Florida Panthers: Should fans be concerned about a lack of prospect presence at the World Juniors?


In a tradition stemming back only a few years in this country, hockey fans will pile around their TV to watch a bunch of 18-20 year old hockey players play for  their nation in the World Juniors.

Most of us watch just to make fun of our friends in Canada because they take this tournament too seriously, but there is a practical purpose too.

Good teams often have plenty of talented prospects in this tournament and for many fans, it will be the first time they can see them play. In recent years however, the Florida Panthers presence has been light.

In 2017, only Henrik Borgstrom played in the tournament. In 2016, the Panthers had a bigger presence, but still only had Lawson Crouse, Denis Malgin and Juho Lammikko on rosters. It’s been a long time since the Panthers had a sizeable presence at this tournament.

2018 will be no different, as only assist machine Aleksi Heponiemi stands to make a World Junior roster. Jonathan Ang and more notably Owen Tippett didn’t make Team Canada’s cut. Is that bad for the Panthers, or something, like this entire tournament, is much to do about nothing?

Part of that, some will say, has to do with the Panthers poor drafting in recent years. Even though they’ve not exactly been plumbing the depths, they haven’t been drafting super-prospects. After only five picks in 2017, they didn’t add a lot to the system, especially since one of the picks was used on an overage player, Sebastian Repo. And their last two classes outside of Henrik Borgstrom and maybe Denis Malgin haven’t exactly borne much fruit yet.

Alternatively, you could argue this tournament isn’t a great judge of future NHL successes. Plenty of would be NHL impact players never played in this tournament, and the opposite is true. The 2013 World Junior team, though augmented by a lockout, had Jonathan Huberdeau, Vinnie Trocheck and future Panther pick Sasha Barkov on their respective rosters, but also had draft busts like Yaroslav Kosov and Rasmus Bengtsson.

As the Panthers stopped consistently drafting in the top five, their prospect well hasn’t exactly been filled with late round gems, though Heponiemi is certainly one. And if there’s any place in hockey filled with overreactions to small sample sizes, it’s this tournament.

Sometimes, a lack of presence here is because of roster rules, bad luck, coaches decisions, or all three. Most observers were shocked by Canada’s decision to leave Owen Tippett at home, even Don Cherry (for what that’s worth).

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If Adam Mascherin was healthy, perhaps he would have made a case to be on Team Canada last year or this year. Henrik Borgstrom played last year, and can’t this year. Jonathan Ang almost making the team was certainly a pleasant surprise as a relatively unheralded fourth round pick last year, and Heponiemi is on pace to potentially break WHL scoring records.

As the Panthers transitioned they thought from a building team to a contender, drafts naturally took a hit. And as they realized that wasn’t the case, they had to start rebuilding the farm system which isn’t that deep. After this year, it’s probable it will get a lot deeper, and their presence at the 2019 World Junior championships will be bigger than recent years.

But just because teams have a healthy contingent of players they drafted at the World Juniors does not equal future NHL successes. Plenty of World Junior stars have gone on to great NHL careers, but there are plenty of misses too.

Teams would rather have more lottery tickets for sure, and the Panthers lottery luck has been lackluster in this way, but these things come and go in waves. The Panthers once had five or six prospects dotting rosters, and now make do with one to three.

As they build up again, that number will certainly go up, and based on early returns from some of their 2017 picks, those two days in late June could contribute to a bigger Panthers presence in this tournament in late December and early January.

This tournament is still about country over all else, with prospect successes secondary. Panthers fans will only have one to look at in Buffalo, but he could be one of the stars of the tournament.

So should Panthers fans be concerned about a lack of a presence in Buffalo at the World Juniors? Sure, maybe a little.

Next: Four prospects that prove the Cats’ future is bright

But not everyone who becomes a star in the NHL becomes a star in this tournament. And stars for these 10 days don’t always becomes stars in the show, too.