Panthers, Thunderbirds ready to go as preseason comes to an end

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers are set to face the New Jersey Devils in their season and home opener on Thursday, and they’ll do so with some new captains and a new-look lineup. In this article, I’ll tie up some loose ends regarding the Panthers’ roster as well as that of their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds. 

The first big piece of news surrounding the Panthers comes by way of an unfortunate injury. Jonathan Huberdeau’s left ankle was cut by the skate of Sergey Kalinin in the 1st period of the Panthers’ final preseason game at West Point on Saturday, forcing him to miss the next 3-4 months as announced by the team.

Huberdeau, the Panthers’ top-line winger, was expected to have a breakout year and be an important part of the team’s top-6 alongside linemates Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr. Last season, the 23-year old tallied a career-high 20 goals and 39 assists in 76 games, and he came into training camp this year better than ever after signing a new 6-year deal in the offseason.

“He looked great,” said head coach Gerard Gallant of Huberdeau last season. “At training camp, it looked like he put on 10 pounds of muscle, he looked great the whole time at training camp. Usually [Huberdeau’s] a little bit of a slow starter, but he was looked really good.”

Expected to replace Huberdeau on the top line, to start the season at least, is Jonathan Marchessault who the Panthers signed to a 1-year deal in the offseason with the intent of improving the team’s bottom-6 scoring depth. Marchessault was originally going to slot in on the 3rd line, but after the Huberdeau injury and an impressive showing on Saturday at West Point which included a power play goal and a slick cross-ice assist, he’ll be tasked with attempting to replace at least some of the offense that’s been lost.

“They’re obviously really good players,” said Marchessault on Barkov and Jagr. “We saw what they did in the past and it will be fun to be able to play with two guys like that.”

Marchessault, one of the more underrated players in the league, skated for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season where he bounced around from line to line and even spent some time with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. The 25-year old Quebec City-native is known for his offensive skills which he used to put up points at nearly a point-per-game pace in 4 consecutive AHL seasons.

With the Panthers losing Bjugstad last week to a broken hand and now Huberdeau, the coaching staff will be forced to rely on the team’s depth which includes not only Marchessault but also Shane Harper, and Greg McKegg, two forwards that made the Opening Night roster out of training camp.

The 27-year old Harper is looking to make his NHL debut after spending the past 3 seasons in the AHL as well as some time spent in the ECHL before that. During the 2014-15 season, Harper finished 3rd in the AHL with 32 goals for the Chicago Wolves and that performance prompted the Panthers to sign him to a 1-year deal as a depth scorer. Last year, he was one of the offensive leaders for the Portland Pirates – the Panthers’ former AHL affiliate – and finished the season second in scoring on the team despite missing time with injury.

Although Harper will be playing in the bottom-6, he’s not a “grinder” by any means. He’s best described as a “Juss Jokinen-lite,” in that he’s a smart 2-way player with great hands and playmaking abilities as well as some speed and energy which makes him great on the forecheck. Gerard Gallant said recently that the team wanted to calling him up twice last season but his injury prevented the move.

Greg McKegg could play in his first NHL Opening Night game after spending 15 games with the Panthers last season in addition to some time with the Maple Leafs before the trade. McKegg tallied a goal and an assist with a +2 rating in 3 preseason games, and like Harper, he made a strong push to make the Panthers’ roster over players like Connor Brickley, Kyle Rau, and Logan Shaw.

“He’s a good solid player, said Gallant. “He doesn’t surprise me when he plays well; I trust him.”

Taking over for Bjugstad at the 3rd line center position will be Denis Malgin, the 19-year old that turned heads at the Panthers’ rookie tournament in September by scoring 6 goals to go along with 1 assist in 3 games. Prior to being drafted by the Panthers, Malgin had a couple of seasons of pro experience under his belt from playing in NLA and NLB, two of the top men’s leagues in Switzerland. This past season was his second in NLA with the ZSC Lions where he played with 2016 1s overall pick Auston Matthews.

Malgin plays a complete 2-way game, and that’s what impressed the Panthers the most while making him a lock to take over for the team’s 22-year old center when he went down with an injury on Tuesday against the Stars. His vision and hockey IQ are off the charts, and he’s usually one of the calmest players on the ice at any given time.

The 4th line will be centered by Derek MacKenzie while Malgin’s wingers are expected to be Jared McCann, who the Panthers acquired in May after dealing Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver, and Colton Sceviour, a free-agent signing. The Panthers’ second line of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith – which lit up the opposition for most of last season – will be the one constant for the forward group to start the season at least.

On the defensive side of things, Steven Kampfer will serve as the team’s 7th defensemen with Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle at the top. Jason Demers will  be with Mike Matheson, and Mark Pysyk will patrol the left side with Alex Petrovic.

The other big news is the naming of Derek MacKenzie as the Panthers’ 9th captain in history. The announcement, which included Aaron Ekblad and Jussi Jokinen being named assistant captains, came on Sunday after the Panthers’ game against the Devils at West Point.

“When you look around the league, I might not be the most common kind of player that’s been wearing the ‘C’ the last few years,” said MacKenzie, “but I’ve said it all along: this group of guys we have here, especially the young guys, it’s obvious that one of them will wear this thing in the near future, and to just be part of the process, at this point in my career, it’s a lot of fun.”

