CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers are packing their bags.
After a long weekend of practicing and scrimmages, the Panthers are preparing to open up their eight-game preseason slate on Monday in Nashville with their annual doubleheader against the Predators. From there, they'll head up north for a back-to-back against the Montreal Canadiens.
The first game against the Canadiens will be played in a very unique location. As this year's Kraft Hockeyville winner, the small town of Renous, New Brunswick - home to approximately 700 residents -- will host the preseason matchup at the K.C. Irving Regional Centre in nearby Bathurst. The follow-up contest will take place on Thursday at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said he's particularly looking forward to the doubleheader, as it is both a new experience and will allow him to evaluateas many as 40 players within a 24-hour span.
"We've got a busy trip, a busy day tomorrow," Quenneville said after another very up-tempo and busy day of camp on Sunday at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs. "You get to see 40 guys play. It'll be a good opportunity to get a better assessment of some of the guys, get them against enemies. It's one of those games where early in the first game you're looking just to see how they compete as you go along through camp. The second game's going to be comparable."
Following the doubleheader, Quenneville said his system will start to really take shape.
"As we go along and then we go to Montreal for those two games, in Bathurst and Montreal, we'll get a little more of our group going on, a little more introduction about how we want to play, how we have to play in all areas," Quenneville said. "I'm looking forward to seeing NHL-caliber games and some guys getting exposure, particularly the one's not playing [in Nashville]."
After trimming the camp's roster down to 51 following today's practice, Quenneville said that further cuts will be made as the roster tightens up throughout the upcoming trip.
"After the four games, we'll probably have about in and around 30ish [players]," he said.
As important as the on-ice action is, the first road trip also doubles as an opportunity for players to come together. There will be dinners, hangouts and, of course, plenty of time on the plane to start building the bonds that the team hopes to carry straight into the regular season in October.
"It's always good to get on the road and get comfortable, find your seat on the plane," said new Panthers forward Brett Connolly, who joined the team on a four-year deal during free agency in July. "You get to hang around your teammates a little more and get comfortable.
"That's a huge part of what we talk about going on here this year. We obviously need to gel as a team. There's such a good group of guys in [the locker room], so it shouldn't be a problem for me and the new guys to fit in. Everybody's been very welcoming to all of the new guys."
Helping create that welcoming atmosphere will be incumbent Panthers like Frank Vatrano.
"It's always important to get to know your new teammates and guys in your system, making sure they feel welcome," said Vatrano, who's already scored three goals through the first three days of camp scrimmages. "I remember it wasn't too long ago that it was my first training camp. All the veterans at camp made sure they were welcoming to all the new guys at camp."
For rookies, these upcoming preseason games will also provide a chance to prove they belong.
"Any time you get to go on the road and build chemistry guys and play more meaning full games, it's exciting," said Panthers rookie Owen Tippett, who is entering his first pro season after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. "I think you just go out like it was any other game, just play your game and do what you can. You focus on the controllable and go from there. Obviously, you're trying to work for a spot each and every game."
Florida will play its first preseason home game on Sept. 24 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
HEPONIEMI HOPS AROUND
Like Tippett, Aleksi Heponiemi is also trying to make his mark as a rookie.
He's also moved around quite a bit through the first three days of camp scrimmages.
On Friday, the 20-year-old winger lined up alongside Noel Acciari and Jayce Hawryluk. On Saturday, it was Rodrigo Abols and Serron Noel. But on Sunday, he got his best chance to showcase his offensive skills yet, playing on a line with Henrik Borgstrom and Mike Hoffman.
"The team's full of good players. I don't think it really matters who you play with," said Heponiemi, Florida's second-round pick in the 2017 draft. "Obviously, it's cool to play with Borgstrom and Hoffman, but I'll just try to be my best on the ice and do what my game needs."
A native of Tampere, Finland - the same hometown of Aleksander Barkov - Heponiemi tallied 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 50 games last season back home in Liiga, the country's top pro circuit. Leading the league's rookies in scoring, he finished second for Rookie of the Year.
Heading into a week full of preseason games, he believes he's still got more to show the team.
"I've had some good passing here and there, but I think I've got to be way better and get used to the pace," Heponiemi said. "The game's so fast here. I think it's going to be good."
BOBROVSKY GOES THE DISTANCE
Sergei Bobrovsky had his heaviest workload yet today.
Florida's new starting goaltender manned the crease for both halves of the first scrimmage of the morning. The two-time Vezina Trophy Winner looked sharp from the get-go, surrendering just two goals -- both coming from right in front -- to lead Group A to a 3-2 win over Group C.
Tippett said watching Bobrovsky work has been a treat.
"It's pretty cool," said Tippett, who's also in Group A. "Seeing him in the gym and on the ice, you can see why he's had the success he's had in the past. It's pretty cool to see how he works."
Joining the Panthers on a seven-year deal, Bobrovsky said he's focused on "just being myself."
"I know my job," said Bobrovsky, who leads the NHL with 115 total wins over the past three seasons. "I know what I have to do here, what's my role and what's my goal. You come here and bring to the table your skills and your professionalism. The relationships will come after."