While hockey season does not start until Oct. 3 for the Florida Panthers, this season’s offseason has been an important one for the team, especially the upcoming youth.
A disappointing season last year revealed that the team’s youth will be key to this year’s success as the rebuilding continues for the Panthers.
Thursday morning in Coral Springs, the Panthers kicked off their four-day Rookie camp, which includes more than two dozen prospects looking to make the final cut before training camp commences on Sept. 17.
Thursday, Sept. 5, included an intense practice session headed by Peter Horachek, head coach of the San Antonio Rampage, the affiliate team of the Panthers. Looking on were numerous team scouts and Panther’s GM Dale Tallon and head coach Kevin Dineen.
Among the rookies participating included Vincent Trocheck, who scored a remarkable 50 goals last season in the Ontario Hockey League; Aleksander Barkov, the 18-year-old Finn who was drafted #2 overall in the NHL draft by the Panthers; and Alex Gudbranson, whose brother Eric Gudbranson is a defenseman for the Panthers.
Coach Horachek was satisfied by the efforts shown by the rookies and was looking forward to evaluate them in the next few days. “They're going to play against some of the top prospects from the other teams. But until they make the transition to the next camp, the main camp, that's when you really tell. But it's good to see them playing. They played at a really good pace. It's good to see.”
Following the rookie practice, the veteran Panther team also had an unofficial practice that saw the return of Kris Versteeg, the forward who had injured his ACL last season.
Versteeg wore a thick brace on his right knee, but overall was pleased by his recovery time, which is much ahead of schedule. “It’s a long process, but my goal is to be ready for the start of the season. I don’t want to hop into a regular-season game without knowing what training camp is like, but I think I’ll be in there for most of it,” Versteeg said.
Following the Panther’s practice, Erik Gudbranson was more than happy to give his opinion of his younger brother trying out for the team and talk about the upcoming season.
“(Alex and I) we’ve played together as juniors, and now if we could do it professionally, it would be really cool. But he has to do it on his own. Just because I’m here doesn’t mean he gets any special treatment or anything like that. It would be very exciting for us to be playing together,” Erik said. “Last year was a difficult season. … It left a very sour taste in our mouth. It’s embarrassing to be the last place team in the league; nobody ever wants to be there. This year, we’ve got to grind it out, play competitive games game-in and game-out, because that’s what our fans deserve.”