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Biggest Camp Battle for Florida Panthers Remains on D

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Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov scored twice on Monday night in his first game action with the Florida Panthers since being traded to the Buffalo Sabres in 2016. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

The Florida Panthers have more depth in this training camp than they have in some time.

The competition for jobs will be tough, especially on the defensive side where as many as six candidates will be vying for what appear to be two openings.

The absence of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour to start the season will add some Opening Night room but that duo returns — and the cap relief disappears — GM Bill Zito may have to work some magic to keep some players within the organization.

Of the newcomers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niko Mikkola are set. Mike Reilly and Dmitry Kulikov look safe as well — or at least until Ekblad and Montour return.

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Herein lies the problem for Zito and the rest of the Florida brass: Lucas Carlsson had a breakout season last year in Charlotte; Matt Kiersted has shown he has NHL ability but there has yet to be a spot for him with the Panthers.

Florida face losing both to the waiver wire because there surely is a place for them somewhere else.

Reilly and Kulikov have a slight edge in that they are left-handed shots but have experience on the right side where there will be a void because of the absence of Ekblad and Montour.

Others may be willing to try.

“When you’re young and you’re trying to break into the league, ‘I’ll play goal’ is the right answer,” coach Paul Maurice said. “So those guys will make the best of their chance.”

At this point in the preseason the only certainties on defense are Gus Forsling on the first pairing and Ekman-Larsson on the first power play unit. Forsling will likely lead the second unit.

The Panthers took a low-priced gamble on Ekman-Larsson which they hope pays dividends. The steady Josh Mahura looks like he will move up to the second 5-on-5 pairing with Mikkola. The third set is completely up for grabs.

This year’s sleeper acquisition may have been the veteran Reilly.

He had been playing well in Boston early last season but when Charlie McAvoy returned from injury Reilly became a cap casualty and spent the remainder of the year in the AHL. He comes to Florida saying he has a “chip on his shoulder.’’

Casey Fitzgerald and John Ludvig both have pro experience and, for now, must be considered dark horse candidates.

Maurice has been putting his charges through vigorous workouts, but doesn’t want to see an aggressive job seeker disabling any of his players.

He prefers to leave the heavy hitting for the games.

“We’ve got four or five players on the ice right now that physicality and edge are a big part of their game,” Maurice said. “That is difficult to show in the first four or five days of camp because I don’t want them really taking somebody heavy into the boards.”

In a subsequent post-practice session,  Maurice reiterated his position.

“I would say in the first five exhibition games,  I won’t be looking for so much excellence as I am their understanding of what we want to do,’’ he said. “By the time you come to the last three exhibition games you probably come off the team a little bit. You are not grinding them quite as hard. Then we will get to speed.”

Maurice clarified, however, by adding that the real competition for those other than the “A” players started with the first exhibition game on Monday.

That continues tonight in Carolina.

Competition is intense, as it should be.

Opening Night will be interesting.

FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK

PRESEASON AT CAROLINA HURRICANES

  • When: Tonight, 7
  • Where: PNC Bank Arena, Raleigh
  • TV/Radio: None
  • Streaming: FloridaPanthers.com

LOOKING AHEAD FOR THE PANTHERS

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