NHL Draft: Panthers' biggest needs, top prospects

The "win-now" Florida Panthers shift to a mode of drafting and developing with an eye on the distant, not immediate, future. (Getty)

This was the year…until it wasn’t.

The Florida Panthers won their first Presidents’ Trophy boasting a 58-18-6 record good for 122 points, but it still was not enough to get the Panthers into the Eastern Conference final, let alone the Stanley Cup Final. On paper Florida’s roster looked hard to beat, but the playoffs can often wreck the best-laid plans.

The Panthers will use the offseason to retool, primarily through free agency, but can add some bottom-of-the-roster depth from within. Bill Zito forfeited much of Florida’s future in his bid for a Cup this season by acquiring Claude Giroux, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, and Ben Chiarot. The cost was Florida’s first-round picks in 2022, 2023, and 2024, their second-round pick this year, as well as prospects and young players Devon Levi, Owen Tippett, and Ty Smilanic. Without a selection until late in the third round, Florida shifts to a mode of drafting and developing with an eye on the distant, not immediate, future.

Top prospects

Grigori Denisenko - After being selected 15th overall in 2018, Denisenko stayed in Russia playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for two seasons before coming to North America last year. The first half of this season with Charlotte, his second in the AHL, looked disastrous, and an injury midseason sidelined the progress he was beginning to make. He scored only 18 points in 30 games. He’s still only 21, but Florida will want to see a leap early next year from their top prospect, or his stock will continue to fall and the Panthers could dangle the once-coveted pick as trade bait.

Mackie Samoskevich - Excellent in the corners and focused on a two-way game, Samoskevich honed his craft this season on a stacked University of Michigan team. With several of his current teammates moving on, Samoskevich will be counted on next year to provide a veteran presence in Michigan as another wave of first-round picks arrive. Following this campaign, the 24th overall pick from 2021 will likely turn pro and could see games with the Panthers to close out the year.

Evan Nause - He is the epitome of a modern NHL defender. Nause is a strong skater with excellent playmaking abilities from the back end. He moves well along the blueline and at 6’2” has the size to compete in the NHL. An injury slowed the early portions of his year, but Nause still managed 46 points in 59 games with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Nause initiates the breakout and is integral in transitioning pucks up ice. In the offensive zone he finds lanes to distribute the puck or to shoot for rebounds through traffic. Nause is still a few seasons away from NHL ready.

One to watch

Hard to play against and has the ability to score. Those are the descriptors used for Cole Schwindt’s season with Charlotte in the AHL. He started the campaign a dozen steps down Florida’s depth chart at center, but has played himself into the conversation and even got a brief call up this year. A 2019 third-round pick, Schwindt played in all situations in his first full professional season scoring 19 goals and 40 points in 72 AHL games. While he’s likely to start next year in the AHL again, Schwindt could grab a bottom-six role for the Panthers who will look for cap efficiency throughout their roster to fill the gaps left by outgoing players.

Ready to step in

Playing the game with tempo is the calling card of former second-round pick Aleksi Heponiemi. He’ll be looked upon to grab a bottom-six role this season after playing 15 NHL games over the past two years. One aspect of Heponiemi’s game is his ability to create scoring chances on the powerplay. While he might not take that role immediately in Florida, he can definitely fill the spot in a pinch. Another name to watch at training camp will be former Boston College standout Logan Hutsko who could grab a depth spot on Florida’s right wing, a position that has been filled by converted pivots recently. Hutsko was counted on in all situations in his rookie season with Charlotte, and never quits working. Another year on the farm could be in store, but Hutsko is nearing NHL ready.

Needs at the draft

The net is full with Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight, and outside the crease, Florida features a veteran lineup largely under contract through 2023-24. Without a pick in the opening rounds, Florida could look to add another winger to the mix, but there are no pressing needs at the draft. Choosing a long-term project with a bigger upside could be Florida’s approach as they’ll have multiple seasons to keep any prospect they select in their system, and can approach development patiently. In 3-4 years when those prospects mature, Florida will be in a different position coming out of their winning window and not having selected in the opening round (barring a trade) in multiple years.

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