By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – So many eyes are watching the Florida Everblades on any given game night, but for six players in particular, they know on certain nights there are an extra set or even two watching.
Forwards David Brine and Dustin Johner, defensemen Bret Nasby, Jeremy Swanson and Martin Tuma and goaltender David Shantz all are under contract to the NHL’s Florida Panthers, who play their home games a little over an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Germain Arena.
Because of that close proximity, key members of the Panthers’ hockey operations staff are able to watch and evaluate these guys on a regular basis.
Brine, Nasby and Shantz are rookies, and Nasby played his first ECHL game Friday after missing the first month because he had to undergo nasal surgery in early October. But Johner, Swanson and Tuma each got to experience the benefits of having their employers so close last season, and they agree it makes a difference.
“It’s always nice when they can get there, as long as you’re playing well; if you’re not, it’s not too good,” says Swanson, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Panthers in 2002 and is in his third professional season. “It’s always nice knowing they’re still watching you and they haven’t given up on you.”
Last March, Panthers director of hockey administration Matt Loughran accompanied then general manager Mike Keenan to Germain to watch the Everblades take on the Columbia Inferno. Keenan saw one of his rookie prospects, defenseman Martin Lojek, tie the game at 2-2 with 21.4 seconds left in the second period on a wicked slapshot.
This season, Lojek is up in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans and is among the league leaders in plus/minus. One of his teammates is center Drew Larman, who started last season with the Everblades and rejoined them for the playoffs.
Two weeks ago, Larman earned his first NHL call-up and made his NHL debut for the Panthers against the Washington Capitals at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise. He scored his first NHL goal Friday night in a 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
“I think the fact that we are over there for many of the games sends a good message to the guys, that we do care about them and we want them to move up,” Loughran says. “We draft everybody with the intention of them playing on the big team eventually, so for us to be over there and to be monitoring their progress is a good message to send to the players within the organization.”
Johner was drafted by the Panthers in 2001, but eventually became the property of the Calgary Flames up until the middle of last season. The Panthers reacquired him in a trade while he was playing for the Las Vegas Wranglers, and he finished 2005-06 with the Everblades.
His second stint with the Panthers has been more rewarding as he was called up to Rochester last year for 16 games. Johner scored a goal and had an assist, went to the Panthers’ main training camp in September and is hoping to get another call-up.
“When you see a guy that you played with, like Larman, get a shot in the NHL it just gives yourself more confidence that you’ll get a chance,” Johner says. “The way the game has changed, and how the Panthers have shown they do promote from within is a big boost. Plus, they do such a good job communicating with us when they’re over here and keep us informed, as well as talk to us about the game we just played. It’s good to have them close.”
Brine, just 21, is experiencing the professional ranks for the first time, but he has had some good conversations with Loughran and Jack Birch, director of hockey operations, when they’ve visited the locker room. And Shantz, 20, has been able to work one-on-one with Panthers goalie coach Phil Myre.
This is the second year in a row under current Panthers ownership that the organization has had an affiliation agreement with the Everblades. They had one in 2001, but it wasn’t used the same way, so Brine has appreciated it.
“I think it’s great for them to have an opportunity to see our progress and keep tabs on us, and for us it’s good to get feedback from them, too,” he says. “We talk about the game and the things we did well and what we need to work on, but they also tell us what’s going on in Rochester and what’s going on with the Panthers, just general hockey talk.”
Loughran also likes to find out how the players are doing off the ice, especially the younger ones who are living on their own for the first time.
There is one message he wants these six players to grasp, so that they never lose sight of their goals.
“Everybody with the Everblades has a chance to move up and has a chance to play with the Florida Panthers at some point,” he says. “I think Drew Larman and now David Booth, who is playing with us fresh out of college, are living proof of that.”