"I played my first pro game ever against Barky," Saarela recalled. "I've always looked up to him."
Likewise, Saarela's performance also left quite the impression on the Florida Panthers captain.
"I've known him since juniors," Barkov said when asked about Saarela in December. "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 good hockey player."
On Friday, Saarela and Barkov's connection came full circle when the two were deployed on a line together during training camp at the Panthers IceDen. Joined by Evgenii Dadonov, the trio looked sharp during the session, with Barkov setting up Saarela for a handful of fantastic looks.
"It's kind of a dream come true to play with him on the same line," Saarela said afterwards.
Acquired in a trade with Chicago on Oct. 22, Saarela went on to register four points (two goals, two assists) during a nine-game showing with Florida this season, including recording a pair of primary assists during the club's final game before the pause, a 2-1 win in St. Louis on March 9.
"I was just trying to do my best every shift," Saarela said of the win over the Blues.
When he's at his best, it's evident that Saarela has a lot of tools you look for in an NHL regular. And although his promotion to Barkov's wing during today's practice appears to be temporary, head coach Joel Quenneville has clearly liked what he's seen from the 23-year-old this season.
"We had him around a couple times during the year," Quenneville said. "In games, he does a lot of interesting things. I think he's still got some things to learn in the game as well, but it's unique with him around the puck area what he can do.
"He's competitive in a lot of ways as well. As we look back on our team, we have some depth now, some decision making to do as we go forward. He does push us to make some tough decisions a long the way."
Watching Saarela during camp, the first thing you'll notice is that his shot absolutely explodes off his stick. By his estimate, it's a skill that he's been working on since he was five years old, modeling his powerful technique after his father, Pasi, who played almost 20 seasons in Liiga.
Prior to joining the Panthers, Saarela scored 55 goals from 2017-19 in the AHL.
"It's kind of natural for me," said Saarela, who also tallied 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 43 AHL games this year. "My dad had a big shot back in the days when he played pro in Finland. I've always wanted to have a harder shot than him. I'm not there yet, but I'm kind of close."
Heading into the postseason, Saarela's strong camp has moved up near the top of the list of players that the Panthers will likely turn to if they need some offensive reinforcements during their best-of-five series against the New York Islanders, which will begin on Aug. 1 in Toronto. And, despite being a rookie, he does benefit from already have a bit of playoff experience.
In 2019, Saarela, who has already worn a few different jerseys since being selected by the New York Rangers in the third round of the draft in 2015, made both his NHL and playoff debut when he played in one game for the Carolina Hurricanes during the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"It was just one game," Saarela said. "I always try to think about it as just one hockey game, trying not to take on any extra pressure in the playoffs. Obviously they're bigger games, you know that. It's just trying to play simple and trying to focus on hockey."
DRIEDGER STAYING READY
Chris Driedger doesn't know when or if his number will be called in the postseason.
Either way, the 26-year-old goaltender is going to make sure he's ready at all times.
"At any point when you're a goalie, you have to be ready to go, whether you're starting or not," Driedger said. "I'm just approaching it as I've kind of approached the whole season here. I've practiced the same way whether I've been starting or backing up."
After beginning the season in the AHL, Driedger burst onto the scene when he became the first goaltender in Panthers history to post a shutout in their first-career NHL start after stopping all 27 shots he faced during a 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators at BB&T Center on Nov. 30.
From there, Driedger, who was originally selected by the Ottawa Senators in the third round of the 2012 draft, went on to accumulate a respectable 5-2-0 record with a .932 save percentage before being knocked out of the lineup for almost a two-month span due to a lower-body injury.
"It was good," said Driedger, who spent six seasons bouncing around the AHL and ECHL before getting a chance to shine with the Panthers. "I came in and was given some opportunity. It was great for me to get my feet wet in the league a little bit and get some confidence."
Filling in for injured started Sergei Bobrovsky upon returning from an injury of his own, Driedger went 2-0-1 with a .955 save percentage over his final three starts before the pause, including stopping 26 shots in a 2-1 win at St. Louis in the club's final regular-season game on March 9.
Heading into the break on a high note, Driedger said he spent much of his quarantine doing his best to stay focused and keep in shape while living up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he still had an apartment that he procured during his time there with Florida's former AHL affiliate.
Arriving back to South Florida shortly after the team's training facility re-opened for small-group workouts at the start of Phase 2 in June, he said that it was "pretty key" to get back on the ice as soon as possible, a decision that he believes has helped him to get off to a good start at camp.
"The three months off, for me, the first day back was a bit of a struggle, the first week back," Driedger said. "Then you kind of find your legs, find your timing again. You kind of get right back into where you left off."
With Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy and proven postseason stud, also back to full health and looking very strong in camp, Driedger knows that it's more than likely he'll be serving as the team's backup when the puck finally re-drops and the Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin next month.
But if this season has taught him anything, it's to be ready for everything.
"They just said, basically, 'Be ready to go,' which is kind of the message that they've told me all season," Driedger said when asked what he's heard from coaches. "I'm approaching it as the same as I would any other game. I'm just going to go in there, and if they need me I'll be ready."
EKBLAD REMAINS OUT
Aaron Ekblad was absent once again this afternoon.
The Panthers star defenseman has now missed each of the last two practices, with Quenneville noting that although he's "unfit to play," he has "been around a bit" at the facility while sidelined.
Reiterating that there's no cause for concern, Quenneville added that Ekblad isn't at risk of missing any "real games" when the Panthers begin their quest for the Stanley Cup on Aug. 1.
"He'll be ready to go," Quenneville said.
The first-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Ekblad is arguably in the midst of the best season of his budding career. In 67 games during the regular season, he 24-year-old relished his role as the team's No. 1 defender, reaching new career-bests in both points (41) and assists (36).
Playing in all situations, he also led the team in average ice time per game (22:59).
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