Panthers training camp preview

By William Slawter

Many of Florida’s top prospects got an early start to the 2006-07 season at the Toronto Rookie Tournament held Sept. 7-12. Twelve of the Panthers top 20 prospects participated in the tourney, which also featured squads from the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and York University.

In total, 22 Panther hopefuls competed for a shot at joining Florida’s main training camp, which begins Sept. 15 in Vail, Colorado. With the Panthers roster basically already full, very few slots will be open for the franchise’s young up and coming talent.

Offseason movement

Before his departure on Sept. 4, General Manager Mike Keenan made a series of signings and player movements over the summer. While the trade of franchise goaltender Roberto Luongo and the resulting acquisition of Todd Bertuzzi made all the headlines, several prospect signings also took place. OHL goaltender David Shantz and defenseman Bret Nasby, both Florida selections in the 2004 draft, agreed to terms in May and will likely play with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. David Booth, an up-and-coming power forward also acquired in the 2004 draft, signed on July 21. After spending four seasons at Michigan State University, Booth is likely headed for Rochester of the AHL. Janis Sprukts, drafted back in 2000, also reached a deal, and is considered ready for a shot at the Panthers lineup. The 24-year-old center spent last season in Finland, where he registered 28 points in 35 games with HPK Hameenlinna of the FNL.

Limited roster space

In addition to Bertuzzi, the Luongo trade also brings in defenseman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld. Allen, along with the free agent signings of Ruslan Salei and Ari Vallin, will give the Panthers nine veteran defenseman with only seven or eight slots to fill. This will all but eliminate the chances for any defensive prospects to be playing in Miami this fall. None would have been considered ready regardless.

The void left in net in the wake of the Luongo deal was evident, and the Panthers responded by adding Ed Belfour and Craig Anderson to a system that already included Auld and 28-year-old Jean-Marc Pelletier. Top goaltending prospects Shantz and Tyler Plante, drafted in 2004 and 2005 respectively, will gain good experience in training camp but are still a few years away. Shantz is slated to backstop the Everblades this season, while Plante is due back with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.

Top-rated Rostislav Olesz is the only prospect in the Panthers system who is guaranteed to play NHL hockey this season. With the June signing of 33-year-old Finnish free agent Ville Peltonen, Olesz will move down a notch on the left wing depth chart, and is penciled in to play the fourth line alongside Chris Gratton and Juraj Kolnik. He will likely remain a key component to the penalty-killing unit, where he spent considerable time during his 59 games last season.

Other than Olesz, Anthony Stewart is the only other prospect with a good chance of being in Florida when the Panthers host the Bruins on Oct. 6. Stewart did play 10 games with the team last season, notching two goals and an assist, before sustaining a wrist injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. Having played just 14 total games between the AHL and NHL, he needs some time to ramp his game back up before seeing more time with the big club.

Sprukts, along with right wing Rob Globke, also has a shot, but will likely be in Rochester alongside Stefan Meyer, Booth, and Kamil Kreps.

Preseason schedule

Sept. 17 @ Calgary Flames, 8 pm
Sept. 18 @ Edmonton Oilers, 9 pm
Sept. 20 @ Atlanta Thrashers, 7 pm
Sept. 21 @ Chicago Blackhawks, 8:30 pm
Sept. 23 vs. New York Rangers in Puerto Rico, TBD
Sept. 24 @ Detroit Red Wings, 7 pm
Sept. 27 vs. Atlanta Thrashers, 7:30 pm
Sept. 28 vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 7:30 pm

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