SUNRISE, Fla. -- Hours before facing his former team for the 11th time, New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer said there was something familiar about the new-look Florida Panthers.
DeBoer wasn't referring to his three seasons as Panthers coach, but rather about the Panthers team his Devils faced in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"You just look at their lineup, they're much deeper," said DeBoer, who is beginning his fourth season with New Jersey. "It reminds me of three years ago when we played them in the playoffs. They went out in the summer and they spent some money and they added NHL depth across the board. Their young guys are starting to come into their own. I'm familiar with their young guys. It takes a while, but I think they've got a nice blend of veterans and young talent."
DeBoer, who was fired by the Panthers after the 2010-11 season, has a 6-3-1 regular season record against Florida as coach of the Devils. He also saw his team win that 2012 playoff series in seven games, with Adam Henrique scoring the series-winning goal in double overtime in Game 7.
As in the summer of 2011, the Panthers were very active on the first day of free agency in 2014. They signed six veterans July 1 and five of them -- newly appointed captain Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton and Derek Mackenzie -- were in the lineup Thursday when they opened with a 3-2 overtime loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At the other end of the spectrum, the game Thursday marked the NHL regular-season debut of defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Ekblad played 19:05 against Tampa Bay and had his first NHL point when he assisted on Jonathan Huberdeau's third-period goal.
"He played well," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "He got lots of shots on the net, he moved the puck on the power play. We thought he was excellent."
Ekblad's parents were in the stands for the game Thursday and they also will be at BB&T Center on Saturday night for the first home game of Ekblad's career.
"Yeah, obviously that's a moment to remember," Ekblad said. "But I think every game this season is going to be a moment to remember. We have a good team here. We can do a lot of damage in this League. Pretty excited."
Another player who made his NHL debut Thursday was Devils defenseman Damon Severson. The 2012 second-round pick didn't get a point in the Devils' 6-4 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers, but was plus-2 and got 18:39 of ice time.
DeBoer used the word "fantastic" to describe Severson's performance against the Flyers.
While Ekblad played last season in the Ontario Hockey League and Severson was in the Western Hockey League, the two did spend time together at Canada's World Junior Championship camp.
"Obviously he's a good player," Severson said of Ekblad. "First overall draft pick, you know you're doing something right. He's coming off his first game; I'm coming off my first game. He's obviously a little bit younger than I am, but we're all still trying to stay on NHL rosters and keep our jobs for as long as possible. He's a smart guy, he's a good hockey player. I just hope we both have long careers."
Here's the Devils' projected lineup:
Mike Cammalleri - Travis Zajac - Jaromir Jagr
Martin Havlat - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus
Ryane Clowe - Adam Henrique - Michael Ryder
Tuomo Ruutu - Stephen Gionta - Jordin Tootoo
Bryce Salvador - Marek Zidlicky
Andy Greene - Damon Severson
Eric Gelinas - Jon Merrill
Scratched: Damien Brunner, Jacob Josefson, Adam Larsson