SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are going to look a little different when the 2020-21 season begins.
First year General Manager Bill Zito has hit the ground running, making a flurry of moves during his first few months on the job and adding what he hopes is exactly what the team was lacking a season ago.
In his acquisitions and signings, Zito put a clear emphasis on tough, responsible, two-way play.
He added several defensively dependable, gritty 20-somethings while eliminating a handful of players who were much better at scoring goals than preventing them.
Now, the time has come for Zito to see the fruits of his labor as players will report for training camp on Sunday at the BB&T Center.
“I’m pretty excited,” Zito said enthusiastically. “The reason we all work in this sport is to be around the hockey part of it. I feel a little bit like a kid in a candy store.”
One thing that often coincides with a bunch of new faces in a locker room is competition for roster placement and ice time.
Speaking to the media on Saturday, Zito said he and the Panthers coaching staff have had only “moderate” discussions on potential lines and pairings, mainly because Florida’s roster has so many interchangeable players.
Particularly with the forwards, it’s really going to come down to how guys look during camp, and how much of that play carries over once the season begins.
“Because of the flexibility of so many of those forwards, you can mix and match and cut and paste so many of the different ones, that really kind of has to flush out,” Zito said. “With the shortened camp, the coaches are going to have obviously less time to experiment.”
One thing that’s certain is Florida’s refurbished roster has created a few job opportunities, and it’s not just the newbies that will be fighting for their place.
The Panthers prospect pool is full of hungry young players that could run with the right opportunity, and if there was ever a season for these kids to get a longer look and, perhaps, a sooner opportunity to make it to the show, it’s this one.
When players hit the ice on Monday for the first official practice of training camp, there are more than a few skilled youngsters that will be fighting to snag a roster spot with a strong showing.
For all the faults that Panthers fans will hold over former GM Dale Tallon’s head, he left the team with a plethora of high-end talent in the amateur and sub-NHL pro ranks.
This list will cover most of those players, but some, like Spencer Knight and Logan Hutsko (2019 and 2018 Tallon picks, respectively) and Ty Smilanic (a 2020 Zito pick) are not eligible as they’re still playing in college and have yet to sign their ELCs with Florida.
Hutsko is enjoying his senior season with Boston College, so his time is coming.
Knight, meanwhile, is having a stellar start to his sophomore year, also with BC, and he’ll likely jump right into a starting or time-share role in the AHL whenever he decides to transition out of the NCAA.
Smilanic has gotten his freshman season at Quinnipiac off to an exciting start, with six goals and eight points in his first nine games at QU.
Now shifting our focus back to some of the prospects attending Panthers camp, I’m going to split them up into a few different groups that take into account the unorthodox nature of the 2020-21 season.
Players in the Roster Expectations group are guys who are the most likely to be on the Panthers roster at some point this season, if not the whole way.
The Wouldn’t Surprise Me group is aptly named, as its players that are right on the cusp and could jump into an NHL job at any time. And if they do, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Guys in the Call-up Potential category are some combination of young and unproven, though still with high ceilings that could get them moving up the roster ranks sooner rather than later.
Everybody got it? Good!
Off we go…
Owen Tippett – The tenth overall pick in 2017 did everything he was asked last season in AHL Springfield, earning top line and power play minutes while finishing the COVID-shortened season leading the Thunderbirds in scoring. It will be a big disappointment, and kind of shocking to be honest, if Tippett is not on the Panthers roster straight out of training camp. The more pressing question would be where in the forward ranks Head Coach Joel Quenneville slots him first.
Grigori Denisenko – Though highly touted in most hockey circles with expectations of a strong start to his NHL career, the 20-year-old has still yet to play any professional North American hockey. It might make sense to give him a premier role in the American League this season and attempt to build his confidence while he adjusts to the smaller rinks and NA style of hockey, but if he looks as good during training camp as he’s looked during Florida’s informal workouts (sources say he’s standing out for all the right reasons), Denisenko might be destined for a starring role in Sunrise sooner rather than later.
