For players such as Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden and others, their road to the opening night roster officially begins on Saturday when Florida's rookie camp opens in Coral Springs.
Gudbranson is the most likely candidate among the prospects to make it. The third overall pick in 2010, the hulking defenseman was on the cusp of making last year's squad only the two sides couldn't come to terms on a contract. That's not the case this year as Gudbranson signed an entry level deal with the team following the end of Florida's development camp in July.
The Panthers first practice at the Coral Springs IcePlex is Saturday at 9 a.m. Admission is free.
“I'm excited to see how they all have progressed from the summer,'' general manager Dale Tallon said. “We have really solid depth at all positions. The veteran guys better know that the kids are here to push them for jobs. That's what this is all about. When you can develop competition among your ranks, then you've got something. That's how you become a better team.''
There aren't many spots available to rookies this season after the Panthers went on a spending spree when the free agent market opened July 1. But Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos have said there will be room if players show they are ready to play at the NHL level.
Both Santos and Tallon have stressed that players won't be rushed to the NHL level like the Panthers have done in the past, although if they think a player is ready, they'll be on the team. Tallon says he expects Florida to carry 22 players into the regular season.
The Panthers open regular training camp next week. Florida's rookie camp will also include a mini-tournament against Nashville and Tampa Bay. The Panthers first rookie game comes Sunday afternoon against the Lightning in Coral Springs.
“Dale and I came in here a year ago with the mindset that you draft well and not rush young kids into the NHL,'' Santos said. “That has happened here without much success. We're only starting Year 2 of this process and we want to develop these kids. Yes, it's going to be hard for them to make the Florida Panthers right now. But that's a good sign.''
One person the Panthers will be keeping their eyes on is goalie Jacob Markstrom. The 21-year-old made his NHL debut with the Panthers in New Jersey last January, but suffered a season-ending knee injury a few weeks later while playing for Florida's then-AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
With Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore under contract, Markstrom is expected to start the season with Florida's new farm club in San Antonio.
“This is what you've worked for all summer. I'm definitely excited,'' Markstrom said. “I can't wait for the games to start. I've been 100 percent with the knee for about a month. It hasn't felt this good in a long time. I don't think about it at all when I practice. You don't want that in the back of your head.''
Shawn Matthias ended his contract impasse with the Panthers just a week before training camp opens as the 23-year-old center signed a two-year deal that could be worth as much as $1.6 million.
The biggest hurdle to getting a deal done was getting Matthias to agree to a two-way deal, meaning the Panthers can send Matthias to the minors and pay him considerably less than his NHL salary of $800,000. Matthias got a two-way deal for 2011-12, but his 2012-13 pact is one-way specific.
“It's nice to have it done, not have to worry about it anymore,'' Matthias said. “Now I can just start to worry about camp. There are a lot of guys fighting for job. I have to go in with the right mindset and do what I know I'm capable of. If I do that, good things will happen.
“There is a good group of guys here, a lot of good hockey players. It's a new culture here, players are expected to work. We owe it to them to give them our best. Competition is healthy. It's going to drive us, make us better.''
Santos has made it clear that there is only a few spots available and plenty of competition. Matthias is battling for a forward spot with the likes of Evgeny Dadonov, Ryan Carter, Steven Reinprecht, Michal Repik, Scott Timmins, Huberdeau and Tim Kennedy.
“I'm glad Shawn signed and is back in the fold,'' Santos said. “Some deals take longer to do than others and you have to work at it. I think this is a good deal for both sides. The guys who deserve to be on this team will be on this team.''
--Panthers single game tickets go on sale Saturday at noon.