A Hunger for Improvement - Panthers Training Camp Update

Sep 16, 2018

"Voice of the Thunderbirds" Ryan Smith is on location in Coral Springs, FL for Florida Panthers training camp activities. Sunday marked the final day of strictly practice activities prior to Florida's doubleheader of preseason action on Monday at the BB&T Center against the Nashville Predators. Games are slated for 3:30 p.m and 7:05 p.m. and will be streamed online - stay tuned to @FlaPanthers for more details.

If Saturday's vibe at the conclusion of Florida Panthers training camp was excitement, Sunday's follow-up theme was almost certainly a collective hunger - a hunger at the Panthers level to atone for a season that came up one point shy of a playoff berth. It was a difference so slim and yet, ironically, so monumental that the sting, for many players, still has not fully evaporated.

For the young players entering their first pro seasons, like Jonathan Ang, Patrick Bajkov, and Riley Stillman among others, Sunday was the first chance to have a live scrimmage setting following a summer dedicated to conditioning, muscle-memory drills, and mental preparations. 

Mistakes are to be expected in a de-rusting scrimmage setting, and while that was the case in Coral Springs Sunday, something else also came to the forefront. Although all comers wore the Panthers crest, very few friends existed between the walls of the rink. Big body checks and jostling matches were apparent throughout the narrow contest, which saw a two-goal performance by Julian Melchiori lead the Red Team to a 4-2 victory over the White Team. Thunderbirds' tough customers Bobby Farnham and Josh Brown, pitted against one another, did not back down, trading shoves and slashes in one notable sequence.

While I will always take practice and scrimmage results with a grain of salt, I did make some observations that should make Thunderbirds and Panthers fans feel very optimistic as both clubs strive for their first playoff berth in three seasons:


Below, take a peek inside the locker room for some of the notable quotes from head coach Geordie Kinnear, defenseman Julian Melchiori, and goaltender Sam Montembeault. Stay tuned to @ThunderbirdsAHL on social media tomorrow for live updates from doubleheader action as the Panthers host the Nashville Predators.

Newly-acquired D Julian Melchiori:

On his take on Sunday's scrimmage: “It was a quick pace, on the body. For most guys, all summer you don’t get that level of compete and contact. It was good to get back out there again and went pretty well.”

On if there’s pressure competing against younger guys in camp, as a veteran: “A little bit – I think it’s also just a great opportunity for myself to show coaches and management what I can bring to the table. I don’t really look at it (from a standpoint of) age and experience. I think I just try to be the best defenseman I can be, (regardless) of whoever’s on the ice with me. That’s how I approached it.”

On signing with Panthers and what drew him there in free agency: “Where I was, in Winnipeg, I was there for seven years. They had a pretty full blue line of guys locked up long term. I got stagnant there and I just wanted to explore something else. I was happy Florida reached out to me. The last couple of spots are kind of interchangeable and I’d like to think I can play myself into that mix.”


Second-year G Sam Montembeault:

On enjoying the scrimmage pace: “It was fun, especially the first 30 minutes. The guys came out really fast in the first 10 minutes especially. We didn’t have that many whistles; it was just a lot of back-and-forth offense, which was good.”

On prospects of playing tomorrow in doubleheader: “Last year, I didn’t play like I wanted for that exhibition game, so this year I want to just go in and do my best and hopefully get a win and good performance out of it.”

On the acquisition of veteran G Michael Hutchinson: “Obviously he’s a veteran, and if he comes into Springfield, he’s going to help me a lot. For me, watching (veterans) on and off the ice, it’s always good. Last year I lived with a veteran (last year) too, which helped me a lot. It’ll probably be the same thing with him.”

On his excitement for Springfield's season with the offseason additions: “I’m really excited. We had a lot of changes this summer, even on offense (in addition) to defense. Even the young guys that we have coming back have more experience. I think we’re going to be up for a good season in Springfield.”  


Thunderbirds Head Coach Geordie Kinnear:

On new acquisitions in offseason and how it may shape the T-Birds roster: “To be quite honest, I don’t know what the roster is yet, but when you look at guys like Paul Thompson, I think the thing that stands out is (the newcomers are) a competitive group, a veteran group that have been successful in the American League.”

