CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers kicked off their 2019 Training Camp on Friday at the Ice Den in Coral Springs.
September usually brings some of the happiest times of the year for Florida Panthers fans.
The gross stench of the previous season and (more than likely) missing the playoffs is well in the past, and now there are shiny, new free agents that will obviously mesh perfectly with the returning lineup and take the Panthers, finally, to the Promised Land.
Yes, it's a familiar trend this time of year.
And recent history dictates, with recent being the last couple decades, those feelings of hope and optimism are washed away by Thanksgiving.
Now as you can probably guess, there are plenty of reasons why this year will be different.
There always are.
But things really should be different this year.
Adding a Hall of Fame-caliber coach and a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender to a high-scoring team that has one of the best young cores in the league seems like a winning combination.
Truly, there hasn't been a September since the days of Pavel Bure that had fans in South Florida this excited for hockey season.
With anticipation for the upcoming campaign reaching its peak, fans were finally given a release in the form of a three day hockey weekend.
The Panthers kicked off training camp with three days full of practices and scrimmages and now they hit the road for a week of five preseason games in six days.
The roster should begin to take shape during that time, but before that happens, here are 10 observations from the first few days of training camp.
1- Huberdeau-Barkov-Dadonov line is good to go
It didn't take three days' worth of scrimmages to see that Florida's No. 1 line is already in top form.
Heading into their third season playing together, it appears that the evolving games of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have meshed quite perfectly with slightly more seasoned Evgenii Dadnonv.
Seemingly from the opening shift of the first scrimmage Friday, the Panthers top forward line was making ridiculous plays look easy.
These guys are ready, and they're poised for a big year.
2- Vincent Trocheck looks comfortable again
Remember when Vinny Trocheck was first coming up with Florida? This quick little kid wearing a number in the 60's was standing out every time he touched the ice.
That became the norm and it wasn't long before Trocheck, with more minutes and responsibility, blossomed into a dynamic scoring center that was suddenly a recognizable name around the league.
Trocheck will be the first to tell you that he didn't feel like his usual self after returning from a broken right ankle last season, an injury that limited him to just 55 games.
He expected to jump back into the lineup and pick up where he left off, but that just wasn't the case.
"It weighed on me mentally and I didn't have the confidence I normally have," he said following the opening of training camp.
It showed, as Trocheck looked like a shell of himself during the final months of last season. Now it appears as though he's cracked that shell.
Preseason games will be the ultimate test, but he was back to standing out during the training camp scrimmages over the weekend.
When Trocheck is going well, his ability to go from a strong backcheck to quickly transition through the neutral zone is pretty impressive.
There was a lot of good skating without the puck over the weekend.
3- Tippet of the iceberg?
Florida's top pick in the 2017 NHL Draft is on the roster bubble.
It's clear that Owen Tippett bulked up over the summer, now looking like one of the bigger guys on the ice despite being a 6-foot-1 20-year-old.
But if he wants to avoid a trip to Springfield, he'll have to stand out for more than just his size.
Tippett has been an amazing goal scorer throughout his young career and he'll need to start showing that at the NHL level if he wants to stick around.
4- Take a step forward, Mike
Defenseman Mike Matheson put in a lot of work this summer, and so far during training camp, it shows.
There was a new explosiveness to his skating that had him making plays on the puck much quicker.
Overall his decision making was noticeably better, which could be the best improvement he could've made.
Work in front of the net could still use some work though, and that's the kind of thing head coach Joel Quenneville and assistant coach Mike Kitchen should help Matheson with as the season progresses.
It was a small sample size, but there was enough there to think that this could be a big year for the 25-year-old.
5- Hoffman showing some jump
Florida's sniping forward that couldn't stop scoring on the power play last season was very active during the Coral Springs scrimmage-fest.
Hoffman didn't stop moving his feet any time he was on the ice, and he looked a bit quicker as a result.
There was also a tenacity in the defensive zone that makes you wonder if the Quenneville-influence is turning this scoring specialist into an all-around star.
Hoffman, coming off the best scoring season of his NHL career, is in a contract year and turns 30 in November.
Players in similar situations generally get one more long-term deal before father time begins catching up.
Another big year by Hoffman will go a long way towards securing a lucrative new contract, whether its from Florida or somewhere else.
6- Where's Hepo?
Aleksi Heponiemi has a reputation for being a playmaking specialist with great hands.
He displayed flashes of those skills over the weekend, but nothing that would place him in one of Florida's coveted final roster spots.
Heponiemi had a very successful season in the Finnish Elite League last year, which is one of the top three or four hockey leagues in the world.
It's quite a different thing to do well in Liiga than it is in the NHL, though.
7- Borgstrom breakout may be premature
Let's make one thing clear: Henrik Borgstrom should spend this entire season in the NHL with the Panthers.
His time playing for the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds needs to be over.
Since last season, Borgstrom has added some size and appears more comfortable, but perhaps most importantly he looks like he belongs out there.
Borgstrom doesn't look like a rookie trying to cut it with the big boys anymore, but he still has some growing to do before he'll be a difference maker.
By the time spring arrives, Borgstrom could be playing some big minutes for Florida, but a full breakout season is probably a year away.
8- Malgin playing with sense of urgency
Denis Malgin, 22, is preparing to enter his fourth NHL season.
He's played 47, 51, and 50 games, respectively, in each of his first three years with Florida but has never taken ownership of a roster spot.
Malgin is a middle-six guy that, when playing at his best, is a responsible two-way player with sneaky offensive skill.
A new coaching staff, and a clean slate, is perhaps the best thing Malgin could have asked for.
He's playing like someone looking to be noticed, consistently getting pucks on net while playing an active game from the wing.
He also took three penalty shots during the scrimmages, but only scored on one. Penalty shots were awarded in lieu of power plays for minor penalties.
9- Big, young and skilled
A couple big bodies that stood out during the first few days of training camp are ones that will need to be watched all season, regardless of where they end up playing.
Rodrigo Abols and Serron Noel are not expected to play in the NHL this season.
For Abols, that forecast could change at any time over the next week or two depending how well he may or may not look as the preseason games go by.
Noel is still a teenager and will likely spend one more year playing in the OHL, though a late season appearance in Springfield is certainly a possibility.
Both were noticeable and not just because they're so big (Noel is 6-foot-5 and Abols is 6-foot-4).
Noel is quick with the puck and smart without it, while Abols is responsible in all three zones and has great ice vision, but could use some work in the speed department.
It's likely going to take the Latvian a little time to adjust to the smaller ice surfaces and faster pace of North American hockey, but you can see why Florida was keen to sign him earlier this year.
10- Stillman on the fast track
Defenseman Riley Stillman is one of a handful of guys that are likely competing for a single spot on Florida's back line.
Stillman had a solid year for Springfield in the AHL last season, his first as a pro, and made his NHL debut with Florida in February.
As the three days of camp progressed, Stillman began to receive more and more shifts alongside Aaron Ekblad.
Now that can mean several things, including trying to get Ekblad minutes with someone other than Keith Yandle.
Regardless, it's definitely worth noting, and that's why you're reading it here.
To go from the OHL to the AHL to the NHL in consecutive years would be quite impressive.
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