CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers skipped the pleasantries and got right to work on the opening day of their 2019-20 training camp on Friday afternoon at the Panthers IceDen.
In the first official practice under new head coach Joel Quenneville, who was hired in April after helping lead the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups (2010, 2013, 2015) from behind the bench, the camp's 61 participants were split into three groups: Group A, Group B and Group C.
Group's A and C each took part in one practice and one scrimmage, while Group B scrimmaged against both teams. As the week rolls along, those groups will rotate, giving each an opportunity to both practice and use the extensive amount of playing time to get caught up to game-speed.
Each of the three scrimmages featured a pair of 25-minute halves, with all penalties resulting in penalty shots. There were some familiar names that christened the first day of camp with goals, such as Denis Malgin and Frank Vatrano, while newcomers like Dominic Toninato also scored.
Aaron Ekblad, who competed in both scrimmages, said he enjoyed the new camp format.
"That's a lot of scrimmaging for one day, so I'm going to let the ankles rest after that one," the Panthers defenseman grinned. "It was good. It was good to feel the speed again. You start picking up the timing: getting back out of the zone, how quickly you've got to make passes, and stuff like that. Obviously, it's a lot different than what we've been doing in the summertime.
"It's putting all those skills together and that hard work together and bringing it on the ice…. You can only get up to game speed so fast in practice. You really can't until you play a game. To do it in a more controlled setting before we go into Nashville, Dallas, Tampa [in the preseason], you want to be able to have your feet under you a little bit and start feeling passes at game speed."
The Panthers only have three days of practices before beginning their eight-game preseason schedule on the road with their annual double-header against the Nashville Predators on Sept. 16. In getting players into game action early, the team has expedited the evaluation process.
"We don't have many days," said Quenneville, who owns the second-most wins in NHL history (890). "We have three days and then we're playing games on Monday. It's a good way of finding out about players. There's a lot of new people in the organization assessing these guys, and some new players here as well. Over that course of time, you get a really good idea of a lot of their capabilities. One thing that we can improve upon is doing everything at a faster tempo."
The up-tempo nature of practices is expected to be a common theme throughout the season.
"We want to practice the same way we play," Quenneville said.
And whether it's a practice or a scrimmage, Quenneville is already learning a lot about players.
"In practices you get a pretty good idea of their skill level and their pace," he said. "In the scrimmage, you get a little more read on their hockey reads and hockey sense."
While the next month will be spent assessing players and finding out where they fit, one thing that appears to already be set in stone is Florida's top line. After combining for 93 goals and 195 points last season, the incredibly dynamic trio of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov was put right back together and appeared to pick up right where they left off.
Barkov scored one scrimmage goal, burying a no-look pass from Huberdeau.
"I feel like the past few years we never really played together [at] camp," said Huberdeau, whose career-high 92 points last season were second to only Barkov's franchise-record 96. "It's good to work on chemistry again in training camp. Hopefully we can play the whole camp together."
Quenneville said he expects the line to "lead the charge" on offense this season.
"It's a special line," he said. "They do a lot of things well together. I know where each other are on the ice. I think that [their] patience and play recognition is high-end. They had such a strong year together and did some good things on the power play as well. It works."
Of course, the first day was as much as about new players as it was about returning ones.
Florida's highly-touted free agent class of Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman and Sergei Bobrovsky all stepped onto the ice for the first time together in an official capacity as Panthers, shaking off the rust while getting to know their new teammates and surroundings.
In the scrimmages, Acciari showcased his physicality, Connolly suited up on a line alongside Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano, and Anton Stralman was paired with Mike Matheson on the blue line. In between the pipes, Bobrovsky began the process of finding a good rhythm.
"The first days are always hard," said Bobrovsky, the NHL's Vezina Trophy winner in 2013 and 2017. "You have to be patient. You can't force anything. We've still got three weeks or so to go until the first [regular season] game. It's step-by-step. You don't want to show everything the first three days and then be done. I look at that to build up step-by-step and then keep going up."
Bobrovsky and the Panthers will take a few more steps when camp continues on Saturday.