The Florida Panthers will open training camp on Thursday morning and head into the 2023-24 season with a slightly different roster than which took them to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.
With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss the start of the season as they heal up from postseason surgeries not to mention the departures of Radko Gudas and Marc Staal, four spots have opened up on Florida’s blue line.
A little reshuffling up front has opened up spots for young players like Mackie Samoskevich and Grigori Denisenko to compete for ice time as well.
These four questions need to be answered in training camp to determine how the Panthers look once the season officially starts in October.
Who steps up in the absence of Montour and Ekblad?
To supplement the defense corps with his two top defensemen out to start the season, Bill Zito brought in four free-agent defensemen: Mike Reilly, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov.
Along with returning youngsters Lucas Carlsson and Matt Kiersted, they will be jockeying for positions throughout training camp.
Gus Forsling’s spot as the No. 1 defenseman looks secure but the five other spots are very much up for grabs.
Who takes it?
Josh Mahura could move from the third pairing to play alongside Forsling after some solid play in his first season in Sunrise. But he will be pushed by a host of different players.
As Zito said on the day free agency opened, the best players will play and this will be one of the biggest roster battles to watch during training camp.
Who gets the last spot in the Top 9 forward group?
During last year’s playoffs, Nick Cousins held down a second-line role, but the Panthers have a slew of players capable of competing for a spot next to one of Florida’s stars.
Following their offseason moves, the Panthers have eight players who could confidently end up with a spot on the top three lines: Sasha Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, Eetu Luostarinen and Anton Lundell.
Cousins, along with Ryan Lomberg, Steven Lorentz and Kevin Stenlund, have playstyles better suited for the fourth line but have outside shots of competing for that final spot.
And, in the case of Cousins and Lomberg, have shown the capability to play Top 9 minutes in spurts.
That begs the question: Who can step up and take on a bigger role.
Samoskevich and Denisenko are both young options who have the potential to play on the same line as Barkov and Tkachuk.
The former is vying for an NHL spot in his first pro season at 20 years old while the latter is looking to hold onto a roster spot after reaching waivers eligibility at 23.
Denisenko has shown that he has the tools to be a solid player in the NHL but has not put up the numbers — albeit with limited time-on-ice- registering seven assists in 26 career games.
Samoskevich is coming off of a 20-goal, 43-point sophomore season at the University of Michigan.
Both very much could compete for that spot, along with Florida’s lone PTO invitee, Brett Ritchie, who scored just eight goals and 13 points in 50 games for Calgary and Arizona last season.
What does the power play look like?
With Montour unavailable to start the season, the Panthers suddenly find themselves in need of a power play quarterback.
Ekman-Larsson and Forsling stick out as immediate favorites to man the top unit but Florida does have a slew of dark horses and unorthodox lineups it could roll out.
Forsling is the favorite to earn the PP1 quarterback spot after showing signs of success in spurts manning PP2.
He is already expected to do the heavy lifting defensively for Florida and his 13 goals and 41 points (including five on the power play) in 2022-23 display some promise for an offensive breakout.
Ekman-Larsson was one of the league’s best power play defensemen for over half a decade but has declined rapidly since getting traded from Arizona to Vancouver two summers ago.
It is conceivable that the 32-year-old could bounce back enough to hold down the top unit until Florida’s stars return but he will need to prove himself to earn it.
Mike Reilly, who has flashed the skillset of an offensive defenseman despite a lack of opportunity in his eight-year career, could emerge as a dark horse as well.
Florida does have the option to roll with a five-forward unit, giving someone like Carter Verhaeghe or Evan Rodrigues a chance to play on PP1.
Even returnees from last season’s top unit like Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart are not guaranteed their spots back, so it will be one of the more intriguing battles to watch.
Who is the backup goalie?
Sergei Bobrovsky is back for his fourth season with the Panthers after a fantastic showing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Barring injury during training camp, Bobrovsky will be the Panthers starting netminder.
Who backs him up is the question.
The Panthers have Spencer Knight back after he entered the NHL/NHLPA Players’ Assistance program in February to deal with OCD but he will have competition in the form of former Anaheim goalie Anthony Stolarz who was signed on July 1.
It would not be surprising to see the Panthers decide it would be best for Knight to go to Charlotte and get a lot of playing time — as opposed to getting limited starts as Bobrovsky’s backup.
As we saw last season, the Panthers may need more than three goalies to get through this season.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Thursday-Sunday: Training Camp, Coral Springs IceDen
- Monday: Preseason Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise; 2 and 6 p.m.
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild (Bally Sports Florida)
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (BSF)