Panthers New Era Starts with Skills Camp

By Mark Fischel

For the last 11 days and just ending this Wed, the Florida Panthers brought down to South Florida the large majority of their recent draft picks and current prospects. They were taking part in a Strength, Conditioning and Skills camp, one of the new changes put in place by new GM Rick Dudley.

In a departure to when the Panthers held their camps in Thunder Bay, this year the players were able to get a glimpse of the sun, beaches, and warm weather that can welcome a player when he makes it to the NHL, but head Coach Mike Keenan feels there are other advantages for the prospects to train in Florida.

“I think it was a good idea of shifting this program here to South Florida for when they come to training camp, the surroundings are not new to them, and they feel more comfortable. They can demonstrate their abilities better if they feel more comfortable.”

While the camp wasn’t reserved for Panther prospects, some of the veterans spending their off-season in Ft. Lauderdale dropped by as well. Taking part in the camp were Peter Worrell and Joey Tetarenko, who hoped that by attending that they are maintaining their competitive edge, learning new skills, or reinforcing old ones.

“I think this camp is more of a learning experience for the young guys rather then the intensity of a training camp or the regular season.” Tetarenko commented, “This is more laid back and once they get to training camp they’ll see a more intense side of the coaching staff and the other players.”

For an attending player like Denis Shvidki, whose last two years of his career were slowed down due to injuries. He feels that this first camp under Rick Dudley is a good way to show his commitment to making the Panthers out of training camp.

“I think this camp is going to help me a lot to improve my game to be better as a hockey player. I am going to show everyone how good we are going to be next year. It was new for me with a lot of these guys, and a lot of these guys I haven’t seen before.

Avoiding the Past

For the last two years, the Panthers have been among the league leaders in man-games lost due to injury. The Panthers hope to reverse that trend by naming a new Strength and Conditioning Coach, Chris Reichart, to work with the prospects and veterans.

“I don’t think we are changing a lot. It is a triangle: Rest, Nutrition, and Exercise. If you do everything right, you may still get injured because it is a ballistic sport. People do hit each other and do try to hurt each other at times, but if they are prepared right and they are utilizing all their training skills, their chances of getting hurt are less”

While acknowledging that a new fitness program can reduce the time an athlete spends recovering, Riechart also notes the changes in the technology of the game, an area the Panthers are embracing.

“They are changing things in the game, changing the glass which should improve that aspect.” Chris Reichart told Hockey’s Future, “But they are stronger athletes then they were 20 years ago, so they will get hurt. But the big thing is that they are prepared right and they learn how to eat right, they can recover quicker, and if their muscles are in shape, their bodies are in shape, and aerobically they are in condition, they can come back quicker.”

Starting a New Beginning

In addition to introducing the team to a program that hopes to reduce injuries, Riechart is also going to be hands on in educating them about maintaining a diet, keeping certain fitness goals throughout the year, and keeping track of all the statistics. While the changes aren’t dramatic at first, they can be a factor when it comes to making the team.

“We really keep a tight record of things, because our success will be coming out of the chute making sure they are in shape, and conditioning is a major factor in that.” commented Reichart, “They do change in the 10 days, but it is baby steps. By the end of the 10 days, the baby steps become a yard, and then by the end of the summer a lot has changed.” They get a taste of what it is like to be in the NHL, and that taste is their dream, so we really hope they learn by that so by training camp they are usually ready.”

Reichart points out that all of this is done for one simple reason.

“What we want to do is get them to become elite athletes, to be winners”

Also new to the Panthers is the hiring of their first full-time coach devoted to the development of skills and skating, Paul Vincent. Having worked with Tampa Bay in Tampa Bay, Vincent feels that starting immediately can only help the prospects get off on the right foot.

“We educate the kids, not that they don’t have good coaches in the junior’s. What we are trying to give them is a few things to go home and think about, and maybe improve. Teach them how to skate a little bit better, or handle the puck a little bit better. Giving them some insight that Duane and others can use to help them get to the NHL quicker.”

After taping the first two days of skating drills, they are reviewed by the Panther’s coaches, edited for each player to highlight what each needs to work on. While vast changes are never needed for a player, it can be the subtle things that some players aren’t even aware of, and even the players with strong abilities always need some minor fine-tuning.

“Jay Bouwmeester is a fabulous skater, probably one of the best skaters to come out of jr hockey in a long time. But he has to learn how to stay square to the puck down at his end of the ice.” Duane Sutter, Director of Player Development said, “We all know what he can do up ice with the puck, but eliminating one or two cross-overs out of his game down low in our end, he will be a complete player.”

While the thought of spending 10 days working out and skating from 8:00 in the morning to 6:00 PM can be quite daunting to outsiders, Duane Sutter hopes that the message of hard work and knowing what one needs to do sinks in.

“I think a lot of is breaking it down and the kids being mature enough to understand that we are trying to help, and from that hopefully you see progress from day one, and I believe we have.” Sutter then warned, “Don’t be the last guy on the ice and the first one off the ice at practice. Be out there early and work on the points you have to improve on.”

Sutter continued, “There is not many perfect players in the game, and the biggest thing is that if you have to make an adjustment to an individual, is that they have to be approachable and mature enough to be able to take it in the right manner.”

For Stephen Weiss, the camp was similar to the one he attended in Thunder Bay and the WJC camp last year. He came into this camp fully rehabbed from the knee injury sustained during the last game of the season, but he still found some of the new program worth getting excited about.

“That was great actually, they broke it down and gave me a few tips to make myself better. They just break down the stride a little bit, making sure you are standing low and not standing up too much. If you stand up, you are going to lose some speed. It is the little things like that which help you get an extra step.”

After observing Stephen Weiss for the first few days, Paul Vincent was able to diagnose that Weiss needed to quicken his first step, a worry that won’t last long.

