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Challenges shaping youthful core in Springfield

Panthers AHL affiliate undergoing on-the-fly makeover

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

The American Hockey League tested Florida Panthers prospects early.

A 2-11-1-0 start for Springfield included six consecutive losses to start the season. That kind of early-season turbulence would test any team at any level, especially a young group of prospects trying to find their way in the AHL.

"At the start of the year, we were working hard, but we weren't always working smart," forward Curtis Valk said. "Being a young team, it's tough league, and you've got to be ready to go every night, and I think we got deflated when we got scored on early in the season."

A roster shakeup and a productive November have allowed Springfield to salvage its season, but peaks and valleys have defined the opening two months. After the rough start, Springfield won seven of nine games. Four losses in its past five games could threaten that progress.

"It's a resilient group learning how to win," coach Geordie Kinnear said.

Springfield (10-17-1, last place in the Atlantic Division) faces a defining stretch as it plays five of its next six games at home. Here is a look at four areas that will determine how successful the stretch becomes:


Roster makeover

When it became apparent that a youthful roster would need some in-season help, Florida management went to work.

In came veteran defensemen Tim Erixon and Maxime Fortunus, who signed AHL contracts.

A calmness arrived with the veterans, said Kinnear, who was an AHL captain as a player in the New Jersey Devils organization.

Fortunus (5-11, 205), 34, is a highly respected long-time AHL captain in two NHL organizations with Texas (Dallas Stars) and Iowa (Minnesota Wild) and has played 814 AHL games.

Erixon (6-3, 200), 26, has 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in 18 games with Springfield. He started the season with Binghamton, scoring one assist in five games.

Florida also took a chance on defenseman Ludwig Bystrom (6-0, 175), who came in a trade from Dallas for defenseman Reece Scarlett on Nov. 10. Dallas selected Bystrom, 23, in the second round (No. 43) of the 2012 NHL Draft, and he has parts of seven seasons of experience in the Swedish Hockey League and the AHL.

For a bit of abrasiveness, Springfield also signed veteran forward Bobby Farnham (5-10, 187), 27, to an AHL contract.

"I lean on the leadership group and get the team to head in the right direction, and they've done a good job of that," Kinnear said.


Trickle-down effect

Goaltender Roberto Luongo, the No. 1 in Florida, is out for an extended period with a lower-body injury, necessitating the recall of veteran goaltender Harri Sateri to Florida.

That leaves Springfield without its No. 1 goaltender. Sateri (6-foot-0, 207 pounds), 27, is an established goaltender and helped ease Springfield through some of its early-season growing pains.

The trickle-down effect of opportunity in Springfield has reached 21-year-old Samuel Montembeault (6-3, 192), who is going through the up-and-down experience typical of an AHL rookie goaltender. Selected by Florida in the third round (No. 77) in the 2015 NHL Draft, he is 4-10-1 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in 15 games.

But Montembeault has shown some promise. His first pro shutout was Nov. 17 in a 4-0 win against Charlotte, the second-highest scoring team in the AHL. He had a 35-save effort in a hard-luck 2-1 loss against Rochester at home Dec. 8.


Utica connection

One of the brightest stories in recent AHL seasons has been Valk.

Undrafted out of the Western Hockey League, Valk has overcome doubts about his size (5-9, 170) to become one of the top offensive threats in the AHL. Valk worked his way out of the ECHL and had his AHL breakout last season for Utica with 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists).

Florida signed him to his first NHL contract July 1.

"Coming to Florida, that was definitely appealing," Valk said. "And the opportunity to play here, I had a talk with my agent, and I'd have a good opportunity down here, which has been true."

Valk plays a smart game and has delivered offensively with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 25 games. Along the way he also played his first NHL game, skating for Florida against Dallas on Nov. 14.

Joining Valk, 24, in Springfield was forward Alexandre Grenier, his Utica teammate, who was signed by Florida two days after Valk. While Valk brings a play-making element to Springfield, Grenier brings size (6-5, 225).

Grenier has reached 17 goals in an AHL season three times. He has continued that production and has a team-leading 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 28 games.


Youth movement

The Panthers also have some young forward talent progressing in Springfield.

Denis Malgin (5-8, 177) had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) during a 14-game stint before returning to the Panthers on Nov. 27.

Henrik Haapala (5-9, 165) is in Springfield after five seasons in Finland and has eight points (three goals, five assists) in 14 games. He played five games with the Panthers.

Florida selected Jayce Hawryluk (5-11, 185) in the second round (No. 32) of the 2014 draft; he has 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 26 games in his second pro season. Juho Lammikko, selected in the third round in the 2014 draft (No. 65), has 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 28 games.

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