Aaron Ekblad was out for his second consecutive practice Friday morning leading coach Joel Quenneville to make some minor tweaks.
We will get to those in a moment. First off, what is up with Ekblad?
Due to the new rules regarding making injuries or illnesses public, Quenneville is not saying what, exactly, is going on.
He did offer some hints, however.
Although he used the vague “not fit to go’’ when it came to Ekblad’s absence, he did say Ekblad has been around the Panthers’ training facility the past few days which, in all likelihood, means Ekblad is not ill.
“He was here the past few days,” Quenneville said, “but he hasn’t skated.”
So, if Ekblad was sick (you know what I mean) he probably would not be allowed in the building. So, it sounds like something happened to him on the ice.
Again, Quenneville would not go into specifics.
Quenneville did say Ekblad “will be ready to go in real games” and when asked whether he would be ready to go next week in Toronto.
So that is good news for the Panthers.
Losing Ekblad — arguably the team’s best defenseman — would not be ideal heading into the qualifier round against the New York Islanders.
With Ekblad out, Mark Pysyk was back on defense Friday as he replaced Ekblad with MacKenzie Weegar on Florida’s top pairing.
Quenneville said that setup would not last: When the Islanders series starts, Pysyk will be back at forward on the fourth line with Noel Acciari and Colton Sceviour.
“It may not be tomorrow,” Quenneville said, “but he will be playing forward when we begin.”
By moving Pysyk back to D, Quenneville bumped rookie Aleksi Saarela all the way up from fifth-line status to the top line as he replaced Frank Vatrano on the left side of Sasha Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov.
Saarela impressed the Panthers during his stint at the end of the regular season and has looked very good throughout training camp.
“He has a unique asset you have to love and appreciate,” Quenneville said. “We changed up the lines on a need-basis today, put Pysyk on the blueline and adjusted the lines a little just for today. … We had [Saarela] around a couple of times during the year and he played some games and does a lot of interesting things.
“He still has some things to learn, but it’s unique what he can do when around the puck. He is competitive in a lot of ways. We have some depth now, have some decision-making to do and he pushes us to make some hard decisions along the way.”
Quenneville has said that Saarela is likely going to find his way into the lineup in the qualifier round.
By placing him in a top-end position, Quenneville gives the impression that if Saarela does play, he wants him in a position to where his speed and big shot can make a real offensive difference.
For Saarela, playing alongside Barkov — whom he squared off against in his first pro game in Finland back in 2013 — was pretty cool.
“I played my first pro game ever against Barky and I have always looked up to him so it is a dream come true to be on the same line with him,” Saarela said.
“The last game (two assists at St. Louis), I played with Wallmark and Connolly and we thought we played a great game. I am trying to do my best every shift. That was a big win for us, obviously.”
PANTHERS TRAINING CAMP REPORT
The Florida Panthers held their penultimate practice of the season in Coral Springs on Friday.
The team is scheduled to be at the IceDen on Saturday before flying to Toronto and their new headquarters Sunday.
— Quenneville said he watched baseball’s opening games on Thursday and said “it was definitely unusual to see how quiet it was.”
When the Panthers start playing in Toronto, like all teams, their goal song will be played after their score and crowd noise is expected to be piped in.
“I think hockey is a game where so much is going on,” Quenneville said. “We have scrimmages out here and guys are talking, there is contact and there are emotions.
“You get the boards banging, the sticks, the skating. It is maybe more amplified than other sports. Not having fans in the building will lead to the noise factor being different, but there is enough stuff going on in hockey where it can be noisy and attract your attention.”
— With Aaron Ekblad out on Friday, here is what the Florida Panthers looked like per Jameson Olive of FloridaPanthers.com:
Forwards: Aleksi Saarela/Sasha Barkov/Evgenii Dadonov; Jonathan Huberdeau/Erik Haula/Mike Hoffman; Frank Vatrano/Brian Boyle/Brett Connolly; Lucas Wallmark/Noel Acciari/Colton Sceviour.
Defensemen: Mark Pysyk/MacKenzie Weegar; Anton Stralman/Riley Stillman; Keith Yandle/Mike Matheson.
Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky/Chris Driedger.