The start of the 2019-20 NHL season is less than a month away, so what should Florida Panthers fans expect from the team’s upcoming rookie camp that runs Sept. 10-11?
Fans will see a camp showcasing a player that played 50 games with the Panthers last season and will also provide an opportunity to several Florida prospects to display their talents in an attempt to earn a roster spot either to start this season, think Owen Tippett, or perhaps in the near future, think Aleksi Heponiemi, or a chance for a non-roster invitee to earn his first professional contract.
Borgstrom, who scored 8 goals and 10 assists in 50 games last season with the Panthers, has all but secured a spot on the Panthers roster this season based on his play in 2018-19.
After starting last season in Springfield of the American Hockey League, he earned an NHL promotion in December and played the remainder of the season centering the Panthers third line.
Last season, the Finnish forward’s role on the third line was more defensive-minded, however, his offense prowess and creativity may be of a higher priority this season under new head coach Joel Quenneville and the possibility of playing alongside newly-acquired free agent Brett Connolly.
In his two seasons at the University of Denver, Borgstrom scored 45 goals for the Pioneers, so expectations are for him to produce more offensively this season with those 50 NHL games under his belt, along with a new coach that is more offensive-minded and has a history of getting younger forwards to increase their scoring.
Now or never.
That may be the simplest way to summarize Owen Tippett’s opportunity with the Panthers.
Florida’s top draft pick in 2017, he has spent most of the past two seasons developing into a bona fide NHL-caliber forward, so starting with this rookie camp, the pressure is on Tippett to earn a full-time spot in the Panthers lineup.
Now 20, he averaged nearly 35 goals and 75 points in the past two seasons of juniors but it is now time for him to show Quenneville and the Panthers coaching staff that he is ready.
“He’s a dynamic player when he’s got the puck on his stick,” Florida director of player personnel Bryan McCabe said recently. “We want to work with him on the details away from the puck and stuff that’s going to make him successful at the next level.”
Should he not make the NHL roster at the end of training camp, he would most likely be assigned to Springfield (AHL), which would be a disappointment based on the time and focus he has invested into cracking the Panthers lineup.
Aleksi Heponiemi and Serron Noel
Borgstrom and Tippett are at the top of the list of rookie camp forwards regarding immediate impact into the Panthers lineup. Following that pair are Heponiemi and Serron Noel.
Heponiemi, the Panthers 2017 second-round pick, hopes to make a good impression on the coaching staff and most likely will start the season in Springfield (AHL) with the possibility of being called up later in the season due to injuries, lack of production, or trades.
At only 147 pounds, he is the lightest player at rookie camp, so starting the season in the minors may help him readjust to both the more physical North American game and the smaller ice surface after playing last season in Finland. He scored 46 points in 50 games with Karpat last season, following two seasons of juniors in Swift Current of the Western Hockey League, where he averaged over 100 points per season.
Noel, 19, the Panthers 2018 second-round pick, is slated to play another season of juniors with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League but this rookie camp provides him with another opportunity to show the coaching staff where he has improved and what areas the youngster needs to improve during his final year of juniors.
His physical presence is exactly the opposite of Heponiemi’s, as he’s 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, which is why the team drafted him as a future power forward last year.
In three seasons with Oshawa, he has improved his scoring total significantly each year. As a 16-year-old, he scored 21 points, then followed that up with 53 points in 2017-18 and added a team-high 81 points last season with the Generals.
Brady Keeper and Riley Stillman
A pair of defensive prospects, Brady Keeper and Riley Stillman, are in similar situations heading into the rookie camp.
Last season, each player played their first NHL game with the Panthers, however, this season both will likely start the season in Springfield (AHL) due to the eight defensemen ahead of them on the depth chart heading into rookie camp.
The Panthers have six defensemen on one-way contracts along with Joshua Brown and Ian McCoshen on two-way contracts, who both saw significant action in the NHL last season.
Brown played 37 games on the Panthers blue line last season, while McCoshen played in 19 games. Chances are Keeper and Stillman will head to Springfield with an opportunity to develop by playing every night and be ready if the Panthers recall a defenseman from the minors.
Keeper, 23, played the past two seasons at the University of Maine, where he scored 22 points each season and is set for his first season of professional hockey.
Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Stillman played his first year of professional hockey last season with Springfield, where he totalled 17 points in 59 games.
Last season, 35 different skaters played at least one NHL game for Florida, so chances are very good that each of these players will play for the Panthers at some point during the 2019-20 campaign.
Aside from the aforementioned players, there are players such as goaltender Ryan Bednard, who may be just one injury to Sergei Bobrovsky or Samuel Montembeault from being called up, or a handful of others looking to make enough of a positive impression to earn a professional contract.
I have followed the NHL since the early 1980s, when offense was king. I lived in the midwest until 2013, when I relocated to south Florida.