Summertime hasn’t been a good friend to fans of the Florida Panthers in recent times. Normally, it’s a time that’s consisted of a lackluster draft, followed by head-scratching free agent signings while every other team loaded up the top names available. But it’s amazing what a few men with a plan can do, and even more amazing how quickly those man can do it. In just the span of two drafts and one bountiful free agent signing period, the Panthers are now a team on the upswing after a decade in the doldrums. It was punctuated by a three-day peek into the future at last week’s Rookie Development Camp.
For three days last week, fans spent their mornings tucked back into the Panthers Den practice rink at Saveology Iceplex in Coral Springs to watch arguably the deepest and most talented prospect pool in the NHL. It was the first chance to see players like new draftees Jonathan Huberdeau, Rocco Grimaldi and one of last year’s first round picks, Nick Bjugstad. It was also another chance to see Erik Gudbranson, the poster boy for this rebuild of the team that has had many.
Friday was easily the most high energy of the three-day event. During the course of the two-hour practice, fans finally got to see a full out scrimmage, including ample time of 5-on-5, 4-on-4, and 3-on-3, along with a few different drills and ended with every player on the camp roster taking their turn in a shootout. Throughout the morning, from my eyes, Gudbranson was the biggest star of the show. The big d-man showed up looking the part of a guy who wants to play in the NHL next season, adding 20 pounds to his 6-4 frame and laying several big hits during Friday’s scrimmages. The announcement of his signing to an entry-level contract immediately following Friday’s practice put an exclamation point on one of the best summer’s this organization has had in quite awhile.
Some final notes from Development Camp:
– One of Dale Tallon’s primary objectives when he took over was to get bigger. Mission definitely accomplished. Some of these guys are huge, led by the 6-5 Bjugstad. The days of the Florida Panthers being out-sized and out-muscle are coming to a rapid end.
– One of last year’s second round picks, John McFarland is VERY fast. If he can figure out what to do with the puck once he skates past everyone, he’ll be lethal.
– As if Rocco Grimaldi hasn’t endeared himself enough to the fans, he spent his last few moments on the ice Friday throwing out pucks to fans. He then spent five hours on Twitter Saturday answering questions from fans. He really seems like a great kid who is incapable of not going 100%. I’ll make it a point to watch him at U of North Dakota this winter.
– Speaking of Grimaldi and Twitter, if you missed the chirp tweet war between him and Huberdeau, you missed out. Great to read the camaraderie between the guys.
– And while not reading too much into a rookie practice is July, I’m going to keep my eye out for Josh Birkholz come September. Seemed like no matter what drill/scrimmage was going on, he putting the puck in the net. I’ll be interested what he can do when the real competition is on.
So with the end of camp, we wait for the start of rookie camp to see if any of these same kids can get an invite to veterans training camp shortly thereafter before an almost new roster of Panthers try to bring in a culture of winning. Is it October yet?
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