MacKenzie will become the Panthers’ second captain since the start of the 2014-15 season with Willie Mitchell serving the role for 2 seasons before leaving the team as an unrestricted free-agent this past offseason. The 35-year old MacKenzie isn’t new to the captain position; he not only served as a Panthers’ assistant for the past 2 seasons but was also a captain with the Syracuse Crunch and Chicago Wolves of the AHL as well as the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL.

Many have argued that the Panthers should have given the captaincy to Aaron Ekblad who’s seen as one of the many faces of the franchise as well as one of the best young players in the league. However, Ekblad is just 20 years old and has plenty of time left in his career (and with the Panthers) to be given the title. It’s widely known that the Panthers have an incredibly solid locker room – and one that’s run by committee, so Ekblad’s voice won’t be lost by any means, and it certainly won’t be now that he’s wearing an ‘A.’

“Obviously,” said MacKenzie when asked if he could be grooming Ekblad for the role of captain. “You look at his career and it seems natural, it seems like it’s gonna be, but I want him to enjoy it too. There’s nothing wrong with giving it to him early but he’s having fun and he’s just playing the game right now; he’s done an excellent job at that. I think what’s best for us right now is for him to continue to just be an outstanding defenseman and do what he does.”

Since being signed as a free-agent by the Panthers in July of 2014, MacKenzie tallied 42 points in 217 games while playing a vital role on the 4th line and penalty kill, taking important face-offs, and being deployed late in games to secure a lead.

Now, with the Panthers’ roster set for the start of the season, our attention turns to their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, who have benefited greatly from the organization’s depth. The Thunderbirds won both of their preseason games this past weekend against the Providence Bruins and Hartford Wolf Pack and allowed just 1 goal in total.

The Panthers’ final roster cuts came on Monday, and they included top defensive prospect Ian McCoshen and goal-scoring forward Paul Thompson, both of which nearly made the big club.

Prior to those moves, Kyle Rau, and Logan Shaw – 2 players who were thought to have the best chances at making the Panthers out of camp – were assigned to the Thunderbirds, and that bodes incredibly well for their lineup. They’re both expected to slot into the top-6, while Juho Lammikko, Dryden Hunt, and Paul Thompson, and Chase Balisy will be options for the top half of the forward group as well.

In the Thunderbirds’ bottom-6 will be players like Anthony Greco, who was signed to an AHL deal by the Panthers, Graham Black, a young center acquired in the Marc Savard trade, Rihards Bukarts, Steven Hodges, and Ryan Horvat. Brody Sutter was acquired by the Panthers from Carolina in exchange for Connor Brickley, and as a tough player with very good size, he’ll have a bottom-6 spot as well.

Jayce Hawryluk is still recovering from a broken hand he sustained on September 18th in fight with Jakub Vrana during a rookie tournament game against the Capitals. His cast has been off for a couple of weeks now and he’s likely going to be eyeing a return towards the very end of October or the beginning of November if all goes according to plan. Once he returns, odds are he’ll slot into the top-6 right away as he’s easily one of the Thunderbirds’ top offensive weapons.

On the Thunderbirds’ backend, things have the potential to be a bit crowded. Ian McCoshen is likely to be on one of the top 2 pairs as is Brent Regner and Jakub Kindl. Linus Hultstrom, who could’ve been one of the Thunderbirds’ top defenders, was loaned back to his team in the SHL by the Panthers, although he can be recalled to the AHL or NHL at anytime. MacKenzie Weegar should have more of a regular spot this year after a solid showing during the preseason, but after him, it gets a bit hairy.

Sena Acolatse, who’s 1-year contract with the Panthers ended at the start of the offseason, appears to be back with their AHL affiliate once again and could be a good option for the bottom pair. There’s also Michael Downing and Thomas Schemitsch, who are entering their first seasons of pro hockey, as well as Josh Brown, who bounced between the ECHL and the AHL last season.

There’s certainly a chance that Downing and/or Schemitsch spend time in the ECHL this season, but they’re full of defensemen as well being that they’re officially affiliated with the Kings and unofficially with the Panthers. That being said, the Thunderbirds may be forced to do some rotating on that bottom pair over the course of the season if they’re unable to fit guys into the mix in the ECHL.

Goaltending-wise, the Thunderbirds will carry three of them this season: Mike McKenna, Reto Berra, and Sam Brittain. It remains to be seen how the workload will be split, but it’s likely that McKenna will get the most starts out of the 3 with Berra not too far behind. All three have contracts expiring at the end of this season and it’s unlikely that the Panthers will bring each back, especially with Samuel Montembeault expected to turn pro next season, so it’ll be important for them to make the best of their opportunities when they do get starts.

Finally, defenseman Ed Wittchow and goaltender Colin Stevens have been sent to the ECHL where they’ll probably spend the whole season. Wittchow is turning pro after 4 years at college while Stevens is entering his 2nd pro season and his 2nd in the ECHL.

The Panthers open their season at home on Thursday against the New Jersey Devils, the Thunderbirds travel to Pennsylvania to face-off against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Saturday, and the Monarchs host the Adirondack Thunder on Friday.

For more on the upcoming season, check out our in-depth preview here.

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