CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers are entering the home stretch of the preseason this week, with three games standing between the team and the highly anticipated 2019-20 campaign.
The Panthers won't have to leave Florida for a couple weeks, as the next five games (three preseason, two regular season) come against cross-state rival Tampa Bay.
It wasn't long after Saturday night's 6-0 win over the Dallas Stars in Tulsa, Oklahoma that Florida made its latest roster moves, trimming the training camp roster down to 29 players.
That means there are still six or seven cuts remaining, depending how many players General Manager Dale Tallon keeps on the opening night roster.
Tallon said at the beginning of training camp that he may only keep 22 players to begin the season, which likely would mean 13 forwards, seven defensemen and a pair of goalies.
Generally teams will keep the maximum amount of players allowed, which is 23.
Could that have been something Tallon said simply to create a little more competition for the guys on the bubble? Of course.
As it stands, there are nine defensemen currently on the roster.
Six of them are virtual locks to make the team. Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Mike Matheson, Anton Stralman, Mark Pysyk and MacKenzie Weegar are all on one-way deals and well-secured on the roster.
That leaves Josh Brown, Ian McCoshen and Riley Stillman fighting for one spot.
While Brown and McCoshen have had brief stints with Florida, Stillman has found himself on the fast track since turning pro.
The 2016 fourth round pick played his first professional season with the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds last year.
He also got a taste of potential things to come, receiving his first NHL call-up in February and making his Panthers debut against the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 26.
"The last year has been big for me," Stillman said. "I invested a lot of time in the gym and on the ice and this summer was a big summer for me. Playing in the American league last year helped grow my game as a player and find out who exactly my identity is as a player and a person. The development over the last year for me has been huge."
It's a trend that has continued so far this season.
Stillman has played big minutes for Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville during training camp and in Florida's preseason games, including some time paired with Ekblad.
It's an opportunity that Stillman, 21, knows he needs to get the most out of.
"He's an unbelievable player, he's a premiere player in this league so it's nice to be able to learn from him on a daily basis," Stillman said of Ekblad. "Obviously, playing with him through the whole camp and then (Pysyk) in the preseason games, it's nice to be able to learn from those guys and take what they have to say and implement it into my game."
It's amazing to think that it was just last May when Stillman was finishing his final season in the Ontario Hockey League, helping the Hamilton Bulldogs win the OHL title and appear in the 2018 Memorial Cup.
Now, only 16 months later, Stillman is on the brink of becoming a full-time NHL player.
"We'll see," he said when asked if he's done enough during camp to make the team. "I try not to focus so much on that. Obviously, I'm trying to play the best that I can every day and at the end of the day, it's up to the coaching staff and management, but I'm just trying to put my best foot forward every day."
One thing that is working to Stillman's advantage is that he shoots left handed. Of those six aforementioned defensemen that will start the season in Sunrise, only two (Yandle and Matheson) shoot lefty.
"Stiller is a guy we're looking at," Quenneville said. "We've got a lot of right (defensemen) and his being on the left side helps him get a little of an extended stay. He's coming off a real strong game."
It's no secret that Florida has been on the lookout for a left-shooting defenseman and Tallon may have targeted one as the season progressed, but finding one in-house would certainly be a treat.
Quenneville is going to give Stillman plenty of ice time this week, making these last preseason games some of the biggest of his life.
"Practice is practice but games, you get a better indication of hockey sense and feel and how they're going to be able to play against certain people," Quenneville said. "(You see) if they can handle the strength, the speed, the decision making in (a short amount) of time."
Shifting focus to the forwards, 17 remain on the roster, which means there are still a few cuts coming.
Only a handful of forwards can be considered on the bubble: Jayce Hawrylyk, Dominic Toninato, Troy Brouwer, Denis Malgin, Dryden Hunt, Owen Tippett and Anthony Greco.
Malgin has the luxury of being on a one-way deal after signing his restricted free agent tender late last month, so it's unlikely that Florida would risk losing him on the waiver wire.
That would leave six players vying for two or three spots, which sounds like a nasty game of musical chairs.
Coming off a two-goal effort against Dallas, Greco did more than raise a few eyebrows and may have bought himself some additional, extremely valuable ice time heading into the final games of preseason.
"I think his last game was one of those where, okay we'll keep an eye on him and give him a better opportunity going into tomorrow (against Tampa)," Quenneville said of Greco. "(He) earned it."
Greco is entering his fourth year with the franchise, racking up 75 goals and 138 points in 224 games for Florida's AHL affiliate in Springfield over the past three seasons.
He signed with Springfield after going undrafted following his collegiate career at Ohio State, and he recognizes that he's been fighting an uphill battle ever since.
"I'm used to it now at this point, trying to come in and prove myself, and I have no problem with it," Greco said. "It's something I've grown to be comfortable with."
There is still a lot of hockey to be played before final decisions are made.
Rosters don't have to be finalized until the conclusion of the preseason.
That gives Quenneville and his staff a few more days to evaluate the team. It also gives those bubble guys one last chance to make an impression on the NHL coaching staff.
Whoever is left out of the final roster squeeze will likely be among the first summoned back to Florida when those inevitable hockey season injures begin to pop up.
"You had some guys you were looking at, that you're going to assess what's going to happen with them and all of a sudden they come up with big games and they make it harder and tougher (on the coaching staff)," Quenneville said. "That's a positive thing organizationally, that (those players) look like they can help us. That's going to be important as you go along."
Florida hosts the Lightning at the BB&T Center on Tuesday and Thursday night before wrapping up the preseason schedule Saturday night in Tampa.
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