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NOTEBOOK: Connolly Returns to Practice; Special Teams Work

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

9/30/19 Practice

9/30/19 Practice

Interviews with Head Coach Joel Quenneville, forwards Brett Connolly and Dryden Hunt and defenseman Josh Brown

  • 02:00 •

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - When there's no wood within an arm's length, Joel Quenneville typically gives his noggin a few superstitious taps whenever the topic of health comes up.

But with forward Brett Connolly returning to practice on Monday morning at the Panthers IceDen, it appears the Florida Panthers will head into the regular season at full strength.

"He did well," Quenneville said of Connolly's return to the ice. "He tried it out before guys got on the ice, and he felt good. It looks like he's going to be more than ready for opening night."

Like most teams, the Panthers endured a handful of bumps and bruises during their eight-game preseason, but Connolly was the only player whose status for the team's Oct. 3 season opener in Tampa Bay was ever potentially in doubt. In Thursday's matchup against the Lightning, the 27-year-old left the game in the third period after being on the receiving end of a clipping penalty.

"I was fortunate to get away from that one. It could have been a lot worse," Connolly said. "I was happy with the way the day went. It felt pretty good. I'll just take it day by day, keep going and get ready for Thursday… I felt good enough today. I see myself on Thursday probably playing."

A Stanley Cup champion with Washington in 2018, Connolly joined Florida on a four-year deal this summer after setting career-highs in goals (22) and points (46) in 2018-19 with the Capitals.

Connolly spent today's practice working on a line with Vincent Trocheck and Mike Hoffman.

"A lot of good things in the preseason," said Connolly, who tallied two goals and one assist in four exhibition games. "The guys are just ready to get going and get that first game underway. It's a Tampa team that we've played a lot lately. They're going to be ready as well."

SPECIAL TEAMS WORK

As training camp nears its end, the Panthers are starting to focus more on special teams.

In today's practice, the team spent a lot of time working on both the power play and penalty kill, with Quenneville saying players will likely have a "comparable day" during tomorrow's session.

Given that the Panthers finished last season with the second-ranked power play in the league at 28.2 percent, Quenneville isn't fiddling too much with either units at the moment. Highlighted by Mike Hoffman's 17 power-play goals and Keith Yandle's franchise-record 39 power-play points, the team had four different players post at least 30 points on the man advantage in 2018-19.

"I know last year it was a real staple of the team with the success that it had," Quenneville said of Florida's power play. "The personnel, we haven't made many adjustments as far as that goes. [The power play] was great with the different looks that they had. They had a lot of different play selections and different opportunities, be it on the rush or in the zone."

Looking out on the ice today, the first unit appeared to be compromised of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov, Hoffman and Yandle. The second unit, meanwhile, featured Vincent Trocheck, Frank Vatrano, Henrik Borgstrom, Aaron Ekblad and Connolly.

"Whether it's either unit, I feel like there's some really good opportunities going forward to build off that and getting it ready to go because of its importance in a game," Quenneville said. "We haven't done 5-on-3 or 4-on-3 much. We'll take a look at that as well."

TOUGH DECISIONS

With the season opener on the horizon, the Panthers trimmed their training camp roster down to 22 when Anthony Greco, Owen Tippett, Dominic Toninato and Riley Stillman were loaned to the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, on Sunday afternoon.

Quenneville complimented the play of all four players throughout camp.

"We tell the guys that the American League is a heck of a league," Quenneville said. "Be respectful of it and play your game. Keep it simple, but don't try to do anything that's outside your realm of expectations… It's nice having some tough decisions when it's time for a recall."

HUNT, BROWN STICKING AROUND

Speaking of players that paid their dues in the AHL, both Dryden Hunt and Josh Brown appear to be on track to make the first opening night roster of their NHL careers following strong camps.

When talking about both players, Quenneville touted their energy and physicality.

"I thought Huntsy had an excellent start to camp," Quenneville said. "I thought he brought some energy, some physicality, directness and quickness. I think he adds that element to our team where the line he's on can bring us some personality, some energy and predictability.

"With Brownie, I think he gives us some physicality, some size. I thought he had a real simple effectiveness back there where he can kill plays and join the rush. When he does that, it adds that element of 'Let's kill plays. Let's play defensive first and then support offensively.'" 

Hunt has already had a few stints with the Panthers since signing with the club as an undrafted free agent in 2016. In 2018-19, the 23-year-old forward set career highs in goals (3), assists (7), hits (65) and blocks (9) while averaging 11:04 of ice time over a career-best 31 games played.

"I think first impressions are huge," said Hunt, who also boasts 179 games of AHL experience. "Obviously with Q [Quenneville] coming in, he's a pretty intimidating guy. I tried to come in and make the most out of that first impression. I think I did that at the start. It's tough to be consistent in this league. That's what I'm going to try and do, just bring it every day."

Brown, meanwhile, has traversed a bit of a longer road.

A sixth-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, the 25-year-old defenseman made his long-awaited NHL debut last season. Playing in 37 straight games following his call-up in January, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder had two points, four fights and carved out a role for himself on the penalty kill.

"I just knew I was going to do what I do in the summer and just work as hard as possible," said Brown, who dropped the gloves once in the preseason. "Coming into camp, I knew that I offered maybe something a little different than the other guys did. As long as I played my game, I knew I'd be in the conversation."

Brown has spent most of camp paired with Yandle on the blue line.

"It's been a lot of fun," Brown said of the pairing. "Any time you get chance to play with a guy like Keith Yandle, making all those plays, it's been a lot of fun. He's kind of getting me to get more up ice, trying to play a little more offensively with him, too. That's been a little bit of a learning curve so far, but it's been fun playing with him."

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