defensive zone.

"When push comes to shove in the defensive zone, he's on the ice," Joyce said. "He's always doing more shoving and pushing than he's receiving. He's just a guy that's hard to play against. He makes a good first pass and has a surprising amount of skill for being such a big guy that plays a more physical game."

Brown has played in 148 career AHL games, producing 24 points (four goals, 20 assists).

"From his fist year to his second year he got a lot better," Joyce said. "From his second to his third year, he kind of settled in and stabilized a little bit. We just need him to take that next step."

Jacob MacDonald

A brand-new addition to the organization, MacDonald inked a two-year, two-way deal with the Panthers this summer after bursting on the scene with an incredible breakout campaign for the AHL's Binghamton Devils in 2017-18.

MacDonald, 25, led all AHL defensemen in goals (20) and points (55) in 75 games last season, including 11 goals on the power play, which was also tops among the league's blue liners. His 35 assists ranked him first on Binghamton and third among AHL defensemen.

Undrafted out of Cornell University in 2015, MacDonald's path to Springfield has been long and winding, as the 6-foot, 208-pound rearguard has appeared in 110 career AHL games and 110 career ECHL games, registering a combined 145 points (53 goals, 92 assists) in the minors.

"He's just continued to work and grind his way through the ranks until his breakout season last year," Joyce said. "He's a kid who can really skate and has great feet. As you see the game transition to favoring more dynamic "D" who can skate and join the rush as the fourth option, I think the game has changed to fit a player like Jake. We're really excited to have him with us."

Joyce said he expects MacDonald to at least fill the void left on Springfield's power play left after MacKenzie Weegar's graduation to the NHL last season - a path he could someday follow.

"We think he has the potential to play in the NHL," Joyce said.

Jayce Hawryluk

A second-round pick (32nd overall) pick by the Panthers in 2014, Hawryluk has had an up-and-down career up until this point, suffering multiple setbacks while also showcasing many of the invaluable tools that made him worthy of such a high selection.

After breaking his right hand in a fight with Washington Capitals prospect Jakub Vrana during a Rookie Tournament matchup in 2016, the 22-year-old winger endured a handful of other injuries that caused him to miss nearly half of his rookie season with the Thunderbirds.

With this past season serving as a defacto rookie campaign, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound forward went on to post career highs in both goals (10) and assists (26). There were promising signs of development, such as a 10-game stretch in which he tallied 12 points, but also a few bumps in the road, like a 19-game goal drought and brief demotion to the ECHL.

"I think this year was really his first full season of going through the grind," Joyce said. "He had some great ups, but there were also times when he struggled. There's no one that we, frankly, expect more out of because of where he was drafted. He wants to be that player, but the process has to take place when it does."

Overall, after a bounce-back season, Joyce believes Hawryluk is finally back on track.

"I think this is going to be the breakout year where you really see the true Jayce Hawryluk," Joyce said. "We just expect him to come in ready to go and compete."

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