Ethan Prow went into the 2018-19 season knowing that he was going to be an unrestricted free agent after his third full season of pro hockey.
Prow, a former St. Cloud State and Sauk Rapids High School standout defenseman, made it count.
The 26-year-old was named to the American Hockey League's Second All-Star Team and had his best season as a pro. Playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he was third among AHL defensemen in goals (18), tied for third in points (50) and power-play goals (9), was second in shots on goal (185) and fifth in plus/minus (plus-26) in 74 games.
And maybe this helps put his season in some perspective: Prow led his team in points and plus/minus and the Penguins finished sixth in the Atlantic Division and missed the playoffs. He had 33 points in 99 AHL games going into the 2018-19 season. So what came together?
"I think there's a handful of factors," said Prow, who was the NCHC Player of the Year and a top 10 Hobey Baker Award finalist for St. Cloud State in 2016. "It was my third year and you're more comfortable and you see yourself needing to play a bigger role. I was able to get an opportunity early and I just ran with it.
"The first game, I had a goal. So I've got that confidence going and when you can play with confidence and the coaches have confidence in you, you can just go out there and play and be who you are."
New contract, organization
He cashed in on that breakout season last week when he signed a two-year, two-way deal with the Florida Panthers.
"It was different going into this summer, not knowing whether I'd be in Pitt or where I'd be," he said of remaining with the Penguins organization. "It was a little difficult.
"But knowing the year I had, it made for a nice set-up for this summer. Teams can get in contact with you and a lot goes through my agent, but I talked to a few teams myself. It was a cool experience, being able to experience free agency."
Prow is hoping that by changing organizations, it will improve his chances for making the NHL. Florida has not made the playoffs since 2016, while the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. Despite his strong season in 2018-19, he has not played in an NHL game yet.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity and, from talking to them, it seemed like a good fit," Prow said of the Panthers. "I know what it's like on the East (Coast). This is where I might have the best shot to stay up (in the NHL) or get called up."
Prow, who is from Sauk Rapids, Minn., was an undrafted player coming out of college. After finishing his senior season, he signed a three-year deal with the Penguins. His senior season with St. Cloud State, he had 38 points and was a plus-29 in 37 games as the captain of the Huskies, who won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I West Regional.
In 149 career college games, Prow had 80 assists, 99 points and was a plus-51. In his career, St. Cloud State made its first Frozen Four (2013), won its first WCHA title (2013), won its first NCHC regular season title (2014), won its first NCHC Frozen Faceoff title (2016) and made four straight NCAA tournaments.
"It was just a ton of fun," he said of playing for the Huskies, who went 98-55-8 in his four seasons. "I was on some great teams and we made the NCAAs every year of my four years.
"The tradition we left there -- you can see where the program has gone and how highly competitive it is and it started a great tradition."
His transition to pro hockey has had its share of challenges. As a college player, he was known as a puck-moving defenseman who could chip in offensively and ran St. Cloud State's top power play unit his senior year.
Prow's first season in the AHL, he had 16 points and was a plus-1 in 59 games. In 2017-18, he had 17 points and was a plus-2 in 40 games.
"It was a good lineup and I was fighting for ice time and opportunity and I was battling some injuries as well," he said of 2017-18. "When you get banged up a little bit, it's not the funnest. It just shows you how the pro game is. You've got to bring it every night and you have to fight some adversity."
Prow is also listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, which is not big for a defenseman in the pro game.
"You're playing the better players and I think the physicality took some time for me to get used to in the AHL," he said. "You're fighting to get on to the next level and it's highly competitive."
The new contract kind of caps off a big year for Prow. He got married on Aug. 4, played in his first AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 28 and now will be headed to Florida, a state he has not been to before.
His wife, Hanna (Brodt), played for the St. Cloud State women's hockey team from 2012-16. His father-in-law, Vic Brodt, played for the Huskies from 1986-90, so Hanna has an understanding of the hockey lifestyle.
"This was the first year that she went with and lived with me in Wilkes-Barre and this has been a crazy summer, but it's all worked out well and she's very supportive of my hockey career," he said. "It's really nice just knowing that she gets the hockey world and how the game works and what it means to be trying to make it.
"That's all you can ask for. She's very supportive of my hockey career."
Prow received his college degree in finance before beginning his pro career. This summer, he is living in Maplewood, Minn., and working out at the Velocity Training Center in Edina, Minn., in preparation for next season.Mick Hatten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @MickHatten on Twitter, Instagram.