SUNRISE, Fla. — Jonathan Huberdeau stepped onto the ice Thursday for his 10th training camp with the Florida Panthers, more than anyone else on the roster.
And this one, he said, had a different feel.
“We know what we can do,” Huberdeau said.
There hasn’t been a Panthers season with expectations this high in a generation. Coming off what was by far the best regular season in team history and having most of that core back along with its top six scorers, Florida opened camp on Thursday with perhaps more optimism than ever.
“I think expectations are not a bad thing,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think internally there’s expectations, as teammates, as linemates. I think that’s a healthy situation to be in. Our division is going to be in a position where you’re going to have to have a heck of a year just to make the playoffs.”
Florida went 37-14-5 last season in the truncated, play-only-your-own-division season necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. The .705 winning percentage was fourth-best in the NHL but still didn’t amount to playoff success. The Panthers lost in a first-round matchup to Tampa Bay in six games, and the Lightning went on to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
That meant Florida’s playoff drought — no series wins since 1996 — continued.
“We know we had our opportunity last year and we really let it slip a little bit,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. “We got beat there against Tampa in a really good series, but if we can play that over … it felt like we gave them a few games. I’m not saying we were better than them, but it felt like we have more to give. And I think this year is going to be our turn and we’re going to make sure we don’t let it slip like that.”
Training camps in the NHL go by in an instant. The Panthers have only three days of practices before opening their preseason with a pair of games Sunday against Nashville. They brought 47 players into camp, and there aren’t a ton of jobs available — but Quenneville is giving everyone a look.
They went in two sessions on Thursday for about an hour apiece of on-ice work, with things being split up as equitably as possible.
“Conditioning is part of it, getting a little bit of structure in how we have to play,” Quenneville said. “The repetitions as you go through practicing and games is going to be very familiar. Players will make the decisions for us by how they play and how they compete. … It’s a good situation.”
Unlike last season, Quenneville and his coaching staff were able to be on the ice without wearing masks Thursday — a sign that the Panthers are fully vaccinated.
“We don’t have to worry about any of that stuff,” Quenneville said.
The presumed No. 1 and No. 2 goalies entering the season — Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight — were in different sessions of camp Thursday. Quenneville said he has some idea how he wants to handle the goaltending situation, with Bobrovsky coming off an unsteady year and Knight making a quick splash upon joining the Panthers when his final college season ended last fall.
Bobrovsky “made some adjustments” to his game in the offseason, Quenneville said.
“Bob’s going to have the workload and Spence will push him in some areas and some ways,” Quenneville said. “I think it’s a good, healthy situation. Bob gets the net and Spencer’s going to be the guy learning and absorbing.”