SUNRISE, Fla. – November has been a pretty good month for Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.
The 26-year-old is back home in Ottawa, preparing to begin his fifth season with the Panthers after signing a new three-year contract worth $9.75 million last week.
He’s also sporting a stylish, mini-horseshoe mustache, which he pointed out was an accomplishment that, much like signing a multi-million-dollar NHL contract, seemed like something that was always just out of reach.
“I never thought I’d see the day that I could grow a beard, but here I am,” Weegar said Monday, flashing a grin through his thickening Movember whiskers.
It was no secret that Weegar wanted to remain with the Panthers, the team that selected him in the seventh round of the 2013 NHL Draft.
He’s made a home for himself in South Florida after working his way up the franchise ranks, now securely fastened on the Panthers' top defensive pairing alongside Aaron Ekblad.
Heading into the offseason as a restricted free agent, the odds were in Weegar’s favor for his return to the Cats roster, but a new general manager and subsequent trade rumors had the rearguard a little on edge.
“It was definitely different,” Weegar said off the offseason. “You can look at it two ways, thinking maybe (new Panthers General Manager) Bill (Zito) doesn’t want me around anymore and he’s focusing on other things, and I was taking it as a positive that now my name is out there and other teams want me, which was pretty cool.”
In terms of Zito’s opinion, he had said nothing but good things about Weegar and the way he played since being hired by the Panthers in early September.
Zito spoke with Local 10 last week and said that his hope was to sign Weegar to a term deal ahead of an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for the weekend.
Two days after that conversation, Zito put his money where his mouth is, and Weegar’s deal was done.
“Ultimately for me, I just wanted to stay in Florida for as many years as I possibly could, and that’s always been where my head is at,” said Weegar, who was coming off back-to-back one-year contracts. “I couldn’t be happier that I’ve got three years left in Florida.”
With the business side of things finally squared away, Weegar can now shift his focus back to playing the game he loves.
He’s spent the offseason in his native Ontario, training regularly and skating with a group that includes fellow NHLers Erik Karlsson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Codi Ceci and others.
Weegar said plan is to head down to South Florida sometime around the end of November, travel plans that he’s discussed synchronizing with teammates Brett Connolly and Frank Vatrano. At the moment, there are around a dozen Panthers players in the greater Broward County area, a number that will only keep growing as the unknown 2020-21 season start date grows closer.
“I know (Aaron Ekblad) is down there and he’s saying (Panthers strength and conditioning coach Mike Donoghue) is back there working with those guys,” Weegar said. “If it gets pretty cold here, I think I might find my way down to South Florida a lot sooner than I had planned.”
Whenever Weegar and the rest of his teammates do arrive for training camp, which is tentatively expected to begin sometime next month, they’ll be meeting several newly signed and acquired players.
After the Panthers hired Zito in September, he quickly got to work re-shaping Florida’s roster, adding several skaters known for their grit and tenacity on the ice.
It’s an area where Florida has fell flat in recent years, something that was acknowledged by Weegar when discussing the upcoming season.
“I’m not saying that our teams in the past weren’t good, but I think sometimes we were missing a little bit of grittiness and a little bit of that in your face kind of style, finishing your hits and making it tougher on teams to come into our building, and I think that’s what Bill (Zito) has done,” Weegar said. “When I spoke to him, I know he’s excited about all his free agent signings and I’m happy I could be part of that. I think I blend well with what he’s trying to build, and I think it works out well that I’m back.”
Ulf Samuelsson added to Florida coaching staff
Weegar’s new contract wasn’t the only business being conducted in Sunrise last week.
The Panthers also filled a vacancy on the coaching staff, hiring former NHL defenseman Ulf Samuelsson as an assistant.
The 56-year-old native of Fagersta, Sweden is expected to take on several of the responsibilities previously held by former assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who ran the team’s defense during games.
According to a source, the plan is for Samuelsson to coach the D and run the penalty kill.
A two-time Stanley Cup Champion from his playing days with the Pittsburgh Penguins and 15-year NHL veteran with 1,080 games under his belt, Samuelsson has worked hard to continue his career as a coach after retiring as a player.
Most recently working as a scout for the NHL’s new Seattle Kraken franchise, Samuelsson has previously served as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.
He also was hired as head coach the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in 2016-17 and served as bench boss for Leksanda IF of the Swedish Elite League as well as for MODO Hockey in the country’s second-tier league.
“Ulf is a knowledgeable and experienced coach who will be a great addition to the Panthers,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “We are excited for him to join Joel’s coaching staff and look forward to his competitive mentality and the impact that he can have on our team.”
Samuelsson knows Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville quite well.
The two skated together for six years in the NHL, manning the blueline for the Hartford Whalers in the mid-to-late 80s, and Quenneville had Samuelsson on his coaching staff in Chicago for the 2017-18 season, and briefly the following year before Q and his assistants were let go.
Samuelsson joins Andrew Brunette, Derek MacKenzie and Robb Tallas as Florida’s assistant coaches.