SUNRISE, Fla. – Panthers Head Coach Joel Quennville had a big smile on his face first thing Sunday morning.
He sat at a podium and addressed the media, not unusual for the opening day of training camp, except that this Q&A session was done in an empty room on a Zoom call.
What once seemed foreign and strange is now the norm as the world continues to navigate the fight against COVID-19.
Safety is paramount, which is why for the first time since moving to Broward County training camp is being held at the Panthers home arena, the BB&T Center, and not the team’s practice facility in Coral Springs.
Despite the change in venue, enhanced health measures and uncertainty of a new season amid a global pandemic, Quenneville couldn’t help but smile.
Can you blame him?
For the first time in months, Coach Q was back at the rink with his players.
Quenneville and the Cats will take the ice together on Monday morning for the first time since the team was bounced from the Toronto playoff bubble by the New York Islanders back in August.
It will be far from the same squad though, with several new faces added to the bunch by first year General Manager Bill Zito.
Between trades and signings, Zito brought in eight new players on NHL contracts: Patric Hornqvist, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas, Alex Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Ryan Lomberg, Vinnie Hinostroza and Anthony Duclair.
Throw those guys into a mix with high-end prospects Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko up front, then add in the multiple promising young defensemen vying for a roster spot on the back end and it’s easy to see that Q and his staff will have a lot of options and combinations to toy around with during the abbreviated camp.
“I’ve got a number of guys here I’m curious to see how they fit in,” Quenneville said Sunday. “I think the first few days were going to let everybody get a chance to compete against one another and about four or five days into it we’ll probably get down to the group.”
Currently, Q said the team is looking at carrying a 22-man roster and then “maybe seven guys on the taxi squad.” Considering the maximum for the taxi squad is six players, it would appear that Quenneville is thinking about carrying the full monty.
Florida can carry up to 23 players on the active roster.
LET’S GO CAMPING
The Panthers will be split into two groups at the start of camp: Team Blue and Team Red.
Florida’s training camp roster has 39 players on it (21 forwards, 13 defenseman and 5 goalies) so it’s not that difficult to split the squad into two relatively equal teams.
Each group will skate separately on Monday and Tuesday for about an hour before coming together for an intrasquad scrimmage on Wednesday.
“Right off the bat, we’ve got a lot of young guys that you want to see how they fit in,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got two balanced groups for the first couple of days. The third day we might have a special teams scrimmage.”
Thursday the Panthers will play ‘under the lights’ and hold an evening scrimmage at 7 p.m. With this year’s camp happening at the BB&T Center, Q and his staff will take advantage and walk the team through a simulated gameday situation.
Friday will be an off day for the players.
According to Quenneville, it’s after the second scrimmage that we can expect the coaching staff to begin trimming the roster down toward what it will be for Opening Night.
TOP LINE AND PP1
For the most part, the Panthers roster will be fluid and interchangeable as players compete for jobs across the board.
The departures of Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman have left not-so-gaping holes on the top line and first power play unit, and Q and his staff have no shortage of options to plug in.
At least at first, Quenneville will place speedy sniper Anthony Duclair on the right wing with Barkov and Huberdeau on Florida’s number one forward line. The 25-year-old Duclair is coming off a big year in Ottawa, registering a career-high 23 goals in the 66-game pandemic shortened season.
It’s absolutely possible that Duclair takes the job and runs with it, but Q said Sunday that he wants to try at least a few guys out in that spot before making a final decision.
“I think everybody over the course of time is probably going to get [a look in] that nice spot,” Quenneville said. “I’m looking forward to seeing whether it’s Denisenko, Tippett, Connolly, Hinostroza, I can go up and down the lineup, everybody could get a chance there. Frankie [Vatrano] did a good job a couple years ago and in that role as well.”
As for the first power play unit, Q said he’s going to try Duclair and Alex Wennberg in the spots previously occupied by Hoffman and Dadonov.
That would mean Duclair would theoretically take the right wing, where Hoffman rifled home countless one-timers, and Wennberg takes Dadonov’s ‘bumper’ spot in the middle of the ice.
Again, these are just the first guys that will get a look on PP1, and it sounds like there could be power play roles up for grabs on both the first and second unit.
“We’ve got Deisenko and Tippett who are power play guys that could move up the ladder as quickly as they tell us they’re ready to go,” Quenneville said. “Ekblad can handle more workload on the back end on a power play. Keeper and Priskie I think are power play guys. Are they ready for the jump or that challenge? I think they’re both looking good.
“There’s a number of options as far as goal scoring department. Denisenko can score, Duclair can score, Connolly, we got Frankie (Vatrano), Verhaeghe has got some hidden skill, Hinostroza can score goals. We’ve got a number of guys that can score goals in our lineup.”
For all the combinations and concoctions that Quenneville can cook up, he’s not going to have much time to let his concepts bake in the oven.
A condensed camp isn’t the ideal time for a head coach to evaluate a new-look team, but while it’s a tough situation for Q, he said it’s just fine for his squad.
Opening Night against the defending Western Conference Champion Dallas Stars may only be 11 days away, but the majority of Florida’s players have been training for months in anticipation of the new season, and they’re chomping at the bit to get things started.
“They’re ready to go,” Quenneville said of his players. “It’s a short training camp, there’s no exhibition games, so they want to get down to business right away and they want to play for keeps.”