SUNRISE, Fla. - Even if he had his mask on, nothing would've hidden his beaming smile.
Just a few days removed from closing out his sophomore season at Boston College, goaltender Spencer Knight kickstarted his career in professional hockey and also fulfilled a lifelong dream when he agreed to terms on a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on Wednesday.
"It doesn't seem to be real, to be honest with you," Knight said during a Zoom teleconference shortly after inking his new deal. "I still think it's a far-off fantasy land, some unreachable goal."
While he's not quite living in a fantasy land, Knight did put up fantasy numbers his past season.
Taken by the Panthers with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, the 19-year-old opened up his 2020-21 campaign with an 11-game personal unbeaten streak. From there, he went on to finish with a 16-4-1 record, 2.18 goals-against average and a career-best .932 save percentage. Facing the third-most shots in the NCAA, he made at least 30 saves in 10 games.
With numbers like that, the end-of-season accolades have been raining down on Knight. In addition to being named a finalist for the Mike Richter Award, which is handed out annually to the top netminder in the nation, he's also a Top-10 finalist for the coveted Hobey Baker Award.
Already picking up some hardware earlier in the season, the Darien, Connecticut native backstopped Team USA to a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. Honored as USA's top player during the gold-medal game, he stopped all 34 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over Canada.
Overall, Knight matched a tournament record with three shutouts at the World Juniors.
"We are thrilled to have agreed to terms on a contract with Spencer," Panthers general manager Bill Zito said in the team's official release. "He is an immensely talented and dynamic young goaltender who has been an elite player at every level that he has played.
"From the collegiate ranks to international tournaments, Spencer has consistently elevated his game, a testament to his work ethic, compete and character. We are excited for him to take the next step in his career with the Panthers and look forward to his future with our club."
As for his immediate future, Knight said that he will soon be traveling to South Florida. Although he's not quite sure exactly what the plan is once he lands in Sunrise, the 6-foot-3, 192-pound goaltender is eager to get to work. In fact, one of the driving forces behind his decision to sign now rather than in the offseason was the chance to get head start on learning all the ropes.
"I want to get into the system and continue on for, I think, however much longer is in the season," said Knight, who had two years of eligibility left with the Eagles. "There's a lot of time [left]. That was a benefit of signing this year, too. I'm looking forward to having a good string of months or weeks, whatever it is, to get used to life in the pros."
Of course, getting a chance to watch Sergei Bobrovsky up close is also a nice bonus.
"It's going to be really cool," Knight said of getting the opportunity to work with the two-time Vezina Trophy winner. "I really admire his game and the way he plays. I think he's technically one of the best goalies in the league. To be so young and have a mentor like that in the game, I'm looking forward to it and will hopefully learn a lot."
Even before he signed, however, the Panthers had built a strong connection with Knight.
With the establishment of the organization's innovative "Goaltending Excellence Department" in December, Knight said that he's been in regular contact with Panthers legend and future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo, who oversees the department and also serves as special advisor to Zito.
In addition to Luongo, the newfound department also features goaltending consultant Francois Allaire, who has 30-plus years of experience working with NHL netminders such as Patrick Roy and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and current goaltending coaches Robb Tallas and Leo Luongo.
"It's honestly great to have that many goalie resources," Knight said. "I think it will help. I think a lot of teams will start doing that. I talked to Roberto. He sends me texts all the time and he calls me every few weeks just to check in. It's nice to know that they're there for you as a person and it's not just hockey. Having that kind of support system, not just on the ice but also off the ice, is really important."
Known for his composure between the pipes, Knight can make even the most difficult save look routine through his exceptional positioning. He tracks pucks with a laser-like focus and uses his large frame to look around or fight through any traffic that tries to build up in front of his crease.
In the months leading up to the Panthers drafting him, TSN's Bob McKenzie said Knight "blew the combine away" and noted that he possesses "unbelievable athleticism and an unbelievable mind for the game." With praise as profuse as that, clearly his future in South Florida is bright.
Just like he does in games, however, Knight is keeping a cool head. Despite making the plunge into the professional ranks, he's not looking any deeper into the future than tomorrow. He began the day as an Eagle, but now he's a Panther. For the moment, that's really all that's on his mind.
Even though bigger milestones await, he's going to let the elation from today soak in for a bit.
"It's obviously right in front of me, but I'm going to try and take it in day by day and not really try and look at what's next," Knight said. "I think it's very important to stay in the present and realize these are moments people look back on and cherish for the rest of their lives. I'm trying to enjoy every single minute of it."
*Photo courtesy of Boston College Athletics