Another year of Florida Panthers hockey means new opportunities and new faces in Sunrise.
Three of those new faces are of players who are about to experience their first taste of the National Hockey League with the Panthers opening the season later tonight in Saint Paul against the Minnesota Wild.
Mackie Samoskevich, Uvis Balinskis, and Justin Sourdif all battled through, and impressed in Paul Maurice’s rigorous training camp to crack the Panthers opening day roster — this being the first NHL job for all of them.
Samoskevich, 20, will have a great chance right away to make his mark and stick around in Sunrise. He’ll most likely be making his NHL debut tonight in the top-9, playing alongside Anton Lundell and Sam Reinhart against the Wild. Florida’s 2021 first-round pick expressed his excitement about getting to play in his first NHL game.
“It’s a long time coming, something I’ve set out for for a little bit now,” Samoskevich told reporters on Monday.
And for his upcoming rookie lap, he got a few pointers from his NHL friends. “I got some buddies that had their first already, so just don’t fall and make sure you do your hair before.”
Samoskevich said that he found out last weekend that he’d be sticking around in Sunrise for the start of the season.
“Paul [Maurice] called me in on Saturday before the game, told me I was resting and that I’d probably be in on Thursday (against Minnesota),” Samoskevich said. “[I was] a little pumped about that.”
On the blueline, 27-year-old Uvis Balinskis is still a rookie, but an experienced one at that. The Latvian native comes to South Florida this season after spending the last three seasons in the Czech Extraliga. He also has a few years in the KHL under his belt from his time with Latvian side Dinamo Riga.
In what is to be his first season in North America, Balinskis beat out multiple players with NHL experience to grab the seventh and final defensemen spot out of camp. His impressive finish to the preseason was enough for the Panthers to keep Balinskis in Sunrise.
“He’s built through his camp,” Maurice said about Balinskis. “I don’t know if surprised is the right word because the pro scouts worked hard to find a player like this, but [we’re] excited about the potential of it.”
Balinskis fits in quite well with the way the Panthers play — active defenseman who looks to headman the puck and push forward the play.
“We like the way he moves the puck but more like the way he plays the game without any fear,” Maurice added. “He’s trying to make plays, he’s trying to get involved… you can’t feel any nervousness from him.”
The starting six defenseman are set at the moment so Balinskis won’t be getting into his first game just yet. However, as the seventh defenseman, he may get his moment — whether it’s as an injury replacement or a performance swap — sooner than later.
While Samoskevich is already penciled in the lineup and Balinskis the next man up on the blueline, 21-year-old Justin Sourdif may not get into a game immediately, but the young forward 100 percent earned the right to be on the team out of camp.
“I’m really happy to be up here with the guys,” Sourdif said on Tuesday after making the team. “While I’m up here I’m just going to try and learn as much as possible and enjoy the experience.”
Florida currently has 14 forwards on their active roster — one of whom is the injured Sam Bennett (day-to-day) that won’t be playing Thursday night in Minnesota, and possibly not at all on this three-game road trip.
With Bennett temporarily out of the lineup, Sourdif will most likely start the season in Florida as the 13th forward. The youngster from British Columbia entered camp on the outside looking in, but he showed the coaching staff why he deserved to be on the opening day roster.
“Speed first, he’s got a willingness to get into the heavy areas quickly,” Maurice said on Sourdif. “We liked his energy.”
Maurice spoke highly of Sourdif and Samoskevich alike, and alluded to them both getting into their first NHL games eventually.
“We think there were two good young prospects there who are probably, sooner rather than later, going to make their NHL debuts, he was very good.”
Samoskevich, Balinskis, and Sourdif are waiver eligible, so if the Panthers want to see them get more ice time in the AHL — like they did with Spencer Knight — sending them down to Charlotte will always be in the cards.
As for now, there’s some great stories to be made for these three rookies.