“He is a character kid and is everything you can ask for. He is a great kid. I only think he is going to get better, because he takes corrective criticism well.”

All Work and No Play?

What would be the fun of having a strength and skills camp without being able to have some kind of scrimmage? Scrimmage was broken down into two halves, with the first being 20 minutes, and finished up with a 30-minute session. Teams were broken down as thus:

Red Team

Forwards: Dustin Johner, Joey Tetarenko, Rob Globke, Josh Olson, Rob Fried, Greg Watson, Kyle Bruce, Sean O’Connor, David Morisset.

Defense: Kyle Rossiter, Paul Elliott, Jay Bouwmeester, Grant McNeill.
Goalie: Billy Thompson

Blue Team

Forwards: Peter Worrell, Stephen Weiss, Denis Shvidki, Pierre Dagenais, Gregory Campbell, Denis Yachmenev, Vince Bellissimo, Mike Woodford
Defense Vlad Sapozhnikov, Jeremy Swanson, Peter Hafner, Branislav Mezei
Goalie: House Goalie (or “target”)

Sitting out with ailments: Ryan Jardine (ankle), Petr Taticek (groin)

In short, it wasn’t surprising that the Red Team came away as the victors, with the Blue team having a house goalie (who really wasn’t that bad, all things considered). Red pretty much carried the play throughout the first half, and limited Blue to few shots through most of the game. After 50 minutes of game play, the Red Team travailed with a score of 8-4.

Overall, General Manager Rick Dudley came away pleased, “When you have young kids mixed in with some veterans, we watch them against the Worrell’s, the Shvidki’s, the Dagenais’s, and the Rossiters, the people who have played for us. They look good!”

While this was one scrimmage, it hardly can be used as an accurate reflection of the total game a player brings, so with that in mind here are some observations I was able to come away with.

Kyle Rossiter: Seems to have improved his skating from last year. Very vocal on the ice during camp, and even during the scrimmage decided to turn it up a notch by attempting to make some open-ice hits.

Jay Bouwmeester: As advertised, skates like the wind. Liked to go deep into the offensive zone when it called for it, and scored a goal by walking out of the right corner to the front of the net to put it past the goalie. In situations like this, he liked to take a lot of chances, relying on his skating and speed to get him back into position. Was able to rub out players effectively on the boards if needed, but relied more on positional play.

“Well, he is a fantastic hockey player. It is very obvious watching these scrimmages that he has all the innate ability and he will have to put on some size and strength.”- Mike Keenan

Dustin Johner: Used his speed very effectively and red developing plays very well. Scored two goals on two-on-one plays, with the assists from Bruce and O’Connor.

Rob Globke: Scored two goals, one the result of intercepting the goalie’s clearing attempt. Has a large frame that he is still growing into, and can be a potential power-forward type player. Sutter commented after the scrimmage, that he was pleased with how well Globke was able to get his shot off quickly.

Josh Olson Red’s 8th goal was the result of Olson parking his large body in the front of the net and whacking at the puck a few times to score. Olson has a very large frame and will be counted on to elevate his game to the AHL level. Very comparable to John LeClair’s style of play.

Sean O’Connor: Good skating for a big guy, was able to score from the right boards by beating the goalie over the glove hand.

David Morisset: Hasn’t lost an ounce of that speed he possesses, and he was able to start the scoring for Team Blue on a breakaway. Still needs to work on his finishing ability, but playing with the Sound Tigers in the Calder Cup Finals last season can only help his development.

Branislav Mezei: After Worrell, Mezei was probably the most physically imposing player on the ice. Great mobility and skates very well. Was able to start a few rushes with smart passes, and he has solid acceleration out of the zone with the puck. Will be given every chance to earn a spot this year.

Peter Hafner: Has a very good hard shot from the point, and he waited for the right times to use it. Good skater for his size, and most of the time he would decide to make the safe play rather than risk making a mistake. Just coming out of high school, Hafner is going to have a lot of time to develop while at Harvard.

“I though Peter Hafner, a guy who played high school last year didn’t look out of place.” – Rick Dudley

Stephen Weiss: Put on about 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season and fully rehabbed his knee. Played very well with Vince Bellissimo and together they capitalized on several scoring opportunities. Scored twice by blasting the puck from the middle of the circle area of the ice. Very patient play all game and his on-ice vision was VERY evident.

“Weiss has worked hard. He has gained weight and certainly gained some muscle mass. He has worked very hard and one thing without question is that he has the skill to play in the National Hockey League and be very successful.” – Rick Dudley

Denis Shvidki: Even though Shvidki didn’t show up on the scoring sheet, he was probably one of the highlights of the day. Very strong on his skates, he uses his body very well on one-on-one situations to shield the puck from the defenseman, while buying time for plays to develop. Great vision and seemingly play in any role given to him.

“He is quite capable of playing right now and it is all up to him. He has gone through some things and he has to get by them, with his skills and his abilities, he should play.” – Rick Dudley

Pierre Dagenais: Skating seems to have improved. Pierre knew one direction and that was to the front of the net. Worked well with Weiss on a two-on-one. Did miss on several opportunities that he might normally would have buried though.

Vince Bellissimo: My pick for one of the most impressive players today. Was very willing to carry the puck through traffic, and waited until the right time to pass it off if there was no shot. Probably likes to pass more than shoot. Very patient with the puck as well. Set up Stephen Weiss’s second goal by driving to the net and drawing two defenders, than calmly passed the puck to a wide-open Weiss. Will need to work on skating.

“I thought he was very good. His intelligence on the ice, he seems to have an idea where everyone is all the time. He seems to have a nose for the net and he does the little things right and he is very hard for the defensemen to contain. I liked him quite a bit.” – Rick Dudley

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