SUNRISE, Fla. – The starting gate is being pushed off the track and the quarter pole is just coming into view.
A new NHL season is off and running.
With the Florida Panthers reaching the 10-game mark of the season Thursday night in Calgary, it seemed like a good time for a new 10 Observations.
The first few weeks of the season have certainly had their ups and downs.
Starting out with losses in two of three, including that disaster against Carolina where the Panthers fell behind 5-0, was an early wake-up call.
It was going to take an extraordinary amount of work, both on and off the ice, for this collection of talented players and coaches to earn the accolades that many had bestowed upon them before a skate ever hit the ice.
Just because all the pieces were there didn't mean they'd magically fall into place.
That's not how complicated puzzles work, and make no mistake, there are few things more complicated than finding the perfect balance of 20 players and a coaching staff that will take you to the promised land.
But when things come together, magic can happen (see: 2019 St. Louis Blues).
1- Defensive coverage is improving. If we're looking at things that appear to be coming together, it seems Florida's work-in-progress defensive system is being grasped at an increasing pace by the Panthers.
After Tuesday's win over Pittsburgh, Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville was asked whether it was the team's best defensive game of the season.
He shrugged it off, saying the previous game (a 3-2 shootout win in Nashville three days prior) was also good, before ending his thought with a vintage Quenneville not-too-high, not-too-low quote.
"I think we're trending in the right direction, as far as playing without the puck in all zones," he said.
2- Denis Malgin may be finding his footing, finally. The fourth-year pro was a healthy scratch in two of Florida's first three games, but he hasn't missed one since.
During those seven straight games in the lineup, Malgin has picked up seven points (3-4-7) while averaging 13:59 of ice time per game. All of those stats would be career highs stretched out over a full season.
To be clear, I do not expect Malgin to maintain a point-per-game pace, but considering his high mark of 0.43 points per game in 2017-18, it's not far-fetched to think he may blow that number out of the water.
Another good sign for Malgin is that his ice time, while already higher than ever, is increasing. The coaching staff is giving him more opportunities, including some special teams work in the absence of Vincent Trocheck.
The key for Malgin is remaining consistent. He's done that over the past two weeks, and the opportunities will be there as long as he keeps it up.
3- The ascension of MacKenzie Weegar continues. He's spent the majority of the season paired up with Aaron Ekblad, meaning Weegar has earned the confidence of the coaching staff to play over 20 minutes a game (which he's done in seven straight contests) and in some big situations.
Expect nothing more than to see Weegar continuing to flourish as the 25-year-old hits his stride while having his craft honed by Quenneville and his staff.
4- Is Aleksander Barkov underachieving? In a word, NO.
He looks like his usual self in every facet of the game, minus the goal scoring. Barkov is still making plays on both ends of the ice, he's still a possession monster and he's got 12 assists in 10 games following Thursday's four-helper outburst in Calgary.
He's on pace for nearly 100 points. 10 games into the season. And he still hasn't scored yet.
Barkov may be the personification of the Panthers' start to the season. It certainly has not been perfect, and there are things that can be better, but how upset can you be about two regulation losses and a seven-game point streak through 10 games?
5- Q's Herb Brooks moment. We may be 10 games into a new hockey season, but there has already been a clear turning point, and it came just days after opening night.
It started with Florida's disaster of a first period against Carolina back on Oct. 8 and came to a head the following day at practice, when Quenneville skated the team, hard. A good 30 minutes went by without any drill requiring a puck. Players were hunched over, sticks on their knees, gulping down oxygen in-between reps.
It was the kind of thing you see during sports movie, just before the team bands together as one cohesive unit and goes on a miraculous run to reach their ultimate goal.
Obviously, it's going to be a while before we know how the story of the 2019-20 Florida Panthers will end, but since those two events took place, the Cats have picked up at least a point in each game they have played in.
This is traditionally the most difficult time of the season for most teams, but that has been especially true for Florida over the past decade.
