CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - One day after the Florida Panthers' convincing 6-3 preseason victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach Joel Quenneville put the team through a spirited, fast-paced practice at the Ice Den in Coral Springs.
As Florida's roster has been whittled down over the past week, the team has begun to find its footing.
Consecutive wins by a combined score of 12-3 have helped mask the stench of an 0-3-1 start to the preseason, but this is a team that knows better than most how costly it can be to stumble out of the gate.
A big reason for the turnaround has been an improvement in defensive play.
Florida isn't going to have any problem scoring goals this season, just as it didn't last year.
Stopping them was the issue, but it's one that was addressed immediately after the season ended with the firing of head coach Bob Bougher and hiring of Quenneville.
Known for his defensive systems, Quenneville has pressed his players on playing well in their own end throughout training camp.
Now he's starting to see results and can appreciate that the improvements have come against some top-notch competition.
"It's certainly a good measuring stick against (Tampa)," Quenneville said. "Knowing the skill they have, the speed, the talent, you get challenged each and every shift. What we want to learn is how we want to play in our own end and be efficient in that area. Offensively, there's some freedom that we're going to have that plays into the skill we have, but let's make sure that we're stingy first."
Getting better against top-notch competition is something that the players can appreciate, as well.
"They're always one of the best teams in the league, if not the best sometimes, so to be able to match up against them and play against some of the best players in the world, that's where you really get tested and find out what you're made of," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said. "Having those tests early on, even in preseason, just gets you that much more prepared going into the year."
The Panthers have high hopes that Matheson will become a cornerstone player for the franchise, and Quenneville may be just the person to get him to that level.
Entering his fourth full year in the league, the former standout at Boston College has had his ups and downs and is coming off a tough season that many thought would be his breakout campaign.
Hitting the reset button is a luxury that comes with the offseason, and it's one made easier by Florida having a new coaching staff.
Matheson has been able to show up with a clean slate and focus on learning the new systems, letting his natural ability take over.
"The more games we play, we're getting more and more comfortable with the systems that we're trying to implement," Matheson said. "It's a pretty big adjustment, especially in the D-zone, of how we want to play. The more situations you play, the more comfortable you feel with it."
Since the start of training camp, there has been a noticeable difference in Matheson's game.
Decision-making, especially in the defensive zone, has been quicker. It's been a problem area for him in the past, as thinking too much causes hesitation.
That hasn't been the case during much of camp so far, though.
If the past few weeks are any indication, Matheson may be turning a corner in that department.
"It's not like you can just go into an offseason and flip a switch and fix all your issues," Matheson said. "I think it's still a work in progress, but it's definitely something I've been focusing on. Day by day, through the summer, it was always something I was focusing on and still am now, and hopefully that progresses into getting better and better as the season goes on."
Over the past week or so, Matheson has been getting shifts alongside fellow prized young defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
It's not a pairing that was expected heading into the preseason. Ekblad spent the majority of the last two seasons playing with Keith Yandle, while Matheson was mostly paired up with Mark Pysyk during that time.
Regardless, notice must be taken if Quenneville likes the Matheson-Ekblad combination enough to keep rolling it out, which he's expected to do again Thursday night when the Panthers host Tampa Bay at the BB&T Center.
Quenneville went so far Wednesday to suggest he may open the regular season with the two paired up.
"I think (Matheson) and (Ekblad) have had two really solid games in a row," Quenneville said. "I think (Matheson) has been solid. He does a lot of good things on both sides of the puck, and as a pair, they both have those same type of attributes. I think they can play big minutes, as well, so we'll probably be looking at that to be something we want to start (the season) with."
Matheson's influence on the team may be expanding off the ice, as well. He's in the mix of Florida players who have been named alternate captain during the preseason.
Whatever role Quenneville has in mind for Matheson, the 25-year-old seems ready to play the part.
"The more I play, the more comfortable I feel," Matheson said. "The more situations I see, I can learn more about what the system wants out of us."
Missing from Wednesday's practice were Anthony Greco, Ian McCoshen, Chris Driedger and Troy Brouwer.
Greco, McCoshen and Driedger were placed on waivers by Florida.
They are expected to report to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield once the 24-hour claim period ends.
Brouwer was released from his professional tryout and became an unrestricted free agent.
The 34-year-old had 21 points in 75 games for Florida last season, but with so many young players ready to step into full-time NHL roles, there just isn't room for the veteran anymore.
"(Brouwer's) situation, too many young kids and a lot of guys in the same spot that he was fighting for," Quenneville said. "Sometimes there's a business to that, too, as well. We're in a pretty tight spot there."
Quenneville is alluding to Florida's lack of room under the salary cap. Currently, the Panthers have an estimated $781,000 in cap space, per Cap Friendly.
Last season, Brouwer made $850,000 and would likely earn a similar contract this year.
Florida's roster now stands at 25 players.
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