Following a 6-0 win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday, the Florida Panthers have a 1-3-1 preseason record, which is meaningless, of course — games don’t begin to count until they open their season Oct. 3 at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But what does count are the roster battles, and here’s how that’s shaping up so far:
▪ Defensemen: The Panthers were the third-worst defensive team in the league last season, allowing 3.4 goals per game. Turnovers in their own end were a huge problem, and the Panthers will need improvements from the holdovers in the group: Keith Yandle, Aaron Ekblad, Mike Matheson, Mark Pysyk and MacKenzie Weegar.
The newcomer is Anton Stralman, 33, who left the Lightning in July, signing a three-year, $16.5 million contract.
Josh Brown is favored to be Florida’s seventh defenseman, beating out Ian McCoshen and Riley Stillman.
The good news for the Panthers in their first five exhibition games is that they went 16-for-16 killing penalties.
▪ Forwards: The Hockey News lists center Aleksander Barkov as the No. 8 player in the entire league, and winger Jonathan Huberdeau comes in at No. 48. Evgenii Dadonov completes a deadly first line that last season accounted for 93 goals and 102 assists.
In Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to Montreal, that trio combined for two goals and four assists, and a blind pass from Huberdeau to Dadonov for a score perfectly illustrated their chemistry.
Winger Mike Hoffman, whose 17 power-play goals last season ranked fourth in the league, leads a second line that also includes center Vincent Trocheck, a former All-Star who is now healthy. Hoffman scored a career-high 36 goals last season, the top number ever for a player in his first campaign with the Panthers.
Pencil in Panthers newcomer Brett Connolly on that second line after he scored 21 of his 22 goals at even strength last season with the Washington Capitals.
Connolly scored a goal in each of his first two Panthers preseason games, including one on a power play, showing he could be ready for an expanded role.
Frank Vatrano, who scored a career-high 24 goals last season, is an easy choice to lead the third line, if not higher. Next to him could be two former first-round picks the Panthers have been waiting on to produce: center Henrik Borgstrom and winger Owen Tippett, who have both had impressive camps.
Former Bruins agitator Noel Acciari, who had a game-high seven hits on Thursday, leads the fourth line. He ranked 16th in the NHL in hits last season with 2.6 per game.
That’s where the roster fights get interesting as Colton Sceviour, Jayce Hawryluk, Dryden Hunt, Denis Malgin, Anthony Greco and Troy Brouwer are competing for likely four spots.
Greco, who turns 26 next week, is a sleeper. He scored a goal on Thursday after coming up with a steal and he had two goals and one assist on Saturday. Last season, he led AHL Springfield and set career highs with 30 goals and 29 assists.
“We have some tough decisions to make,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said.
▪ Goalies: Sergei Bobrovsky, who was held out of the first four games as the Panthers evaluated younger goalies, figures to start 60-to-65 times this season. Among goalies, only Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is ranked higher than Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers.
Samuel Montembeault, 22, is expected to be the backup, but he has just 11 games of NHL experience. The Panthers could search waivers/trades for a veteran backup, but “Monty’s” shutout on Saturday helped his cause.
The Panthers have reduced their training camp roster to 29 players. Goaltender Phillipe Desrosiers, defenseman Ethan Prow and defenseman Thomas Schemitsch have been loaned to Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds and are expected to attend Springfield’s training camp.
The Panthers training camp roster now stands at 17 forwards, nine defenseman and three goaltenders.