When the Panthers finally opened this season on Jan. 19, Jonathan Huberdeau made his much-anticipated NHL debut.
Huberdeau, the third-overall pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, was thought to be one of the few young players the Panthers would have to depend on.
Yet because of a truckload of injuries, the Panthers have become less of a veteran team and more a junior varsity squad.
On Tuesday night, Eric Selleck became the sixth player to make his NHL debut with the Panthers this season. Selleck also became the 13th member of the Panthers who appeared in the minor leagues this year. Selleck was ejected from Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Carolina for instigating a fight.
Florida and Tampa Bay lead the league with most players to make their debut this season.
“To get a guy to come up and play in their first NHL game, something that’s happened a few times the past few weeks, is always exciting,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “One thing you usually get is a short-term jump from a guy who is in their for the first time. They usually have a lot of enthusiasm.”
Huberdeau remembers his first night with the Panthers fondly — as well he should. Huberdeau came up with high expectations and was thought to be a Panthers regular from the start.
A goal with two assists in his debut only cemented his standing with the team, and he has appeared in all 30 games this season. Huberdeau, 19, leads the Panthers with 12 goals.
“It was great to have my first game be the first game of the season. It was really exciting,” Huberdeau said. “I got a chance to make my debut at home, and it went pretty well. I was happy with it, and I was pretty nervous before it started. Now we have a lot of young players who need to step up. There have been so many injuries, but I think we’ve handled it well. But I didn’t expect to play 18 minutes a night.”
Others, obviously, aren’t in the same boat and had to work a little harder to get the attention of the coaching staff to earn their keep.
Drew Shore, whom Dineen joked came to Florida with a suit and a pair of jeans, could have been one of many who have rotated between the Panthers and their minor-league affiliate over the past two years.
Shore, a second-round selection in 2009, played so well the Panthers had little choice but to keep him in the lineup.
“You really get to soak it in after that first game,” Shore said. “You sit back and go, ‘I just played in the NHL.’ Every kid works toward that, so it’s a pretty special moment. But after a few games, your goal shifts goes from just playing an NHL game to becoming an NHL player. You need to contribute.”
Colby Robak, a second-round pick in 2008, played in three games last season but is making his mark this year by taking advantage of Florida’s banged-up blue line. Robak, who turns 23 Sunday, has played in 11 games since being called up late last month.
“You can’t explain what it’s like to make your NHL debut because it’s something you’ve dreamt about since you were a little kid,” Robak said. “The butterflies are out of control. It’s strange because while this is still a game, one you’ve been playing since you were a kid, it’s also your job. You have to stay on your toes.”
On Wednesday, the league announced Selleck would be suspended an additional game for leaving the bench during a line change to fight Westgarth — who had tried to fight Tyson Strachan late in Tuesday’s game. Strachan declined said request.
Selleck would be eligible to return to the lineup Sunday against the Islanders.• The Panthers continue to be excited about prospect Vincent Trocheck — especially after the season he had in the Canadian junior leagues.
Trocheck, a third-round pick in 2011, won the Ontario Hockey League scoring title by bagging 50 goals with 59 assists in 63 games for the Michigan-based OHL teams in Saginaw and Plymouth.
The Pittsburgh native, who said at the draft he was a fan of the Panthers growing up, could compete for a spot on the team in training camp in September.