The Panthers expect to be a much younger team next season and could have a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie on the roster for the third consecutive year.
Lawson Crouse, Florida’s top pick in last month’s draft, signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Panthers.
Although Crouse could be sent back to his junior team in Canada, the expectations are for the 6-4 forward to be on the big club as general manager Dale Tallon said he wants to see Crouse compete for a high-profile role on the team.
Florida traded forward Jimmy Hayes to Boston, helping to clear a spot for Crouse. Possibilities for Crouse include playing on Florida’s second line with 6-6 center Nick Bjugstad.
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“I have high expectations, and that is to come in and make that team,” said Crouse, who was the 11th overall pick of the 2015 draft held in Sunrise.
“It’s starting to sink in for me. I’ve had a chance to look back on the draft. I’m a pretty lucky kid. It’s been my goal to play in the NHL ever since I was a young boy, and now I’m one step closer to that goal.”
Tallon has watched a few top-end rookies make his teams over the past three years. After sending Erik Gudbranson and Jonathan Huberdeau back to juniors for more seasoning, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad both made the Panthers out of their initial training camp.
Huberdeau, who made the team in 2013, and Ekblad went on to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
“He’s such a great skater and has great hockey sense,” Tallon said. “For his size, he really has good control of his skills. I’m really impressed with him. He’s a leader and wants this badly. … He’s a kid who really has it inside of him. This is the opportunity he wants. He’s going to get every opportunity to earn a spot.”
The Panthers also made a couple of other moves, signing defenseman Alex Petrovic to a two-year deal with a one-way provision helping solidify his spot on the team.
Last year, Petrovic played in 33 games with the Panthers and showed he could be a full-time NHL defenseman as he ended the season strong.
Petrovic was a second-round pick in 2010.
“I thought he really came on the last 20 games,” Tallon said. “He was really determined and proved his worth and value to the team. I look for big things for him. He has some stability now and can play some big minutes for us.”
Florida also signed forwards John McFarland and Quinton Howden to one-year, two-way deals. Both are expected to compete for a roster spot.
Tallon added that negotiations are ongoing with Huberdeau, who is a restricted free agent.
“We’re confident we’ll get something done,” Tallon said. “We’re waiting to hear back from them and then we’ll move on that. There’s no rush. We just want to get the right deal done for both sides. There’s no concern.”