Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ roster battle reaches crucial stage

Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant, center, runs drills with the players during hockey training camp, Monday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Coral Springs, Fla.
Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant, center, runs drills with the players during hockey training camp, Monday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Coral Springs, Fla. AP

As the Panthers packed up their gear and headed for the airport Friday morning, a good number of players hoped to return next week.

The reality is, many will not.

The Panthers play their first road games of the preseason on Saturday in a split-squad doubleheader against the host Nashville Predators.

On Sunday, the team is expected to make its first big cutdown of training camp. With the AHL San Antonio Rampage on the verge of starting its camp, players need to be redistributed.

Florida heads to Nashville with 49 players on its roster. When the team returns from Texas next week, it will likely have around 30.

“We’re going to play 40 guys [Saturday], and we just want them to compete hard for the jobs we have,” coach Gerard Gallant said.

“Hopefully, there are a lot of guys who work hard and impress us in showing they want to be here.”

The Panthers are expected to carry 23 players when the season starts in October and, barring injury, there aren’t many slots left to be filled.

A number of players are vying for one forward and one defensive spot.

Brandon Pirri, who came to the Panthers in a deal with the Blackhawks last season, is thought to have the edge on the forward position. Drew Shore, Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi are also fighting for that spot.

With Florida signing two veteran centers on July1, Shore, Pirri and Grimaldi have been moved to wing. To make this team, all three are going to have to show their versatility.

“You want to keep evolving your game both offensively and defensively,” said Shore, who has played 67 games with the Panthers over the past two seasons.

“It’s obviously not fun going up and going down, but a lot of guys have had to go through it. I think it makes you mentally stronger. Hopefully, I don’t have to do it again.’’

▪ Four of Florida’s five goalies will split the time in the doubleheader with Michael Houser — who is expected to start the season in San Antonio — getting the night off.

Houser played the third period and overtime of Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the visiting Stars.

▪ Rookie Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft, will make his Florida debut Saturday.

“I feel about 95 percent ready to step in,” Ekblad said. “I’m ready to play hockey against the men here in the NHL. The anxiety has been building.”

▪ Goalie Jacob Markstrom, traded to Vancouver in the Roberto Luongo deal last March, was placed on waivers by the Canucks on Friday.

Markstrom was Florida’s second-round pick in 2008 and played in 43 games for the Panthers over the previous four seasons.

Saturday: Panthers at Predators

When/where: 4 and 8 p.m., Bridgestone Arena, Nashville.

TV/radio: None.

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