Though the NHL Draft and free agency are still several weeks away, the Florida Panthers have already begun to shore up their future by locking up several key prospects this offseason.
With the addition of forward Steven Hodges on June 1, the Panthers have now signed five prospects since April 21, and they likely won’t stop there.
Traditionally one of the league’s weaker teams in terms of drafting, the Panthers have entered a prospect renaissance in recent years as the club continues to build upon the strong foundation of young talent that general manager Dale Tallon started in 2010.
While none of these players are expected to make an immediate impact in the NHL, they will be monitored intently as they make their way through the club’s prospect pipeline. No longer forced to rush their young talent, this next wave of prospects will be given the proper time to hone their skills in the minors before joining the Panthers in Sunrise.
Originally bereft of a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft, the Panthers fired up the phone lines and traded back into the final round in order to select defenseman MacKenzie Weegar with the 206th overall pick — sending their 2014 seventh-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens.
The gamble has paid off, so far, for the Panthers as Weegar developed into one of the top-scoring defensemen this past season for the Halifax Mooseheads.
On a team that included the 2013 draft’s third-overall selection, Jonathan Drouin, and 2014 projected top-ten pick Nikolai Ehlers, Weegar stood out as the team’s premier offensive defenseman and power-play specialist.
In his second season in Halifax, Weegar was the team’s top scoring defensemen, earning 59 points (12-47-59) in 61 games. And although his team failed to capture a title, Weegar finished 11th among all skaters in playoff scoring with 22 points (5-17-22) in just 16 games played.
For his efforts, the Panthers rewarded Weegar with a three-year, entry-level contract on May 29.
A surprise standout at last year’s training camp, Weegar will enter this summer with the Panthers as one of their most highly-touted defensive prospects.
Rocco Grimaldi (2011, second round, 33rd overall)
Selected in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2011 draft, forward Rocco Grimaldi signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on May 7.
Standing just 5-foot-6, Grimaldi has become one of the Panthers’ most intriguing skaters over the past two seasons, not only for his stellar play, but also for his constant battle against the stigma that surrounds a players of small stature.
A dangerously fast skater, Grimaldi was an offensive dynamo in his two seasons at the University of North Dakota. As a freshman, Grimaldi finished third in team scoring with 36 points (13-23-36) and was named to the ALL-WCHA Rookie Team.
The following season, Grimaldi led all UND players with 36 points (14-22-36) in 39 games played as a sophomore.
The highlight of Grimaldi’s 2013-14 season was when he scored a hat trick against top-seeded Wisconsin to help UND cruise to victory in the opening round of the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. Unfortunately, UND would eventually lose 2-1 to Minnesota in the Frozen Four.
Barring an outstanding training camp, Grimaldi is expected to begin the 2014-15 season with the Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.
Connor Brickley (2010, second round, 50th overall)
The 50th overall pick by the Panthers in the 2010 draft, forward Connor Brickley, 22, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on April 21.
A four-year starter at the University of Vermont, Brickley compiled 48 points (21-27-48) in 117 games over the course of his collegiate career.
Following Vermont’s early exit at the 2014 Frozen Four, the 6-foot-1 Brickley joined the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio where he notched a goal and an assist in eight games.
A hard-nosed, two-way forward, Brickley will most likely begin the 2014-15 season in San Antonio.
Steven Hodges (2012, third round, 84th overall)
The newest member of the Panthers organization, 2012 third-round pick (84th overall) Steven Hodges signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on June 1.
A five-year veteran of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Hodges, 20, spent time with both the Chilliwack Bruins (2009-2011) and Victoria Royals (2011-2014) during his junior career.
Over his last three seasons with the Royals, Hodges accumulated 144 points, including 70 goals and 77 assists. Never one to shy away from conflict or contact, he also earned 194 PIM during that span.
Hodges will enter training camp this summer hoping to land a spot with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio.
An undrafted free agent out of college, the Panthers signed Notre Dame defenseman Shayne Taker to a one-year contract on May 7.
As a senior, Taker anchored Notre Dame’s defense, tallying 18 points (4-14-18) in 40 games for the Irish. During his four-year collegiate career, Taker compiled 47 points (8-39-47) in 152 games.
Following Notre Dame’s 4-3 overtime loss to St. Cloud State at the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament, Taker signed an Amateur Tryout Contract (ATO) with the San Antonio Rampage.
In five games with the Rampage, Taker earned no points and a minus-7 rating but showed enough promise to earn a contract with the club.
A strong-skating defenseman with serviceable puck-handling skills, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound Taker will most likely join fellow bruisers Jonathan Racine and Alex Petrovic on San Antonio’s blue line next season.
Kyle Rau (2011, third round, 91st overall)
The 91st overall pick by the Panthers in the 2011 draft, forward Kyle Rau may look to join his former University of Minnesota teammate, Nick Bjugstad, with the Panthers this summer.
A gifted offensive talent, Rau has compiled 123 points (47-76-123) in three seasons with the Gophers, scoring 40 or more points in each season.
Rau’s junior season in Minnesota ended in heartbreak as the Gophers fell to Union 7-4 in the championship game of the 2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia.
Though the allure of another chance at a Frozen Four championship could pull Rau back to Minnesota for his senior season, there is a strong possibility that he signs with the Panthers this offseason.
Sam Brittain (2010, fourth round, 92nd overall)
The Panthers’ fourth-round (92nd overall) selection in the 2010 draft, goaltender Sam Brittain finished his senior season with the Denver Pioneers as one of the NCAA’s top netminders.
A finalist for the inaugural Mike Richtar Award, given to the most outstanding goalie in college hockey, Brittain finished the 2013-14 regular season ranking 13th nationally in wins (17), second in save percentage (.934) and 10th in goals-against average (2.06).
While at Denver, Brittain compiled an impressive 51-34-11 record and competed in the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament in all four of his collegiate seasons.
Under the rules of the current CBA, the Panthers will have until Aug. 15 to negotiate a contract with Brittain or risk losing him to free agency.