Last winter as NHL training camp was approaching, Kevin Connauton recalls his wife Brooke asking him where he thought they would be for the upcoming season.
The veteran defenseman wasn’t really sure.
Just a week before the Florida Panthers were to open camp for the 2021 season, Connauton accepted the team’s invitation on a professional tryout. He says he did not know what to expect.
“It was a strange offseason for me,’’ Connauton said. “It was kind of down to the last minute for me. I signed a PTO the day after Christmas. My wife asked me where we were going and I didn’t have an answer for her. It was a stressful time. I saw it as a good opportunity, didn’t see any negatives about it.”
Well, training camp went pretty well.
The Panthers offered him a one-year contract just before the regular season was set to begin.
Lo and behold, Connauton is still here.
Last season was weird for everyone but it worked out OK for Connauton even though he did not play much.
Connauton was up with the Panthers throughout the season even if he wasn’t technically on the team. With the NHL allowing a five-man taxi squad, teams were able to expand their rosters and Connauton remained with the team and practiced daily.
His leadership and work ethic was noticed by the Panthers as much as the seven games he played in did.
Coach Joel Quenneville and GM Bill Zito both praised Connauton for his professional attitude throughout what was a strange year.
When the season ended, the Panthers asked Connauton if he wanted to come back.
Just days after the team was knocked out of the playoffs by Tampa Bay, Connauton signed a new contract with the team.
“It was a little different, but I was just grateful to be around a team, be able to practice and be in the locker room,’’ he said.
“I came in here, was around the team and worked my way into a couple of games. I took nothing but positives out of it. There are always guys who are looking for jobs and I had one last year and have one this year. It’s something I want to take advantage of.”
The contract is another two-way deal with the expectation that he would start the season in Charlotte. And, that very well may still happen.
But as the Panthers open their final week of the preseason with three games against the Lightning, Connauton is still battling for one of the very few roster spots left on the Panthers.
There is plenty of competition left although a number of players vying for that spot are already headed to Checkers camp in North Carolina.
Noah Juulsen and Max Gildon were sent down over the weekend, Lucas Carlsson hasn’t practiced since leaving Wednesday’s game in Dallas and John Ludvig has been out as well.
Chase Priskie and Matt Kiersted remain and those two, along with Connauton, should see plenty of time in the final games.
The Panthers know what Connauton brings and that is a solid defensive game. In his seven games last season, he averaged over 14 minutes and only took one non-fighting penalty.
The 31-year-old also brings valued experience as he has played in 321 games with the Stars, Blue Jackets, Coyotes (he scored 11 of his 27 goals in 2017-18) and Avs.
He also has over 260 AHL games on his resume which means Connauton has seen a lot of hockey.
“I want to be here,” said Connauton, who scored his first goal in a Panthers uniform Friday night against Dallas.
“I have been through training camps before and there are always more guys than spots available. I’m using my experience to my advantage. I want to play here and I’m going to prove that. … I am happy with my game, I think I have had a good training camp so far. I’m just trying to build every day and get better. Again, I want to show them I want to be here.”
PRESEASON PANTHERS ON DECK
PANTHERS (4-0-0) V. TAMPA BAY (1-3-0)
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amway Arena, Orlando
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- 2021 regular season series: Florida won 5-3
- 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, Round 1: Tampa Bay won 4-2
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Sun/Bally Sports