Panthers RFAs Henrik Borgstrom, Samuel Montembeault and Aleksi Saarela remain unsigned as new season approaches

Henrik Borgstrom of the Florida Panthers tries to avoid the stick of Frans Nielsen of the Detroit Red Wings during the first period at Little Caesars Arena on December 22, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.
Henrik Borgstrom of the Florida Panthers tries to avoid the stick of Frans Nielsen of the Detroit Red Wings during the first period at Little Caesars Arena on December 22, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – A starting date for the upcoming National Hockey League season is still up in the air.

Normally we would be rounding the quarter pole of the schedule around this time, but in 2020 and during the coronavirus pandemic, no hockey is being played during the month of November.

The League continues to maintain it is targeting Jan. 1 as a date to begin the 2020-21 season, though the closer we get to New Year’s Day, the less likely it remains an Opening Day option.

Something else that remains up in the air is the contract status of a few Florida Panthers restricted free agents.

Back in early October, the Panthers extended qualifying offers to a handful of RFAs, including Henrik Borgstrom, MacKenzie Weegar, Samuel Montembeault and Aleksi Saarela.

Weegar quickly filed for arbitration but he and the team never made it to the hearing, instead coming to an agreement on a three-year deal worth $9.5 million.

The other three players, however, remain unsigned.

Saarela and Montembeault shared time between the Panthers and their American Hockey League affiliate last season, the Springfield Thunderbirds, while Borgstrom was sent down early in the year and never recalled.

Montembeault began the season as Florida’s backup goalie, playing behind unquestioned starter Sergei Bobrovsky, but struggles during games and inconsistent practices led to his demotion to Springfield.

The 24-year-old former third-round pick still has a high ceiling and was assumedly going to have at least a time-share of the crease this season in AHL Charlotte, where Florida’s new AHL affiliate calls home. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that Monty could have played lights-out during training camp and earned himself another crack at the NHL.

Saarela was acquired by Florida early last season and impressed enough to earn a pair of call-ups and a spot on the Panthers’ postseason bubble roster.

It’s no secret that his X-factor is the absolute cannon of a shot he can unleash, but his two-way game needed some work. He knows that as well as anyone and has worked hard to improve play in all three zones, with his bubble roster spot appearing to act as a sign that he was moving in the right direction in the eyes of Florida head coach Joel Quenneville.

Currently playing for Lukko in Liiga (otherwise known as the Finnish Elite League), Saarela has 13 points (9-4-13) in 13 games, including a goal and two assists on Friday night.

Borgstrom is a former first round pick that not long ago was considered one of the top forward prospects in hockey.

He was taken 23rd overall in the 2016 NHL Draft and following two stellar years at the University of Denver, it didn’t seem like a matter of if, but when Borgstrom would get his shot in the NHL.

He ended up playing 50 games with the Panthers in 2018-19, logging a respectable 8 goals and 18 points, but last season he was sent back to the AHL after just four games in Florida and remained there for the entirely of the pandemic-shortened 19-20 season.

Skating mostly on the third line and not seeing many shifts on special teams, rumors began to swirl suggesting the 23-year-old was not happy.

He was left off the Panthers bubble roster due to an ankle injury, and in early October signed with Liiga’s HIFK squad, though his first game in Finland didn’t come until late-November due to lingering issues with his ankle.

Friday he played in his third game with HIFK and logged a pair of assists, his first points of the season.

Florida still holds the rights to all three players. Will any or all of them sign on the dotted line ahead of the new season?

Time will tell.

More than a dozen players have already arrived in South Florida and either have begun skating at the Panthers Ice Den or plan to start working out in the coming days, once their mandatory quarantine time is over.

With training camp expected to begin sometime in early-to-mid December, that number should be growing.

We’ll just have to wait and see if either or all of Borgstrom, Saarela and Montembeault are part of that group when camp opens.

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