Coach Quenneville, channeling his inner-Herb Brooks, may have given the Panthers a break from that struggle by working them, hard.
6- Speaking of Quenneville, one of his better-known attributes as a head coach is that he's not afraid to shake things up, moving around forward lines and defensive pairings on a whim.
It's a skill that he has put on display during his first few weeks behind Florida's bench, fulfilling a promise made early in training camp when he said that each player would likely skate with every one of their teammates at one point or another. But during the first handful of games? To coin a commonly-used Quenneville phrase, you betcha!
And apparently, it's working.
Now all that being said, there has been one trio of players seemingly immune to Quenneville's game of mix-and-match.
Florida's line of newcomer Noel Acciari centering Dryden Hunt and Colton Sceviour has been as consistent as anyone could ask for. Expected to unite as a strong defensive front with some offensive upside, the group has been extremely reliable on both ends of the ice.
Quenneville has put his trust in the Acciari line, regularly sending it out against the opposing team's top offensive players.
Game on the line late in the third period? Need a big penalty kill? These are the forwards that Quenneville counts on during the game's most important moments. It's telling, and it explains why he's kept the unit together and will likely continue doing so.
7- The talent pool is deep as ever. One of the reasons that the lack of goal scoring from some of Florida's more relied-on players isn't hurting the team is that this could be one of the deepest rosters that the franchise has ever had.
In past years, it would be a major problem if Barkov and Trocheck, Florida's top two centers, combined for just one goal during any 10-game span, let alone the first 10 games of the season.
Not this year.
The aforementioned Malgin and Acciari have three goals apiece. Top-six wingers Brett Connolly and Evgenii Dadnonov have scored four and five goals, respectively, and Weegar is leading all Florida defensemen with three goals.
Leading the way for Florida with five goals apiece are Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman.
Team-wise, the Panthers are eighth in the league, averaging 3.4 goals per game, but that number could be misleading, as they have picked up the scoring of late, with 19 goals in Florida's last five games.
8- The Bob and Monty Show. Florida's goaltending tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Samuel Montembeault has the potential of being one of, if not the best netminding duo in team history.
We know how good Bobrovsky is, and his skills will only be amplified as the team plays better around him.
With Montembeault, however, he's reached a level of his game that seemed a bit further away while evaluating him at this time last year.
Considering how much Bobrovsky and Montembeault should benefit as the team in front of them improves, it will become increasingly more difficult for teams to score on the Panthers as the season progresses.
9- The look of Florida's defensive pipeline has changed quite a bit over the past year. Names like Alex Petrovic and Ian McCoshen, once viewed as big parts of the defensive future with the Panthers, are playing for other teams.
Taking their place are Weegar, Josh Brown and Riley Stillman, each taking massive strides forward in their respective career development.
A bit further down the pipeline, there are a few other young rearguards that could be cause for excitement in the not-too-distant future. Max Gildon (NCAA - University of New Hampshire), Vladislav Kolyachonok (OHL - Flint) and John Ludvig (WHL - Portland), to name a few.
10- All things considered, Florida starting the season 4-2-4 though its first 10 games is fine.
Take into account the last time the Panthers started a season with at least 12 points through 10 games. All they did was go on to have the most successful regular season in franchise history, winning the team's first and only Atlantic Division title.
Most of the players on this Panthers roster, the core guys who have been here a while, are used to spending the months of November, December and January trying to dig themselves out of the massive hole in the standings that generally comes from year after year of horrible starts.
This year, things are different. The team is having its struggles, but it's also finding ways to pick up points.
We'll end this 10 Observations with some knowledge from Florida Panthers playoff legend Bill Lindsay.
Easy math for Playoffs is 10 gm segments. 12 pts every 10gms is the pace you need. Gives you 96pts-80 gms. 2 extra gms to help decide your fate. But 12 every 10 will get you in. 1st 10 on pace for the Panthers. Solid start. Shootouts-O/T will balance out over the whole 82 gms.— bill lindsay (@LindsayBHockey) October 25, 2019