In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, new Panthers forward Aleksi Saarela makes a good impression in his first practice, and Sergei Bobrovsky is eager to return to the crease.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Aleksander Barkov is a big fan of Aleksi Saarela.
Recalled from AHL Springfield prior to Friday's practice at the Panthers IceDen, the 22-year-old forward clearly left a strong impression on the Florida Panthers captain during their brief time as adversaries when they were both playing in Liiga, the top professional hockey league in Finland.
In fact, when asked about it after practice, Barkov easily recalled exactly the last time he'd faced off against his new teammate. It was late in Liiga's 2012-13 season and Saarela, then just a rookie, recorded a goal and an assist for Rauma in a 6-5 shootout loss to Barkov's team from Tampere.
"I've known him since juniors," Barkov said. "He was breaking all the records in Finnish junior leagues. I played against him a couple times. Unreal player. He has a lot of skill, good work ethic, everything you need to be a really good hockey player. I'm really happy he's here now."
When asked how he thought Saarela looked in his first practice, Barkov didn't mince words.
"He was the best player on the ice," he grinned. "He scored a couple goals. He's going to be a really good addition for our team. He can shoot the puck. You can see that he has a lot of skill."
Saarela, of course, pumped the brakes a bit on Barkov's lofty praise.
"He's lying," he said, cracking an equally coy smile.
Acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 22, Saarela hopes he's found a new home with the Panthers after bouncing around a bit to start his NHL career. Originally drafted in the third round by the New York Rangers in 2015, this is the fourth organization he's played for.
In 2018-19, Saarela broke out with the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, who acquired his rights from the Rangers in 2016 in a deal that involved Eric Staal. Lacing up his skates in 69 regular-season games, he recorded a career-high 54 points, including a team-leading 30 goals.
Notching seven goals and eight assists in the 17 playoff games to help the Charlotte Checkers claim the Calder Cup in 2019, he also competed in one playoff game with Carolina that season.
With the Panthers, Saarela expected to make his NHL regular-season debut in the near future.
"I'm really excited," he said. "I've been waiting for this for a while. I'm happy to be here."
Prior to earning his first recall to Florida, Saarela had accumulated 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 17 games with AHL Springfield. With the Thunderbirds, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound native of Helsinki, Finland said he benefited from switching from the wing back to his natural position at center. Additionally, he also made a strong effort to improve his all-around game.
"You're not going to get called up if you're not working hard," Saarela said. "Obviously I tried to do my best down there [Springfield head coach Geordie Kinnear] helped a lot with playing a 200-foot game. I feel like what I've got now is a reward."
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said Saarela will start out with the team at center, which is where he was deployed during today's practice - in between Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari.
"He's got some skill, some pace to his game," Quenneville said. "He earned the opportunity based on how well he played. I know he has some different parts of his game and some high-end skill too. It's an opportunity for us to get a chance to see him.
"I look forward to him playing in the middle… It's been a while since [the Thunderbirds] put him at center. It was a little adjustment down there, but they said he handled it very well. We'll put him in that same type of role with [Acciari] on his wing, which will help with faceoffs."
Like Barkov, Quenneville said he was impressed with how Saarela looked in his first practice.
"He's coming off a couple different teams here in a short amount of time," Quenneville said. "It's probably an adjustment. He handled himself pretty well right off the bat. He's familiar with how we have to play, which is important… I thought he did some good things in his first practice."
BOBROVSKY BACK IN NET
After backing up Chris Driedger the last two games, Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to return to the crease when the Panthers host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday at BB&T Center.
"I thought he had a great week of practicing," Quenneville said. "I think his attitude has been good. I think his focus is in the right place. It'll be a different test again for him tomorrow."
In his first season with the Panthers after joining the organization on a seven-year deal this past summer, Bobrovsky's current stat line doesn't really do justice to his overall performance, as he's posted a 9-6-4 with 3.48 goals-against average, .884 save percentage and one shutout.
Last month, the 31-year-old backstopped the team to a season-best, three-game win streak.
"He's had some real solid games, the numbers at the end of the night with two points at the back of it," Quenneville said. "The numbers don't look that good, but he's been key in big games, late in game making some big saves for us. I think that might get overlooked."
Facing more than a few familiar faces in his return, Bobrovsky will draw in against a Columbus team that he spent the previous seven seasons with before leaving to sign with the Panthers.
With the Blue Jackets, he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie in 2013 and 2017.
"It will be a weird feeling to play against guys you spent seven years with," Bobrovsky said. "It'll be interesting. I know how hard they work. It's not going to be an easy game, that's for sure."