When Joe Thornton decided to join the Florida Panthers in August, the first reason he pointed to was their depth.
Thornton, 42, desperately wants to win a Stanley Cup before he retires, and he thought the Panthers were best positioned to help him get one. Florida was one of the five best teams in the NHL last year, barely lost anyone and added multiple high-profile pieces through free agency, trades, the draft and, in one important case, a return to health.
“They’re just a really balanced team,” Thornton said Wednesday, on the eve of training camp. “They’re a really deep team.”
Lineup construction is a puzzle and the Panthers, it seems, aren’t missing any pieces. If anything, their box came with a few extras. Coach Joel Quenneville’s job this preseason will be to put it together before the regular season begins next month.
Eleven of the 12 forwards he used in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs are back, and Florida added forward Sam Reinhart and Thornton, plus prospects Anton Lundell, Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi. On defense, he has five of seven back and adds star defenseman Aaron Ekblad back into the lineup after he missed the Stanley Cup playoffs with a fractured leg. In net, two of three goaltenders are back.
Last year, Quenneville spent training camp trying to integrate about a dozen new players into his system and had to find a few younger players to emerge to fill out the roster. Now, he has more options than he can possibly use all at once and must figure out which 22 will suit up when the season begins in October.
“We’ll have some decisions,” Quenneville said. “When we’re putting players together, we felt we had six lines strong of guys who’d be comfortable playing in the NHL, so it’s a good situation to be in.”
It was obvious on the first day of training camp Thursday in Sunrise, even with Lundell sidelined with an undisclosed injury. The Panthers split their first practice of the season into two sessions, and each group at FLA Live Arena had four forward lines and 17 of the 24 forwards all played in at least one NHL game last year.
Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov and Reinhart formed the top line with the first group, and Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett and Owen Tippett skated as the top line with the second. Other lines included Mason Marchment-Thornton-Anthony Duclair, Frank Vatrano-Noel Acciari-Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg-Juho Lammikko-Denisenko and Heponiemi-Eetu Luostarinen-Maxim Mamin.
That’s six full lines of players with NHL experience and Lundell — who hasn’t yet played in the NHL, but is expected to contend for the Calder Memorial Trophy this year (top rookie) — will give Florida 19-plus legitimate forwards to pick from for its regular-season roster.
Quenneville expects Lundell, who hasn’t skated since Sunday at the Prospect Showcase Tournament in Wesley Chapel, to join practice by Saturday.
To start camp, Quenneville mostly kept his most effective lines intact. Huberdeau-Bennett-Tippett, for example, is a carryover from the playoffs, when they combined to score 19 points in the Panthers’ first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Verhaeghe and Barkov, as another, formed a dynamic partnership throughout last season, but had a rotating cast at right wing, which Quenneville hopes will stabilize with Reinhart there.
“It’s not etched in stone that that’s how it’s going to be,” Quenneville said, “but certainly it looks like it deserves a chance to start like that.”
The Panthers are in a position where players like Marchment, Lomberg and even Acciari — players who all suited up for six playoff games last year — aren’t even locks to make the team.
“There’ll be some depth organizationally,” Quenneville said. “Sometimes the performance will be making decisions for us. Sometimes it can be health for a number of reasons. The most important thing is that we like to reward guys for performance and sometimes that could be the decision-making factor for some guys. We’ll be fair, we’re objective, and we try to give everybody a fair and honest chance, but sometimes you’ve got to make decisions. Sometimes they’re hockey, sometimes they’re financial, but, of course, we have to make sure the decisions are based on what gives us the best lineup and the best chance to win.”
Sergei Bobrovsky or Spencer Knight?
On defense, Quenneville’s decisions are more straightforward. In some combination, Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour and Markus Nutivaara will likely be the top six defensemen, with a few others pushing at the fringes.
The goaltending situation is more complicated. Sergei Bobrovsky is the highest paid player on the roster, but Quenneville benched him multiple times in the 2021 playoffs and fellow goaltender Spencer Knight, 20, started the final two games of the postseason less than two months after he wrapped up his career with the Boston College Eagles.
In a different situation, Knight might be the front-runner for the Calder Trophy. In Florida, he’ll have to split time with Bobrovsky. Without explicitly saying it, Quenneville made it sound like Bobrovsky is still sitting atop the depth chart.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to budget him at so many games and Spencer at so many games, but Bob’s going to have the workload, and then off of that Spence pushes him in some areas and some ways,” Quenneville said. “It’s a healthy situation when you look at it. Bob’s got the net and Spencer’s going to be the guy learning and observing.”
Panthers are 100 percent vaccinated
The Panthers won’t have to worry about any major COVID-19 restrictions this season. The roster and team personnel are 100 percent vaccinated, which meant Quenneville and his staff didn’t have wear masks while coaching Thursday, and the team has more relaxed social-distancing guidelines to a
Said Quenneville, with an unmasked smile: “We don’t have to worry about that.”