Several absent as Panthers begin camp
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The boys are back. Well, most of them, anyway.
The Florida Panthers opened training camp with familiar faces on the ice for the team's first official practice, but there were some notable absences.
Missing Monday from the 90-minute session were defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, and forwards Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim.
Kulikov, a restricted free agent and one of Florida's top three blue-liners, has yet to re-sign with the Panthers. Despite not knowing the defenseman's whereabouts, general manager Dale Tallon is hopeful a deal can be reached soon.
"[Assistant GM Mike Santos] is continually talking to his agent," Tallon said. "Hopefully, they'll make some headway this week. Mike's really good at what he does, and I'm sure he will get it done."
Gudbranson (shoulder) and Goc (ankle) are day to day and not expected to rejoin the team until after the team's Canadian road trip (Jan. 21-22), at the earliest. Because the wounds were suffered during the lockout, they are currently suspended until medically cleared.
Bergenheim, meanwhile, continues to undergo testing to determine the severity of a lower body injury sustained during a stint in Finland. The Panthers will have a better idea as to how long they may be without the speedy winger within the next couple days.
With four key contributors from last year's Southeast Division champions missing, Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen are hard pressed to find replacements before the home opener Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Defense appears to be the position most in flux at this point.
Keaton Ellerby and Tyson Strachan the frontrunners to join the Panthers' veteran defensive corps of Brian Campbell, Filip Kuba, Mike Weaver and Ed Jovanovski. But they face stiff competition from youngsters Alex Petrovic and Michael Caruso, who have impressed at the American Hockey League level.
"Ellerby, it's his time to step up now," Tallon said. "He's been around a while, and we're counting on him to step up, elevate his game."
"We brought in Alex Petrovic and Mike Caruso to give them that opportunity," Dineen said. "They've been the guys that have showed they can step into a lineup and play. They're in our mix right now. We signed Tyson Strachan over the course of last year. He's going to have to be a better player in the next week than he has been up to this point."
Florida doesn't appear as concerned over rebuilding the team's third line, given the array options to work with.
"Bergy and Marcel and Mikael Samuelsson last year were a very solid, productive line for us the last three months of the year. That changes things," Dineen said. "I'm going to cliche land, but it really does open up a lot of opportunity for different players."
Dineen expressed enthusiasm for the crop of young talent Florida available to compete for jobs, including Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore. He's also taking the versatility of some forwards into consideration. Although he's keeping Peter Mueller at center for now, he could shift the 24-year-old to wing. Dineen worked Jack Skille on the off-wing and noted Tomas Kopecky can fill in anywhere on the front line.
"When you have those options available, it really helps," Dineen said.
Tryouts Alex Kovalev and Marek Svatos drew positive reviews from Florida's brass after day one.
"The hands are there for both those players," Dineen said. "It should make for an interesting decision going forward."
With Jason Garrison having left via free agency, Kuba appears to be the heir apparent to fill the opening next to top defenseman Campbell. The pair skated together Monday during a scrimmage, and comments by Dineen suggest that's the duo he intends to go with on opening night.
Kuba expects a smooth transition in playing with Campbell, especially coming from Ottawa, where he was paired with Erik Karlsson, who led NHL defensemen in scoring.
"They're pretty similar players." Kuba said. "They're pretty similar players. Both of them can skate. They see the ice and move the puck really well. They contribute offensively a lot."
Kuba isn't confident he'll be able to fill Garrison's role completely, although he's willing to give it a shot.
"I don't know if I am the shooter Garrison is," Kuba said. "But I'll work on it, how we're going to move the puck on the power play and what the role is going to be there."
Huberdeau watched practice from the glass Monday, after coaches granted him a day to rest bumps and bruises suffered playing for Canada in the 2013 World Junior Championships in Russia.
"It's a decision we made to make sure we're going to be ready on opening night," Dineen said.
Huberdeau, Florida's top pick in 2011, is expected to join the team for practice Tuesday.
When asked whether Kuba is suited to play alongside Campbell, Tallon, a former NHL defenseman, responded, "I think I might be able to play with Brian."
Florida's top line of 2011-12 — Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann — skated together Monday during the team scrimmage. . . . The Panthers invited eight players from San Antonio, the team's AHL affiliate, to participate in camp: forwards Shore, Jon Rheault, James Wright and Quinton Howden; defensemen Strachan, Caruso and Patrovic; and goaltender Jacob Markstrom. . . . Florida will host an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Saveology.com IcePlex in Coral Springs. It is free and open to the public.