Panthers continue to lock up number of key prospects
The Florida Panthers have signed five young players since April 21 and fully intend to let them mature in the minors before eventually being brought up to the parent club.
The Florida Panthers gave defenseman MacKenzie Weegar a three-year entry-level contract May 29.
Joel Auerbach / Getty Images North America
By Jameson Olive
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.
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.
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.
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.