TAMPA — Joel Quenneville was laughing when he mentioned that last season, Kevin Connauton was voted the captain of the Florida Panthers taxi squad.
But it was Connauton’s approach to practicing day after day — and not playing a whole lot during the Covid-shortened 2021 season — that impressed not only Connauton’s teammates but the Panthers’ front office as well.
The Panthers not only quickly re-signed Connauton once their 2021 season ended, but watched him come into training camp with that same dedication.
”I just wanted to be here when camp was over,” he said. “I wanted to be part of this. This is a great team, there is an opportunity here. When you see a team on the trajectory this one is, you want to be a part of that. That was on my mind all summer when I was training that I wanted to show them that I wanted to be here and that I deserved to be here.”
Connauton made the Panthers in camp and, Quenneville said, would have been in the opening night lineup against the Penguins last Thursday had he not gotten hurt in Florida’s final preseason game.
After missing the first two games, Connauton was activated Monday and will be in the lineup against the Lightning on Tuesday night from Amalie Arena (Bally Sports/WQAM).
”That last preseason game, I got something minor that just needed a little extra time to take care of it,” Connauton said. “I’m feeling pretty good right now and am ready to go.”
Connauton won‘t be the only Florida player making his 2021-22 debut with the Panthers on Tuesday.
As was the case with Connauton, Mason Marchment got hurt before the season and missed the first two games.
He’s healthy now and will go in on Florida’s fourth line replacing Ryan Lomberg.
“I hate changing from winning lineups,” Quenneville said, “but the idea was to get them in as soon as possible.”
Rookie goalie Spencer Knight also gets the game net for the first time after two really good games from Sergei Bobrovsky.
”I think he has handled camp very well,” Quenneville said of Knight. “He had a really strong camp and has waited for his chance to get in. We had two good games, had a great start. … But he’s going to get his chance to do his thing. He’s comfortable on big stages and big situations and this is a great test for him tonight. He just treats it as a regular thing which is quite impressive.”
When it comes to Connauton, the Panthers brought him in on a professional tryout before camp opened in 2021 with the thought that he was going to stick around.
General manager Bill Zito knew Connauton from their time together with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Connauton brought some leadership to a mostly young taxi squad as Florida had hoped.
Just about all of the taxi squad guys got in last season with Connauton playing in seven games — including the regular-season finale against the Lightning.
A veteran of 321 NHL games and 12 pro seasons, the 31-year-old Connauton brings a solid defensive-style of play with the veteran been-there, done-that mindset that the Panthers are looking for on their backend.
“He’s at the stage of his career where, last year, he was in the group there which was pushing the regular group all year long,” Quenneville said. “They called him the captain of ‘The Squad,’ and we love the experience that he brought, the professionalism. And he’s getting rewarded. He had a strong camp and it looks like he can help us.”
Added Connauton: “It was an interesting situation last year. We were kind of stuck in the back room and we kind of had a vote for a captain. We spent a lot of time together and had a lot of fun with it. It was a great group of guys. It was a little different but you have to make the most of it. It was a pretty cool experience, actually.”