Led by Checkers head coach Geordie Kinnear, Florida’s squad went 2-1 across the three-game slate - falling to the Hurricanes 4-1 in the opener before beating the Predators 4-2 and then closing out the event with a 3-2 win over the Lightning.
Let’s look at some of the biggest takeaways from the weekend, including quotes from players and coaches courtesy of floridapanthers.com.
POSITIVE EXPERIENCEThe Southeast Rookie Showcase threw the prospects right into the swing of game situations, which, after an offseason of training, was a nice kick start for the Panthers squad.
“It felt pretty good,” said Justin Sourdif. “I obviously haven’t played a game since that last game against Hershey. It’s good for the guys to get the cobwebs and the rust out before main camp.”
“It’s nice,” said Mack Guzda. “You go all summer waiting to play. You work all summer so it’s nice to finally get out there and play in games.”
While the final scores in showcases like this don’t ultimately hold much weight, what this group brought to the ice each night was enough to impress the coaching staff.
“The competitiveness,” said Kinnear of his biggest takeaway from the weekend. “It’s tough because there’s not a lot of structure going on, you don’t have a lot of practice time, a group of people are put together and then you ask them to play at a fairly high level. But I think if you look at it - I’d take away the first game, but the next two games - the competitiveness, the willingness to do whatever it took to win hockey games this early in the year is a big positive for me.”
It may have only been one weekend, but donning a Panthers jersey and squaring off against their peers proved to be a welcome challenge for the prospects.
“I loved every second of it,” said Mackie Samoskevich. “I know most of the guys so I was pretty comfortable the whole way through. You’ve got a great group in there - a great group of people, great coaches - so it makes it easy for me.
“It’s good to be back playing competitive hockey,” said Michael Benning.
IN THE CREASEBetween the pipes for Florida’s prospect squad were one familiar face to Checkers fans - Guzda - and one they could be seeing more of this season - Ludovic Waeber.
Coming off a rookie campaign with Charlotte in which he logged 16 wins, Guzda took the crease for the first and last contests of the showcase. The 22-year-old ultimately stopped 60 of the 66 shots he faced and was a strong presence for the squad.
“We wanted to make sure he got his money’s worth for the rookie tournament,” said Kinnear after his team’s win over Tampa Bay on Monday. “I think it was good for everybody to understand that the game is played at a certain pace. They came after us, they were ready to start, and you need your goalie to help you find your game and he did that tonight.”
Utilizing the lessons from year one, the goaltender is taking this opportunity to ramp up for a big year two.
“I’ve been in this situation before,” said Guzda. “I have experience to lean on. I’m coming back and trying to build on last year to take a step forward coming into next season.”
Kinnear is obviously familiar with Guzda, and his impression at this showcase only elevated the coach’s belief in his young netminder.
“He’s competitive, first and foremost,” said Kinnear. “He’s a good teammate. That’s what we love about him, he always competes on every single puck at practice and makes his teammates better. I know he’s put a big summer in working out and you can tell it’s going to be a good year for him.”
Waeber took the spot between the pipes for the second contest, making 38 saves in a win over Nashville.
“He played very well,” said Kinnear after Saturday’s win. “He had some big saves. They had a couple pushes, a 10-minute stretch there where he had to be really good.”
The 27-year-old, who signed a one-year deal with Florida this summer, is making his first foray onto a new continent after spending the last six seasons in Switzerland’s top league.
“There’s a lot of newness for him,” said Kinnear after Saturday’s win. “He’s taking it with the right attitude, very positive. It’s a new adventure and he made the most of it tonight. Really like the way he played.”
For Waeber, the key to navigating that newness is to fall back on what he knows best.
“I know what I have to do,” said Waeber. “There’s always adjustments I can do, but I know how to play hockey. I just need to play at that level, that’s the main focus.”
From here Waeber will battle amongst the group of goalies that Florida has amassed, a challenge he is ready for.