Riley Stillman – For a 22-year-old, Stillman has gained a lot of experience and has shown he can hang in the NHL. He played 34 games last season and another three in the playoff bubble, so he has a good idea of the kind of top-tier players he’ll be up against in the National Hockey League. Stillman may have had a leg up on guys like Chase Priskie and Brady Keeper last summer but expect more of an open competition for that seventh defenseman spot during training camp.
Wouldn’t Surprise Me
Brady Keeper – As mentioned above, Florida’s top seven defensemen were pretty set last season, with Riley Stillman acting as the last man up, but things are a bit more open this year. Also remember that Keeper played well enough in front of Coach Q during his bubble time with the team that he was called into action for Game 2 against the Islanders.
Chase Priskie – Priskie is right there with Keeper in terms of development but showed to be a bit more rough around the edges at first. The Pembroke Pines native could take a big step forward this season, whether it’s with Charlotte or on the taxi squad, and find himself on the short list of NHL call-ups.
Samuel Montembeault –Monty will enter training camp as the third goalie in line, behind Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger, following a very up-and-down 2019-20 season. Management is still high on Montembeault and is hoping to see him develop more consistent habits, but that could be tough without playing regularly in games, which won’t happen on the taxi squad.
Eetu Loustarinen – After coming to the Panthers from Carolina in the Vincent Trocheck trade, Loustarinen opened some eyes during the bubble training camp and postseason in Toronto. He’s a roster longshot that could steal a spot with a strong camp, and it helps that he’s already caught the eye of Coach Q once this year.
Max Gildon – Three successful seasons at the University of New Hampshire and now Gildon is ready to take his game to the next level. He’s got plenty of offensive skill and has seen his defensive game round out nicely, but as Brady Keeper can attest, moving from college to the pros is not an easy transition. If Gildon can hit the ground running, he could mold himself into call-up material at some point this season.
Aleksi Heponiemi – A tough first season in the AHL may have affected Heponiemi’s confidence, something he hopefully regained while on loan with MODO Hockey in Sweden’s second-tier league Hockey Allsvenskan (basically the Swedish equivalent of the AHL). He played well with MODO, logging 14 points (6-8-14) in 16 games. Hepo was scoring machine during his time in the Western Hockey League (204 points in 129 games) and had a very solid year with Liiga’s Karpat in 2018-19 (46 points in 50 games), so we’ll see if the undersized forward can get back to that kind of production this season with Charlotte.
Serron Noel – I’ve been anxious to see how the massive power forward looks when jumping from the OHL to the pros. At 6-foot-5 and 196 pounds, Noel has been a point per game player over the past three years with Oshawa and Kitchener, but he’s not going to have the same kind of size advantage when he starts battling against grown men in the AHL.
John Ludvig – Drafted as a defensive-defenseman in 2019, Ludvig’s offensive game exploded last year with Portland of the Western League. He finished with 62 points in 60 games and signed his ELC with Florida a week after the season ended. During his three years in the WHL, Ludvig finished with a combined on-ice rating of plus-95. He’s definitely one to watch this season, wherever he ends up.
Note on Henrik Borgstrom and Aleksi Saarela:
Both players would have been featured in this story if they were attending training camp. Zito confirmed Borgstrom and Saarela would be staying in Liiga for, at least, the immediate future. Both are expected to finish the season with their respective teams, Borgstrom with HIFK and Saarela with Lukko.
Zito left it open-ended as to if/when either player could join the Panthers during the NHL season, as Florida still owns the rights to both players after submitting RFA qualifying offers to each of them back in October.
The Liiga regular season ends in mid-April, but HIFK and Lukko are likely playoff teams. That means theoretically, the soonest either player could come to Florida, assuming they don’t leave early, would be around the beginning of May.
The Panthers last regular season game is on May 8 against Tampa Bay.