For the first time in recent memory, the Panthers have legitimate forward depth on their roster.
Not only does Florida have a bunch of players — Drew Shore, Rocco Grimaldi and Quinton Howden, to name a few — biding their time in the minor leagues, but it has extra bodies on the big roster as well.
With just about everyone healthy now, Florida has a pair of extra forwards on its roster, giving coach Gerard Gallant some options.
It also makes Gallant have to make some decisions on who plays and who sits.
“It’s the worst part of my job, and I’ve told the guys that,” Gallant said after Saturday’s practice in Coral Springs.
“The last game we had two good, veteran hockey players sitting out. They don’t like it but have accepted it and moved on. You try to win every game. I’m not sitting out guys because I don’t like them. We have 22 healthy guys. It’s a tough part of the job. As a coaching staff, you want to put your best lineup out there.”
In last Saturday’s loss to the Penguins, Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri were scratched.
In Monday’s rematch, those two were in, and Tomas Fleischmann and Brad Boyes were out.
After Saturday’s practice, it appeared that Fleischmann and Pirri would be the ones sitting on Sunday against Toronto.
“There is definite in-house competition, which makes everyone better,” Pirri said last week.
“For me, I have to produce when I have the opportunity to be in the lineup. I haven’t cashed in recently. I just have to do it.”
Hayes made sure Gallant would have second thoughts about sitting him again, scoring twice on Monday to give him nine goals, which is second on the team despite playing in only 24 games.
The previous time Hayes was scratched in November, he followed that up with a goal in his next game.
“I don’t know if sitting him gets him going,” Gallant said afterward, “or if it’s my stupidity in not playing him every game. He was big [Monday]. It was a big game for him. I’m real happy for him.”
Hayes, who hadn’t been scratched in some time before last weekend, said missing out on being part of the team is the toughest part of sitting out.
“We have a lot of depth, and that means there’s competition for everyone,” Hayes said. “It’s not a bad situation; it’s a good one. You have to stay focused at all times.”
Although the Panthers don’t have any extra defensemen now after trading Colby Robak to Anaheim, Erik Gudbranson notices the extra competition in practice.
Playing time with the Panthers these days isn’t just a foregone conclusion.
“It’s a tough thing for the guys going through it, but it’s good for the team,” Gudbranson said. “It makes our practices much more important, makes us sharper and helps us throughout the season. Inner competition is something you try to find anywhere you go.”
BIG GAMES ARRIVE
The Panthers kick off a big three-game run Sunday as Toronto is the first of three playoff teams to visit Sunrise in a four-day span.
Florida hosts the Maple Leafs on Sunday, with Montreal in town Tuesday. The Panthers will then host the New York Rangers on New Year’s Eve.
All three of those teams are currently holding a playoff position. Florida went into the Christmas break two points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“These are huge, obviously,” Roberto Luongo said. “The reality is we have to focus on [Sunday] because they are a team in our division that we’re chasing. We have to pull all our energy into that. Then we’ll move on.”
▪ Forward Shawn Thornton (groin) was still missing from practice and will sit out his eighth game in a row Sunday.
“He’s just not ready,” Gallant said. “I expect to see him on the ice in the near future.”
Sunday: Maple Leafs at Panthers
When/where: 5 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.
Series: Toronto leads 33-27-7.
Noteworthy: The Panthers played the Maple Leafs tough last season, winning three of the four meetings. … Toronto snapped a three-game losing streak with a 4-0 victory at Dallas on Tuesday night.