CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- With a college degree in hand, Evan Cowley is now ready for his next challenge.
Cowley, a fourth-round pick (92nd overall) of the Panthers in the 2013 NHL Draft, is coming off of an impressive four-year collegiate career at the University of Denver that ended with a national championship in 2016-17.
"I got the degree, graduated a few weeks ago, so I've tied up all the loose end there," said Cowley, who signed a minor-league deal with Florida's American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, in June. "It's all good to go. I'm ready to turn pro and show what I've got. I'm ready to play games and do what I can."
A backup goaltender throughout his tenure at Denver, Cowley's numbers in net improved steadily on a year-by-year basis, culminating in a career-best goals-against average (1.13) and save percentage (.955) during his senior season.
"You've got to earn your ice," said Cowley, who won 23 career games with the Pioneers. "I prepared every day the same way, like I was going to play both games. I sometimes got in, but sometimes I didn't. The other guy played really well this year, so the coach wanted to lean on him a little bit more. I prepared like I was going to play every day, so when I got in there I could make the most of it."
In Springfield, Cowley will be competing with fellow rookie Samuel Montembeault and Harri Sateri, a free agent signing from Finland, for a spot on the Thunderbirds roster, hoping that a good season in the minors will lead to his first NHL contract.
"That's exactly what I signed up for," said Cowley, who turned 22 on July 31. "[The Panthers] basically told me this is a year to really earn it. I obviously didn't play as much as I wanted to [at Denver], but I think it's on me to show that I can handle a starting workload and earn that contract next year."
Chris Wilkie wants a fresh start.
After spending the past two seasons suiting up for the University of North Dakota, Wilkie, a former sixth-round draft pick (162nd overall) of the Florida Panthers in 2015, made the decision this offseason to transfer Colorado College, where he will be able to fine-tune his game while playing alongside his younger brother, Coltan.
"It's a change of scenery and kind of a new start," the right-handed winger said at Florida's development camp in July. "Things didn't go as well as I would have liked and I didn't live up to my expectations my first two years at North Dakota. I think sometimes things just don't really work out.
"I enjoyed my two years at North Dakota and have a lot of respect for the program and the coaching staff there, but at the end of the day it was time for a change. I'm looking forward to a new start in Colorado."
Wilkie, 21, appeared in 62 games for the Fighting Hawks and was a freshman on UND's 2015-16 national championship team. The Omaha, Nebraska native scored six goals and added 13 assists during his career at North Dakota, including one goal and nine assists in 30 games in 2016-17.
At Colorado College, Wilkie believes he'll be able to offer more on offense.
"You see it with guys with trades and stuff like that," Wilkie said. "They get traded, go to another place and end up doing really well in some cases; hopefully that's the case for me. I think it's time. When you go somewhere else you want to prove yourself, too. I think I'm going to work that much harder to show that my first two years at North Dakota aren't exactly what I'm capable of."
Unfortunately, Wilkie must sit out a year under NCAA transfer rules, but will have two years eligibility remaining starting with the 2018-19 season. He will, however, be able to workout and practice with the team.
"It's a year for me to kind of get back on track," said Wilkie, who will enroll at CC in the fall. "I'm going to spend a lot of time in the gym and on the ice working on little things so that when I can play the following year I'm the most prepared as possible."
Wilkie is a two-time member of the NCHC Academic All-Conference Team.