“Just being here and trying to compete for a spot in the best league in hockey is a dream,” said Waeber. “I have to give my everything to get to that goal.”
SOURDIF SOARSIt’s not often that a 21-year-old can be referred to as a veteran presence, but when it comes to this prospect showcase, Sourdif took on that role with open arms.
“I had older guys helping me out when it was my first rookie tournament and I’m trying to pay that forward by helping the younger guys out,” said Sourdif, who is coming off his rookie year with Charlotte. “Hopefully they can get the cobwebs out and the nerves out before main camp because I know I was pretty nervous for my first one.”
Sourdif’s impact went beyond the leadership capacity, as the coaching staff turned to the skilled forward in big moments and he delivered.
“You look at Justin Sourdif at the end there,” said Kinnear after Monday’s win. “It’s always a team effort but I had him last year and now he’s getting the quality time on ice and making a big impact. You could see he really wanted to win that hockey game.”
These contests also introduced a possible spark between Sourdif and a potential teammate this season in Charlotte.
“Anytime you play with a guy like Mackie [Samoskevich], as talented as he is, he’s really easy to play with,” said Sourdif. “When he’s skating the puck up the ice I’m trying to keep up with him. I love playing with him and I definitely think there could be some chemistry there.”
FAMILIAR FACESSpeaking of Samoskevich, this showcase was the first chance a handful of skaters to show off what they learned in their late-season cameos with Charlotte last year.
“It was huge,” said Samoskevich of his time with the Checkers. “That two months after my Michigan season was huge for me. Learning what Geordie is like and how he wants to play. We get along well and he’s such a smart guy, knows so much about hockey. It’s really easy to learn from him. That two weeks was big for me. This weekend was pretty cool to continue that for sure.”
The roster also included some players coming off a full campaign in Charlotte - like Santtu Kinnunen, a big piece on Kinnear’s Checkers squad last season who stood out on the blue line over the weekend.
“He made a lot of plays,” said Kinnear after Saturday’s game. “They were a forechecking team and I thought he made a lot of plays out of the zone. Obviously he’s got an unreal shot, you saw that. The poise - I asked the second-year guys who have been with my group to take a step and I think you can see that he’s taken a step and he’s ready for that next phase of his development.”
KEEP AN EYE ONIn terms of skaters fans could see in Charlotte for the first time this coming season, the duo of Benning and Kai Schwindt caught the eye of the coaching staff over the weekend.
“You look at the first game, it’s a feeling out process for him, first pro game really against his peers,” said Kinnear of Benning after Saturday’s contest. “Then tonight I thought he had some really good impact. He’s only going to grow into it. There’s a lot to like. What you look for in these type of tournaments are guys that are willing to make plays in traffic because it is chaotic, there’s not a lot of structure because the kids haven’t played together. I thought he adapted, played the game and made a lot of plays for us.”
When it came to this prospect showcase, the 21-year-old Benning - who is coming off a stellar three-year tenure at the University of Denver - stuck to his guns.
“I’m just going to showcase myself and what I do best and see where things go,” said Benning. “I’m not overthinking it too much, keeping things simple. At the end of the day I’ve just got to play my game and showcase what I’ve got.”
For Schwindt, it was the little things that endeared him to Kinnear.
“He puts the daily process in,” said Kinnear. “He’s a great kid and a great competitor. You want to see guys like that be successful because he works so hard and wants it so bad. He has a big-time hunger to be a really good hockey player.”
That hunger to return to the ice helped propel the 19-year-old over the weekend.
“I love getting back and competing against high-end players,” said Schwindt.
MOVING FORWARDThe Southeast Prospect Showcase is now in the rearview, and after providing the prospects with a solid spark, it’s time for the focus to shift over to the upcoming NHL training camp - which will then feed into the start of Charlotte’s training camp ahead of the Checkers’ Oct. 13 opener.
“Great experience for the guys as part of the process moving forward,” said Kinnear of the showcase. “It’s a great starting point and it’s up to them now to build.”
Photo courtesy of Florida Panthers