CORAL SPRINGS — Even after appearing in every game the Florida Panthers played en route to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, defenseman Josh Mahura did not feel like his spot was safe heading into his second season with the team.
The 25-year-old spent the last four seasons fighting for playing time on the Anaheim Ducks before getting waived and claimed by the Panthers days before the regular season began.
While in unfamiliar territory, Mahura’s mindset entering camp has not changed even after establishing himself as a reliable part of Florida’s back end.
“I think coming in here, you always kind of have that nervous energy, you are still trying to just leave it all out there and you never know what can happen,” Mahura said.
“You just have to try to put your best foot forward every day. That’s what camp is all about with guys coming in and pushing for spots and trying to move up. So, that is the big thing here.”
Mahura’s skepticism came as a surprise to Florida coach Paul Maurice when asked about it.
“That is an interesting question about a next step because his play was very consistent and it built through the course of the year,” he said
“I certainly don’t want to put a ceiling on any player but he really established himself in the NHL and now he’s got to do it again.
“When you put back-to-back years together like he did last year, then he will be in the NHL for as long as his body will allow him to.”
Mahura immediately stepped in days after being claimed off waivers and formed one of the most defensively sound pairings in the league alongside Radko Gudas.
In what was his first full NHL season, Mahura scored four goals and 16 points with a team-leading plus/minus of plus-17 before adding three assists in 21 playoff games.
“I think overall, [I grew] defensively and in moving the puck offensively,” Mahura said of his first season in South Florida.
“Being able to grow and being able to play was the biggest thing and of course, I want to take another step to be a better player and bring a little bit more to the team.”
Maurice wants Mahura to be wary of straying from the player he is — one who consistently gave Florida solid minutes throughout the season
“What I would want from Josh is more minutes at the same play he finished the year with,” Maurice said.
“You want to improve in every area, but we would want Josh to be mindful that re-establishing what he did is priority No. 1.”
Mahura will almost assuredly see a boost from the 14:02 he averaged last season for reasons outside his own and the team’s control.
With Gudas — Mahura’s defense partner and mentor — off to Anaheim, the Panthers will also be without star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour for the first two months of the season.
Florida brought in a slew of free agents to fill in the gaps — including Mike Reilly, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola — but Mahura is expected to shoulder a significant role while Florida’s usual big-minute defensemen nurse themselves back to health.
And he is ready for it.
“With those two guys out, those are tough minutes to fill,” Mahura said.
“They do a lot for us and obviously, we are going to miss them, but this means other guys can try to step up and hopefully I get it and I want to make the most of it.”
The dynamic surrounding the new arrivals on Florida’s back end has created a dynamic that Mahura, and the rest of the defensemen, are excited for.
When Ekblad and Montour return, two of the four players the Panthers brought in during free agency will likely find themselves watching games from the press box or being placed on waivers.
And as general manager Bill Zito has said several times, the best players will play.
The opportunity to learn from and grow relationships with each of his new teammates combined with the rush of competition brought a whole new vibe into training camp for Mahura.
“They brought in guys who are high IQ, high skill, and can compete and play, so it’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
“It’s been a lot of fun being able to get on the ice with them, compete with them and try to build some chemistry and relationships with them as well.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
PRESEASON DOUBLEHEADER VS. NASHVILLE
- When: Monday, 2 and 6 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- Tickets: $15 donation to charity, parking included
- TV/Radio: None
LOOKING AHEAD FOR THE PANTHERS
- Today: Training Camp (Coral Springs IceDen), 9:30 a.m./noon
- Wednesday: Preseason at Carolina, 7 p.m.
- Friday: Preseason vs. Carolina, 6 p.m.
- Next Sunday: Preseason vs. Ottawa at Sydney, Nova Scotia; 4 p.m.
- Oct. 3: Preseason vs. Tampa Bay at Orlando Arena, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 5: Preseason at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 7: Preseason vs. Tampa Bay, 6 p.m.
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild (BSF)
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (BSF)