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Florida Panthers see development camp as opportunity to reload in AHL



Florida Panthers development camp
Development camp invitees Ben Steeves (white) and Dennis Cesana (red) battle for the puck on the opening day of Florida Panthers development camp. -- Photo @ColbyDGuy

CORAL SPRINGS — For the past two years, the Florida Panthers have had to share a minor-league affiliate.

In 2020, the Charlotte Checkers held out of the AHL season and the Panthers sent their minor leaguers to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s affiliate in Syracuse.

Then, the expansion Seattle Kraken joined the mix with their AHL affiliate in Coachella Valley still building a stadium, so Florida opened their doors and allowed Kraken minor leaguers to play in Charlotte for the season.

After two years of sharing space at the minor league level, Florida only has nine forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies in their minor league system.

“We’re going to need some players,” Checkers coach Geordie Kinnear said.

“I think it’s an important year that we get back to being the Florida Panthers organization and letting our guys play on a regular basis.”

Goaltending in particular is an area of intrigue, as Seattle goalies Joey Daccord and Antoine Bibeau played in 44 of the 72 games the Checkers played last year.

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Mack Guzda and Evan Fitzpatrick, who is on an AHL contract but is an unrestricted free agent at the NHL level after not being extended a qualifying offer, are the two goaltenders the Panthers have under contract past their NHL tandem.

Fitzpatrick mainly spent his time at the ECHL level last year and found some success, posting a 9-11-2 record with a .915/2.50 in ECHL Greenville last year.

Guzda went 20-9-2 with a .915/2.52 in 31 regular season games with the Barrie colts before going 1-2-1 in four OHL playoff games.

He went to Charlotte following the Colts’ season and spent some time with the Checkers. He did not play a game.

Only Guzda is able to be called up to the NHL team without being issued a new contract.

The Panthers could be on the lookout for a veteran goaltender to man the crease in Charlotte, but invitees Kolby Hay and Jari Kykkanen could be options further down the line.

Both are not AHL eligible and will play for their respective WHL teams next year.

Where there really is intrigue is in the defense group.

Of the six AHL defensemen under contract, three of them are participating in development camp — Zachary Uens, Santtu Kinnunen and Calle Sjalin.

Both Kinnunen and Sjalin will be playing in their first season in North America after signing deals with the team this summer.

Uens played six games with the Checkers after putting up 19 points in 34 games in college with Merrimack.

With all of these spots opening up, it presents an opportunity for the undrafted players invited to development camp to latch onto an AHL spot.

Riley Bezeau, an invitee from the QMHJL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, already earned an AHL contract prior to the first day of development camp on Monday.

More could follow by the end of the week — the opportunity is there.

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