Panthers Main Camp - A Land of OpportunitySep 16, 2019
The Florida Panthers opened training camp on Friday with a unique buzz from years past. As the club looks for its first playoff berth since 2016, few stones have gone unturned since last season drew to a close five months ago. An influx of proven winners and playoff performers – head coach Joel Quenneville, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly, and defenseman Anton Stralman – has signaled to the fans in the Sunshine State that last year’s results cannot and will not be accepted.
Around NHL training camps, there is the common thread of competition – battling it out against your peers to earn your spot at the sport’s highest level. All players in training camp are hoping to prove their value and earn that right, but in South Florida, what young Panthers players are seeking should not be termed as a “chance,” but rather something greater.
“Everybody should be pushing for an opportunity here, or in the (American Hockey League),” Quenneville stated frankly. “To enhance your position organizationally is what it’s all about. There’s an opportunity there to move ahead internally here as well. Everybody should be looking to grab an opportunity, whether it’s to go by somebody, or to prove that ‘I want to be here, I want to play here, I want to take the next step.’”
Among those with the greatest opportunity presented is young Sam Montembeault. After racing out to an All-Star start to his second pro season in Springfield, injuries in Florida afforded “Monty” with his first big break in the NHL, and he answered the test with flying colors in winning four of his first five starts. With Bobrovsky entering the fold, Roberto Luongo retiring, and James Reimer moving on from the Panthers, the backup goaltending position now sits in plain sight for Montembeault as he battles last season’s other Springfield revelation, Chris Driedger (AHL-best .924 save percentage last season), for the right to be Bobrovsky’s second-in-command.
Despite some experts giving that gig to Montembeault on a de-facto basis, the 22-year-old goalie refuses to take it for granted.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Montembeault readily admitted. “I really need to show them that I deserve to be here. I’m going to have to work really hard to get that (job).”
What Montembeault does have going for him, however, is a unique upbringing in pro hockey that has seen him learn from a childhood idol in Luongo and, presently, a two-time Vezina trophy winner in Bobrovsky.
“I’m so lucky to go from a future Hall-of-Famer to a top-two best goalie in the league. I’m going to use that to my advantage.”
Quenneville would not tip his hand on Montembeault’s standing in the race for the backup job, but he did volunteer his insights into his young prospect.
“Sam is one of those goalies who has a great opportunity ahead of him, but we always say, ‘make the decisions for us’ by how you play and compete. I think he has looked good every day. He’s put himself in a position where there’s a great opportunity ahead of him.”
If anybody should know something about young players making the most of opportunities, it’s Quenneville. A three-time Stanley Cup champion in Chicago, he arrived to an underperforming Blackhawks squad early in the 2008-09 season. That organization, led in management at the time by current Panthers President of Hockey Operations/GM Dale Tallon, saw a bright light in its future in the form of its NHL-ready prospect pool. Patrick Kane (19 years old in 2008), Jonathan Toews (20), Dustin Byfuglien (23), Brent Seabrook, (23) and Duncan Keith (25) all were on the precipice of prolific careers. Under Quenneville’s guidance, the Blackhawks used their youthful skill in a seamless blend with veteran leadership to rise to the top of the hockey world with three Cups in five seasons.
The Panthers believe the same Tallon-Quenneville duo can produce similar outcomes with a young core already made up of NHL stalwarts Aleksander Barkov (24), Jonathan Huberdeau (26), and Aaron Ekblad (23). So does the head coach himself, when asked about what has allowed success to follow his NHL coaching career, to the tune of the second-highest win total in league history (890).
“I’ve been fortunate to be around great talent and great players (in the past). We like to play a fast, simple game where everybody is familiar with how we have to play, and we like to think on the offensive side and keep the puck as best as you can. That’s how we want to approach it, and we got a lot of those same ingredients.”
With meaningful preseason games beginning Sep. 16 and the regular season less than three weeks away, the Panthers now can only wait (impatiently) to see if the ingredients and the personnel can churn out the same entrée that satisfied the Windy City’s appetite throughout the 2010s.