While the Florida Panthers wait to see if they can sign any big-time free agents — a pair from Russia come to mind — their annual development camp began Thursday and continues through Sunday.
The camp is held at Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, and all practices are free and open to the public. All nine players the Panthers drafted last week are expected to participate, including first-round goalie Spencer Knight.
The Panthers would love to sign winger Artemi Panarin, the 27-year-old Russian who has produced 169 points in 160 games the past two years. But Panarin might just go to the highest bidder, with a price tag that could surpass $84 million for seven years. The Panthers are in pursuit along with the New York Rangers, Colorado Avalanche and others.
Russian goalie Segei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy-winner, is also on Florida’s wish list, especially with the news coming Wednesday afternoon that Panthers netminder Roberto Luongo has announced his retirement.
But Bobrovsky, like Panarin, won’t come cheap, either.
That’s what makes this week’s development camp so important, according to Panthers GM Dale Tallon.
“The less you can rely on free agency, the better off you are,” Tallon said. “Our goal is to have all draft picks on our team, but I don’t know if that’s possible.
“We have thoughts about long-term benefits for our team and not just short term.”
Long-term thoughts this week will focus on some intriguing prospects such as Knight, who was the 13th overall selection this year, making him the highest-drafted goalie since Jack Campbell was selected 11th by the Dallas Stars in 2010.
Knight, 18, the only goalie the Panthers have ever drafted in the first round, is set to play as a Boston College freshman this winter.
The other top goalie the Panthers will have at development camp is Ryan Bednard, 22, who was Florida’s seventh-round pick in 2015. The 6-5, 200-pounder played college hockey the past three years at Bowling Green, posting his best numbers (1.77 goals-against average) this past season.
He is ticketed this year for Florida’s minor-league affiliate in Springfield.
The top defensemen prospects at camp this week are Vladislav Kolyachonok and Brady Keeper.
Kolyachonok, an 18-year-old from Belarus, was Florida’s second-round pick this year. The 6-1, 185-pounder reportedly plays with a mean streak and tremendous speed.
Keeper, 23, played two years for the University of Maine and made his NHL debut this past season, playing one game for the Panthers. He will likely start the year at Springfield.
Among the forwards at camp, Owen Tippett — Florida’s first-round pick in 2017 — is the biggest name. Tippett, 20, is considered a pure goal scorer with good size (6-1, 215 pounds) and speed. He has seven games of NHL experience with one goal and no assists.
Two other young forwards to watch are Serron Noel and Logan Hutsko.
Noel, 18, is an emerging power forward with great size (6-5, 205 pounds). He was Florida’s second-round pick last year.
Hutsko, drafted by Florida last year in the third round, is a Tampa native who has 18 goals in 73 games at Boston College.
Meanwhile, this year’s development camp will be the first major opportunity for new Panthers coach Joel Quenneville to see the prospects he has inherited.
Quenneville, who has won three Stanley Cups as a head coach, will have more input on future drafts, Tallon said.
“He came into [2019 draft preparation] pretty late in terms of what we had already done,” Tallon said of Quenneville, hired in April. “But our organization is very transparent. We rely on everybody in the organization to have an opinion on players.”
“We will incorporate him more and more the longer he’s with us.”