CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – When the Florida Panthers assembled at the Ice Den in Coral Springs for Phase 3 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan last week, the group was noticeably bigger.
Due to the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 stoppage, and subsequent re-start with the planned 24-team playoff, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to allow teams an expanded roster for the postseason.
Normally permitted no more than 23 active players, clubs are allowed to carry up to 30 skaters and as many goalies as they like.
The loosening of the roster belt allowed Florida to expose a select group of the team's top prospects to some of the best NHL action they could possibly be a part of. Nothing compares to playoff hockey.
As a result, in addition to the return of several previously injured players, Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville now has the franchise's best and brightest young hopefuls to test during practice and sprinkle in and out of the lineup as he sees fit.
At least for the time being, however, it seems the most game action they'll see is during the team's intrasquad scrimmages.
Based on the construction of the forward lines and defensive pairings through the first week of training camp, all signs point to Quenneville at least starting the Qualifying Round series against the New York Islanders with the same players that he relied on throughout the season.
Does that mean the likes of Owen Tippett, Chase Priskie, Eetu Luostarinen, and Brady Keeper, who will remain with the Panthers when they travel to Toronto, won't get a chance to contribute?
"I think we're trying to let these guys know how we want to play and how we can play. You never know how things are going to play out," Quenneville said following Tuesday's practice at the Panthers Ice Den.
Discussing the group of new additions, Quenneville made sure to point out that since every player on the roster is eligible to join the lineup, they all need to be ready to jump in at any time, and take responsibility of knowing what will be expected of them "in all situations, in all zones, with and without the puck."
BACK FOR ANOTHER GO
Keeper and Tippett are enjoying their second visit to Coral Springs this season, each taking part in last September's preseason camp.
For Keeper, the experience of his first professional training camp was memorable, but not for the right reasons.
"I came in this year and right off the hop, I dug myself into a hole," Keeper said Tuesday. "I was overweight when I came into camp."
The former University of Maine standout quickly learned that things were not going to come as easily at this level, and that being a professional hockey player was a year-round job.
As the season progressed, Keeper explained that his goal was basically to "learn how to be a pro."
When hockey was all but shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he continued to work at the habits he developed during his year of education.
When the NHL announced its Return to Play Plan and the opportunity arrived for Keeper to join the Panthers' extended roster, this time, he was ready to meet the challenge head-on.
"Obviously, I didn't want to make the same mistake," he said. "I took it as one last chance not to mess up again. I came in right at the end of the year, stayed in shape, I was eating right, just doing the little things."
Soaking up as much knowledge and experience as possible was a sentiment that several of the AHL regulars shared.
Tippett, coming off a breakout season for the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds, is considered a big part of the future of the franchise.
Despite having his season limited to just 46 games due to injury, Tippett excelled on Springfield's top line for much of the year, finishing with a team-leading 40 points (19-21-40), eighth most among all AHL rookies.
Now that he's back with the Panthers, Tippett wants to absorb as much information as possible. He knows that whatever happens in Toronto, there's a bigger picture to keep in mind.
"Anytime you get a chance like this, it's a great opportunity to just take it all in and learn from it," Tippett said. "Coming off what I thought was a good year for myself and the team in Springfield, you come up here and take the opportunity to be a sponge again."
It also helps that while practicing with the Panthers, Tippett and the others are going up against bigger, better, faster players than what they faced in the AHL.
There is no place to hide when you're battling against some of the best the NHL has to offer in front of one of the greatest coaches of all time, who just happens to control a big part of your future.
"It gives you a chance to see where you're at," Tippet said of going up against the NHL guys. "Anytime you get a chance to skate with the big boys and be a part of the big group, you feel more a part of it."
CATCHING Q’S EYE
When speaking about the summer additions, Quenneville has brought up Luostarinen's play in a positive way at seemingly every turn.
The lanky forward has been impressing the coaching staff with his work ethic and abilities both with and without the puck. He also appears to be grasping Quenneville's style of play at an accelerated rate.
"It's been a lot of fun," Luostarinen said. "Obviously, I'm the new guy here. Everyone has been really nice. It's helpful to get to know the guys and the staff. It's been great."
Playing in his first season in North America after spending the past three years with KalPa in the Finnish Elite League (Liiga), the 21-year-old is focused on picking up as much as he can from his new coach.
"Of course it's a big deal," Luostarinen said of playing for Quenneville. "What I've seen of him as a coach, I really like him. He's really loose, but strict also. He gives good advice.
"I'm just trying to train a lot. I'm trying to work hard every day and do my best, and let's see what happens."
Added Quenneville: "Sometimes an opportunity comes up due to an injury or on a performance basis, but when you do come up, there are no guarantees that anything is given to you. You have to take advantage of it."
PRISKIE LEAVES PRACTICE
The fourth member of that group, Pembroke Pines native Chase Priskie, may be battling an injury.
Priskie left Tuesday's practice early and his status for Wednesday is up in the air.
"We'll see how he presents tomorrow," Quenneville said Tuesday.
Priskie and Luostarinen came to the Panthers at the NHL Trade Deadline, along with Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark, in the deal that sent Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes.
TV SCHEDULE FOR QUALLIES
On Tuesday the NHL announced the national television schedule for all twelve exhibition matchups and the beginning of the 24-team postseason.
Games will be spread across NBC, NBCSN, USA and the NHL Network.
Exhibition games will be played from July 28-30 while the Qualifying Round begins on Aug. 1.
For its portion of the exhibition schedule, Florida faces Tampa Bay on July 29 at noon. The game will be broadcast nationally on NHL Network.
NBCSN will air Games 1-3 of the Panthers' Qualifying Round series against the Islanders nationally.
All Panthers games will also air locally on Fox Sports Florida, at least through the opening round.
CAMP’S FINAL DAYS
The Panthers will be back on the ice Wednesday for an 11 a.m. practice. Quenneville said there is a chance the team takes Thursday off, but nothing had been set in stone.
11 a.m. practices are also tentatively scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, before the team travels up to Toronto.
Quenneville said earlier this week that the team plans to make the trip across the border sometime Sunday. If they’re also practicing that day, a flight wouldn’t be likely until mid-to-late afternoon at the earliest.