SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers hit the ice for an early afternoon practice at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday, fresh off their 4-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets the night before.
Florida has been experiencing some extreme ebbs and flows in recent weeks as the team has had to navigate the looming effects of a tough extended road trip, dealing with multiple players out of the lineup due to both injuries and illness.
Top line winger Carter Verhaeghe, who leads the team in goals, was held out of the Columbus game due to a non-COVID illness, a designation that several players have been tagged with in recent weeks.
Panthers Head Coach Paul Maurice said after Wednesday’s practice that Verhaeghe was feeling better and could be back in the lineup for Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh.
The same can be said about goaltender Spencer Knight. He has missed four straight games after falling ill, but he’s expected to be back on Thursday, though whether it’s in a starting role or as a backup is yet to be seen.
Sergei Bobrovsky is, after all, coming off his best start of the season, so it would make sense to give him another game while easing Knight back into the fold of everyday hockey.
“We’re really hoping, fingers crossed, that we’re turning the corner from this kinda flu illness we’ve been battling,” Maurice said.
Captain Sasha Barkov has now played four games since missing two weeks with a non-COVID illness that was reported to be pneumonia, and he’s starting to resemble his usual, formidable self.
It’s understandable that it would take a little time to get back to 100 percent after a bout with any illness, let alone one that infects the lungs and generally keeps people extremely weak and off their feet for days on end.
After registering just an assist through his first three games back, Barkov shook the rust off Tuesday and picked up a goal and an assist during the shutout win over the Blue Jackets.
Shifting from illness to injury, forward Colin White played just two shifts on Tuesday before leaving the game with an upper-body injury, and he is now listed as day-to-day. He fell awkwardly after taking a hit from Andrew Peeke while trying to control the puck at the Columbus blue line and did not return after that.
Chris Tierney left Tuesday’s game early in the second period with an upper-body injury and did not return. Terieny is currently in the concussion protocol so there is no timetable when he could be back on the ice.
Center Anton Lundell, who has not played since suffering an upper-body injury two weeks ago in Vancouver, was also under the weather with a non-COVID illness that he has since recovered from.
The injury, however, is still not healed and he’s likely at least a week away from returning to the ice, if not longer.
On a positive note, defenseman Radko Gudas and forward Patric Hornqvist were on the ice at the start of Tuesday’s practice and appeared to be full participants.
Both were injured during Florida’s 5-1 win at Seattle on Dec. 3 and placed in the concussion protocol. Hornqvist was quickly put on LTIR while Gudas, despite not seeing the ice, remained on the active roster until Tuesday, when he was retroactively placed on IR.
Gudas is eligible to return as soon as he’s cleared and ready, but Hornqvist can’t play a game until at least Dec. 29 against Montreal due to him having to miss a minimum of ten games and 24 days.
Of course, Hornqvist coming off LTIR means his $5.3 million cap hit returns to Florida’s bottom line, which will cause Panthers General Manager Bill Zito to do some maneuvering with the roster. Before Hornqvist went on LTIR, Florida was only able to keep 20 players on the active roster due to being so close to the cap ceiling.
The past few weeks, Zito has used the cap relief from Hornqvist being on LTIR to field a full 23-man roster, something the Panthers have absolutely needed due to all the aforementioned injuries and illnesses.
So when Hornqvist comes back, Florida’s players better be healthy and healed because that cap crunch the Panthers have been constrained by all season is coming back full force.
Speaking of the cap, something that now must be considered as officially on the horizon is the imminent return of speedster Anthony Duclair.
The 27-year-old is coming off his best season in the NHL, racking up 31 goals and 58 points for the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers.
Head Coach Paul Maurice said Duclair, who has been ramping up his rehab since having Achilles surgery last summer, was on the ice for the first time on Tuesday.
It was a positive step in the right direction for The Duke, something that has been a trend throughout his recovery process.
“We’re talking about weeks, we’re no longer talking about months,” Maurice said.
Duclair has been boot-free since early September and has slowly but surely been ramping up his rehab work.
Now that he’s back on the ice, Florida’s training staff can zero in on the specific things Duclair needs to do in order to, they hope, pick up where he left off last year.
“There really isn’t much coming back early on this one. He’s got to get trained again and then he’s going to have to get back into hockey shape,” Maurice said.
Should Duclair continue to progress without any setbacks, the expectation is that he will intensify his on-ice training in the next two weeks.
Of course, all that talk about the cap crunch coming with Hornqvist’s return will become just as prevalent when Duclair and his $3 million cap hit are ready to come back.
We’re still several weeks away from getting face-to-face with those conversations, and as is always the case, a lot can happen between now and then.
For now, the team is healing off the ice.
The hope is that they can start healing on the ice, and in the standings, because heading into the Holiday Break sitting outside of a playoff spot isn’t what anyone was expecting following the success of last season.
They still have a couple weeks to remedy that, though.