Jayce Hawryluk impressed the Florida Panthers coaching staff enough in the preseason to crack the Opening Night roster for the first time in his young NHL career.
His season debut? That had to wait a couple days.
After being a healthy scratch in the Panthers’ 5-2 road loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday to open the 2019-20 season, Hawryluk will be in the lineup for the Cats’ home opener — also against the Lightning — on Saturday night at the BB&T Center.
“That was the coaches’ decision,” Hawryluk, 23, said of sitting out Thursday’s game. “They decide what’s the best lineup for each night. ... I’m in there tonight, and my goal is to never come out.”
It might not be the only change to come as the Panthers continue to see which combination of players work best together as the season progresses.
“It’s tough to forecast,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes you make decisions and sometimes you have lineups you don’t like to mess around with or mix up. When you get a chance to make an adjustment or change, you look at it with everyone involved.”
Hawryluk, the Panthers’ second-round pick in 2014, scored seven goals and added five assists in 42 games last season — his first in the NHL. He made the opening roster after a strong preseason in which he scored one goal and added three blocks, seven hits and a takeaway in five games.
“He’s an energy type of guy,” Quenneville said. “We’re looking for that from him.”
He served as the right wing on the Panthers’ third line during Saturday’s morning skate, playing alongside left wing Frank Vatrano and center Henrik Borgstrom. He replaced Denis Malgin, who held that spot in Thursday’s season opener.
“We play with a lot of grit,” Hawryluk, the Panthers’ second round pick in 2014, said. “It should be an exciting night for us.”
‘A new chance’
The Panthers (0-1-0) hope it’s a winning night, too. They entered the season with expected hype following the hire of Quenneville and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to add to their talent young core of offensive firepower. Back-to-back losses to start the year — albeit against one of the league’s top teams in the Lightning (1-0-0) — would damper some of those early expectations.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” center and team captain Aleksander Barkov said. ”It’s a new day. We get a new chance, and there’s no better way to do it than on home ice.”
They struggled with that to start last season. They lost their first four games at the BB&T Center to begin the 2018-19 season — including once in overtime — and went 20-13-8 overall at home.
“A lot of teams will say that if you’re .500 on the road and have a higher winning percentage at home, that’s what you’re looking for,” Quenneville said. “We want to make sure that we’re one of those teams that takes advantage of the crowd, the building and one another here.”
They only have so many chances to make an impression at home early in the year, too. Eleven of the Panthers’ 16 games after Saturday’s home opener are on the road.
“We want to get people excited about hockey here as soon as possible and make them want to buy another ticket for the next game,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “We’re excited as players. We want to get our first win.”