CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - After giving mostly prospects and bubble players a chance to shine during the preseason doubleheader against Nashville on Monday, the Florida Panthers left for Montreal on Tuesday with most their big guns in tow, including goaltender Roberto Luongo.
"It was the right thing to do the last two days," coach Bob Boughner said after a quick practice at the Panthers IceDen. "We gave some guys some shots and some looks. Now we want to, like I've said the last couple days, we want to get serious and start getting our own guys out there…I know the guys are excited to get back in their routine, hop on a plane."
In addition to Luongo, who Boughner expects to play at least 40 minutes against the Canadiens on Wednesday, a slew of other starters from last season are expected to make their preseason debuts as well, including Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck, Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad.
"I'm really excited," said Ekblad, who led Florida's defensemen with a career-high 16 goals last season. "Sitting at home all this time gets pretty boring. I'm really excited to get on the road. It's different from a scrimmage and the mess-around games you play in the summer. It's a little more structured. It's not going to be easy coming in and getting back into game shape. But, again, it's just great to get out of the house and start doing something."
While there are still some kinks to be worked out, Ekblad said the comfort level at this point in the preseason compared to last year is almost night and day, as players already have a strong understanding of Boughner's system and plenty of pre-established chemistry at every position.
"Coming into the first preseason game, a lot more is figured out than last season," Ekblad said. "We made a few little tweaks and we're excited to see how it works out against whatever team [the Canadiens] put out on the ice."
When asked about the upcoming matchup in Montreal also being the first game under new captain Aleksander Barkov, who assumed the position from Derek MacKenzie on Monday, Ekblad said the team is eager to follow the team's superstar center into battle all season.
"He's an extremely good leader on the ice," Ekblad said. "He goes out and gives it everything he has. He scores big goals at big moments. You really want to follow that example. That makes him a good leader. More than happy for him. We're going to give him all the support we can."
BORGSTROM SLIDES OVER
At this point in the preseason, the Panthers already have a pretty good idea of where a lot of guys will be lining up come Opening Night in October. They have their starting goaltender, the top-six is fairly cemented, and the defense will likely take shape in the coming days. But even with that being said, there are still quite a few interesting experiments being conducted.
After lining up as Florida's top-line center in Game 2 of Monday's doubleheader, rookie Henrik Borgstrom appears to be bound for the wing in Montreal. At Tuesday's practice, the 21-year-old was on the left side of the team's third line, flanking fourth-year center Jared McCann.
"I want to see him on the wing because I haven't seen him on the wing that much," Boughner said. "I want to see where he sort of fits in and what he looks like. It's good competition, obviously. We've got to make sure we figure out the right spot for him if he's going to play with us… he's going to get a great opportunity because he's a pretty special player."
A natural center throughout his career, Borgstrom made his NHL debut with Florida at the end of last season, recording one goal in four games while primarily being used as the team's third-line center. The 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Borgstrom, who stands 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, is one of a handful of rookies fighting for a spot at this year's training camp.
"All the young guys, college or junior, they have to learn the pro game," Boughner said. "There's very, very few guys that can make that jump and be a good NHL-er at that age. It's a process. Some guys are ahead of the curve, some guys need some time. That's what we're trying to figure out right now."
NOEL HEADS HOME
The Panthers made their first batch of training camp cuts on Tuesday morning, sending 13 players back to their respective clubs, including 2018 second-round pick Serron Noel.
At 18, Noel was the youngest player at this year's camp, but he succeeded in making a good impression on Florida's coaching staff. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, the Ottawa, Ontario native has the size and tools to become a stud in the NHL, even if he's not quite ready for that yet.
In Monday's doubleheader, Noel skated 10:45 against a strong Predators lineup.
"I thought he had a great camp," Boughner said. "You can tell he got better as camp went on. I told him that this morning before we let him go. I asked him what his experience was like and he had some great answers. He learned a lot just watching and playing against guys like [Filip] Forsberg and [Ryan] Johansen the other day. It really opened his eyes what you need to get this next level."
Looking ahead, Noel will now return to Oshawa in the Ontario Hockey League. In 62 games with the Generals last season, he posted a career-best 53 points (28 goals, 25 assists). After earning an invite to the World Junior Summer Showcase earlier in the summer, he could also potentially suit up for Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Vancouver later this year.
"He got his feet wet and he played extremely well," Boughner said. "He's going to be a heck of a player. I love the way he plays. He hunts pucks. He's got that extra gear in his speed. He's big and he protects the puck down low. I think he's going to be a really good power forward for us one day."
Florida's roster now stands at 41 players.