‘Back in the swing of things’: Knight set to rejoin Panthers for training camp

Spencer Knight is inching closer and closer to his return to the FLA Live Arena ice, but it’s been a long road.

The 6-foot-4, 192-pound goaltender departed the Florida Panthers in February — in the thick of the NHL regular season — to enter into the league’s player assistance program, which is a joint venture with the NHL Players’ Association.

The collaboration formed in 1996, and gives players a safe space to work themselves back to their sport, both physically and mentally. Knight entered the program for undisclosed reasons.

Allowing the players to have access to phone lines and counselors in every city in which there is an NHL team, the program has become an integral part of the league’s operations. The resources are always confidential, and the players — when they return — are free to speak about as much or as little as they’d like.

Bill Zito, Florida’s general manager, conveyed last month, in a press conference, that he and Knight, 24, communicated via text message “pretty frequently” while he was in the program. And now that he’s back in red and blue – taking part in the club’s development camp last week in Coral Springs – Zito appears comfortable that Knight is on track to be a full participant in September’s training camp.

“He’s doing well,” Zito said. “And we expect him back in the fold in the fall.”

The development camp consists of rising junior and college hockey players, so Knight was the lone NHL player in the mix. It didn’t seem to bother him much, though, as he took part in team-building events, on and off the ice. Attending a Blink-182 concert in Sunrise, and making sushi with his teammates, were just a few of his adventures.

In fact, being surrounded by younger players who have not played a single minute in the NHL did not seem to have an effect, at all, on Knight, who spoke publicly for the first time since entering the assistance program.

“I honestly approach it like it’s just a great opportunity to play hockey,” he said of the development camp. “I think any opportunity to play hockey is a great opportunity. But I think honestly in terms of my game, I think it is, too. You’ve got to come in and just work hard.”

Goaltender Anthony Stolarz, a free-agent addition to the Florida Panthers this month who played for the Anaheim Ducks last season, came to Sunrise on a one-year deal, and will compete with Spencer Knight for the club’s primary backup slot behind Sergei Bobrovsky. (Photo courtesy of Anaheim Ducks)

Even if it helped him get back into the flow of things, the Panthers goalie is well aware that the regular season — let alone the Stanley Cup Playoffs — are not the same as any practice or any camp.

“There’s things I’m working on here, whether it’s your positioning or your skating, (that) I always say you can’t really replicate in environments where there’s not a structure or intensity,” he said. “So, this is one step. It’s fun to just get back in the swing of things.”

Last season, serving as backup to Sergei Bobrovsky, Knight was the starter 19 times, garnering a record of 9-8-3. He also mustered a 3.18 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.

The hope is that Knight will again be the clear-cut No. 2 option in the net behind Bobrovsky. Being able to mitigate the wear and tear down the line — to keep Bobrovsky, 34, healthy and fresh for a potential playoff run — would be ideal.

Although, if Knight is not always available, the Panthers signed Anthony Stolarz from the Anaheim Ducks earlier this month. He agreed to a one-year, $1.1 million contract.

Stolarz, 29, had a 5-6-0 record and a 3.73 GAA in Anaheim. He also had a .897 save percentage in 19 games. It is important to note that the Ducks had one of the worst defenses in the league last year, which contributed to his statistics. For his career, though, his GAA is at 2.93, while his save percentage is at .912.

Zito took all of that into account when making the acquisition, knowing what Stolarz could bring to the ice.

“Anthony’s size and exceptional rebound control make him a strong defender of the crease,” Zito said. “His signing provides goaltending depth for the club going into the 2023-23 season.”

After helping the Florida Panthers to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs last season as a backup, goaltender Alex Lyon — a fan favorite at FLA Live Arena — signed a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings this month. (Photo courtesy of Florida Panthers)

It is very possible Stolarz takes over the role of former Panther Alex Lyon. A veteran who took over at No. 2 last season when Knight left, Lyon was thrown into the starting role when Bobrovsky was injured, and delivered when it mattered most, helping the Panthers to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

But his success led to a new deal elsewhere. Earlier this month, Lyon, 30, signed a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, carrying an average annual value of $900,000. Detroit — a team on the rise that didn’t make the playoffs last season — liked Lyon’s 9-4-2 record, 2.89 GAA and .912 save percentage, and gave him a payday, as well as the security of a second year on his deal.

So, the Panthers, looking to return to the Stanley Cup Final, appear set to enter training camp with Bobrovsky, Knight and Stolarz. Indeed, it is a crowded goaltender room, but one that has regained some depth, experience and talent, a recipe for success in the NHL’s nets.

Steven Posada is a senior majoring in Digital Communications and Media. His parents moved to the United States from Colombia and he is looking to chase his dreams and that is to work in sports. He aspires to work in production for sports but is also open to writing or reporting for a team if presented the chance.