SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers will open its 2020-21 season training camp on Sunday, and the team could be without two of its top young prospects.
Unsigned Restricted Free Agents Henrik Borgstrom and Aleksi Saarela have both been playing in Liiga, Finland’s top hockey league, this season.
At first, the idea seemed to be that the two snipers would be able to stay sharp and build some confidence in Liiga until the NHL season was ready to go.
Now there are questions as to whether either player will be coming to South Florida any time soon.
We’ll start with Saarela, who came to the Panthers last year in an early-season trade with Chicago for defenseman Ian McCoshen.
Armed with an elite shot and high-end playmaking ability, Saarela gradually began to gain the attention of Florida’s decision makers as the season went on, eventually earning a spot on the roster and joining the team in the Toronto playoff bubble.
Considering his youth and ability to hang with NHL-level talent, some viewed the former third-round pick as a possible middle-six candidate for Florida.
His play this year in Liiga did little to deter from that way of thinking.
Skating with Lukko, Saarela has been one of the team’s most productive players as they continue battling for the league’s top spot in the standings.
Through 19 games Saarela has accumulated an impressive 12 goals and 18 points, but the 23-year-old ran into a roadblock earlier this week.
Following a leaguewide stoppage due to a COVID-19 spike in Finland at the beginning of December, Lukko played on Monday for the first time in nearly four weeks. The team lost 4-0 to Jukurit, and it also lost Saarela to an undisclosed injury.
Saarela was then held out of Wednesday’s win over HPK due to the injury, according to Lukko.
What does this mean?
Well, reading between the lines, if Saarela played in Finland on Monday and was expected to play Wednesday, that would have made it impossible for him to fly to South Florida, quarantine for a week and be ready for Panthers training camp on Sunday.
Will Saarela be joining the Panthers any time soon? That’s a question for General Manager Bill Zito, who is expected to address the media in the coming days prior to the start of camp.
Another question for Zito will be whether there is a plan for Henrik Borgstrom to join the team at some point this season.
There have been whispers that the 2016 first-round pick would be staying with HIFK for its entire season, and as NHL camp has drawn closer, those whispers have only gotten louder.
That could be, at least in part, due to rumors that circulated earlier this year that Borgstrom has not been pleased with his role in the Panthers organization to this point.
He left the University of Denver in 2018 following two extremely successful seasons (45 goals and 95 points in 77 games) and joined the Panthers with much fanfare and high expectations.
In the two seasons since, between 58 games in the NHL and 73 in the AHL, Borgstrom saw mostly middle-six minutes and little time on special teams.
That’s why it wasn’t much of a shock when he signed for the season with HIFK in October, as the deal reportedly came with an NHL-out clause that would allow him to return to the Panthers if and when he wanted.
Borgstrom has played in six games with HIFK after starting the season late due to injury, racking up a goal and two assists so far.
The team last played on Dec. 18 against SaiPa and its next game isn’t scheduled until Jan. 8, but there has been no indication from HIFK or the Panthers that he will be making a move from one club to the other.
Back in October the Panthers did submit qualifying offers to Borgstrom and Saarela, so the team would seemingly prefer to have them back in South Florida.
At the end of the day, the contract rights of both players belong to the Panthers, but we’ll have to wait and see where each ends up as these unconventional hockey seasons amidst a global pandemic continue playing themselves out.
The Panthers season officially begins on Jan. 14 when they host the Dallas Stars at the BB&T Center.