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The Florida Panthers are nearly one quarter of the way through the regular season and find themselves in a much better spot than they were a year ago.
Despite dropping back-to-back home games for the first time this season — 3-1 to the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, 3-0 to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday — Florida is 12-7-1 through 20 games and are second in the Atlantic Division.
And this comes despite the team playing just two of those 20 games at full strength with the likes of Brandon Montour (16 games), Aaron Ekblad (16 games), Sam Bennett (12 games) and Aleksander Barkov (three games) all missing time early this season.
Panthers general manager Bill Zito spoke during first intermission Friday on the Bally Sports Florida broadcast about the state of the team through the first 20 games. Here are the highlights from that interview.
What has impressed you the most about your team so far this year?
“Probably the resilience of the guys that we had and then the ability for the newer players that we acquired over the summer to step in rather seamlessly in a difficult situation. It’s gone pretty well.”
Without Montour and Ekblad early, the blue line was retooled a lot. Specifically, Oliver Ekman-Larsson (five goals, six assists) and Niko Mikkola (three goals, five assists) have stepped up. Are you surprised they’ve been as good as they are?
“A little bit, but I mean, they’re they’re good players. Mikkola is a guy we’ve had our eyes on for some time. OEL is a guy who was well known throughout the league. The nice thing about this situation is it was a good fit for both those players. Our needs were something that matched their skill sets. It’s worked so far. it’s been working pretty well.”
At the center position, Kevin Stenlund is another player who has had to step up when injuries hit to Bennett and Barkov. You know him from your days in Columbus. What has stood out about him?
“He’s really stepped it up in a different way than when I was in Columbus. He was more of an offensive guy, a points guy, and he’s really solidified himself as a defensive center. It helps us having a right-handed center.”
Stenlund has five goals and two assists through 20 games while bouncing between centering the third and fourth lines as well as being a key contributor on Florida’s penalty kill.
When you look at the defensive numbers, the analytics and underlying numbers have been terrific. Did you think after a full year under Paul Maurice that this team would have that kind of structure? And has it happened quicker than you thought?
“It kind of happened the whole second half of last year, right? For us to maintain the system, I think it’s not as big a surprise for me. We see the guys not only adapting but starting now to excel.”
Paul Maurice before last season said a big factor in his job is getting Anton Lundell going. What have you seen in Lundell’s development?
“His game has taken another step with regard to playing in dirty areas and doing what Paul references as the hard things — going to areas where yeah, you might get hit, you might get popped. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of points thus far, but his game is elevated and defensively he’s been excellent.”
What do you think of the home crowds so far?
“Unbelievable, isn’t it? So many people have come in and it looks like everybody’s having a good time.”
The Panthers have had sellouts in four of their first 10 home games and have not had a crowd smaller than 16,142 at Amerant Bank Arena this season.
This and that
▪ The Panthers on Friday placed defenseman Mike Reilly on waivers. Reilly played in just two games for Florida.
▪ Defenseman Josh Mahura is expected to be on injured reserve for at least another week, Maurice said.