On Paul Thompson and what he provides: “First, he’s a great person, and he does everything right every day. He comes to work, does his work, comes to the games and is competitive every single game. He holds people accountable when they need to be held accountable, and pats them on the back. He’s a true pro and he does everything right. That’s what you want your leaders to be, and he’s definitely all that.”

On important next steps for Sam Montembeault: “I don’t think it’s any secret for anybody, Monty included. You have to learn to come to work every day, and for you to take that next step, you have to get better every single day. Just to watch some of those (veteran) guys – how they work, how they prepare – it comes down to the mental preparation. He played a lot of games, but I thought he got better throughout the year. He had his struggles, but part of your growth is mental toughness and pushing through (struggles) and having them be a shorter duration. He’s put his work in this summer; we’re excited for him.”

On Julian Melchiori and what he can provide on the back end: “I’m still getting to know him – he’s a big body who moves very well for a big guy. He was on a great team in Manitoba that went into the playoffs and was one of the top teams defensively.”

On this training camp being more of an evaluation tool with he and Bob Boughner gaining more familiarity: "Bob has tweaked some things here and there to get better, and the synergy Bob and I have is even better this year. It’s a learning experience for me to work under a guy like that and watch him do a great job up here.”

On what he’s liked in the young players (Ang, Repo, Stillman i.e.): “They didn’t come in here trying to ease their way in. I thought they made an impression all through camp. They were engaged physically, mentally, and I think to be a successful pro, you have to have hunger. For me, I see a hunger in those players.”

On staying away from rookie tournaments and thus giving him a headstart with players in camp: “I think it’s great. I’m a teacher, so I was able to get more 1-on-1 time and teach guys. If you have a bigger group and you play games, it’s tough to get 1-on-1 time. The game is about doing the little things better than everybody else and giving guys little hints along the way. That’s how I learned, and for me, it’s really not ‘coaching’ a lot of times. It’s ‘teaching’ those little things and practicing it all the time.”

On improvements he anticipates for his team: “Well, we’re going to start on time. We had a tough start last season and then we played really well, but the (2-11-1) start didn’t allow us to keep pace with the better teams. The first game is critical for us.”

  1. Farnham and Harry Zolnierczyk go back a number of years, dating back to their days as collegiate teammates at Brown University. On top of being practically brothers off the rink, their style of play on the ice is staggeringly similar. Neither is of great size, but neither also is afraid of anything that is thrown their way. Proof of this came when Zolnierczyk coasted down the right wing, deking around a bigger defenseman and roofing a perfect snapshot for the highlight-reel goal of the day. 
  2. Melchiori scored two goals in this game, which is not his M.O. by any stretch of the imagination, but what stood out to me was his toughness. He stands 6-foot-4, maybe even 6-foot-5, and early in the scrimmage, a puck jumped off a deflection and clipped him near the mouth. Not even two minutes later, he was back over the boards, unfazed. I will never cease to be amazed by the fortitude of a defenseman who has the amnesia to get right back to blocking shots and throwing his weight around after taking a frozen puck up high.
  3. Sam Montembeault got his first taste of simulated game action in five months, and he showed flashes of the brilliance he displayed in spurts in his rookie season. There are few lateral movements he cannot do exceptionally well. When he gains more confidence in puck handling and his own belief in his abilities, I think he'll be in a position of advantage, particularly if Michael Hutchinson starts the season in Springfield. I see Hutchinson as another great resource for Montembeault in that event, and it should be more realistic to hope for Montembeault to play in around 30 games, as opposed to the 41 he played a year ago.
  4. Sebastian Repo opened the scoring in the scrimmage, and the more I watch him, the more I enjoy his game. He is expected to begin his North American career this season after spending time in his native Finland. He has a tremendous reach and can play on the wing or in the middle as a right-handed forward. He is extremely tough to move when he's parked near the crease, but he also has shown he can be very reliable in his defensive half of center. If he does not find a spot in Florida, he could really serve as a jack-of-all-trades for Geordie Kinnear in Springfield.
  5. Every single player we talked to - from Florida and from Springfield - is supremely antsy to get into live game action on Monday at the BB&T Center. Young players know it could be their first time on an NHL rink for quite some time, so don't try to tell them it does not mean anything being a preseason contest. Panthers coach Bob Boughner has stated he has no preconceived notions of line combinations for tomorrow's action, so it will be a case where the players will dictate who earns the ice time, and in turn, the attention of the big club.
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