*Update (4:39pm) - Every one of the players cleared physicals Saturday morning. The only two players that will not be with the team Sunday for practice will be Radek Dvorak (family issues) and tryout Martin Skoula (visa).*
The Panthers officially opened training camp Saturday morning with a little bigger, faster team, the kind of depth never seen before in franchise history, and the potential to be a factor come playoff time.
After weeks of informal practices at incredible ICE in Coral Springs, players went through physicals Saturday morning at BankAtlantic Center before boarding a charter flight for Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, where they will practice before hitting the road for a string of preseason games culminating with their only preseason appearance at BankAtlantic Center back home Sept. 23 against the Stars.
According to coach Peter DeBoer, the Panthers head to camp with plenty of competition for jobs on a team that has undergone changes over the offseason.
“Looking just on paper, without having gone through camp, we wanted to get bigger, we wanted to get faster,” DeBoer said. “I think we’ve done a little bit of that through some subtraction and some addition. We wanted to address the center position, it was a glaring hole, and we went out and signed (Steve) Reinprecht. The loss of (defenseman Jay Bouwmeester) has yet to be determined, but we’re hoping the guys we’ve signed, the mobility we’ve added on the blue line, will replace some of the minutes and some of the things he did back there.”
The Panthers, who once appeared to be thin on the blue line, will head to camp with a solid starting four in Bryan Allen, Keith Ballard, Bryan McCabe and Jordan Leopold. Add into the mix Ville Koistinen, training camp invitees Martin Skoula and Christian Backman, and rookies Dmitry Kulikov
, Keaton Ellerby
and Jason Garrison
, and the Panthers will have plenty of competition.
“From a coaching perspective, the more competition we have the better,” DeBoer said. “That’s a situation you want to get into. If we were going into training camp and we didn’t have any competition, I’d be worried. But we do. We have a group of young guys pushing for positions on defense and up front. And they’re going to push our veteran guys, not only for positions on the team but for ice time once we get started.”
Along with having three rookies pushing for playing time on the blue line, the Panthers have several rookies trying to make their mark on offense, including center Shawn Matthias
, who dropped 30 pounds and is leaner and faster, and Michal Repik
, the leading goal scorer at the Panthers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester last season.
There are also several AHL and NHL veterans who will be pushing for jobs. Center Jeff Taffe was nearly a point-a-game player last year in the Penguins AHL affiliate while defenseman Clay Wilson was considered one of the league’s top offensive defensemen.
According to DeBoer, jobs are open to anyone who will work hard.
“We talked about this as a group with (the) rookies,” said DeBoer, who watched over last week’s four-day rookie camp. “The job availability coming out of camp right now is for workers, guys that are going to do the little things well and contribute. Having said that we said the same thing to Michael Frolik last year and, by January, he was on our second line.
“I think you set the expectations, come in and contribute, and get the coaches confidence. But by no means am I preparing to pigeon hole anybody into a first, second line or top four defensive (position) because you hope there’s another Michael Frolik in the group.”
One area the Panthers are deep at is in goal, where Tomas Vokoun returns with Scott Clemmensen
, who won 25 games last season in New Jersey when Martin Brodeur was injured. The Panthers are also high on Alexander Salak, who will start the season in Rochester. That’s three strong goalies without even including one of the game’s top prospects in Jacob Markstrom
, who was selected with the 31st pick in the 2008 Entry Draft.
DeBoer said like last season, he’ll use both his goalies.
“I see us having two guys who are capable of starting and winning games, and we’ll rely on them,” he said.
Vokoun, who ranked second in the NHL last year in save percentage (.926) and won at least 25 games for the sixth consecutive season, has impressed DeBoer during the off season.
“He looks great…he looks leaner,” he said. When asked about Vokoun working weeks earlier this off season to prepare for the upcoming season to prevent a poor start, DeBoer said; “I like the fact he took the initiative to do something about the fact he’s had poor starts and we’ve had poor starts as a team over the last three, four years. That’s the type of initiative you like to see from your veteran players and leaders.”
Hopefully, it will all come together Sunday in Nova Scotia when the Panthers officially hit the ice for the first time come 2009-10.