Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky looking for bounce-back season

Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky has drank from the Stanley Cup in Chicago and been to the Finals in Detroit.

Two seasons ago, Kopecky led the Panthers with 15 goals in 47 games (lockout), tying a career high, and was undoubtably one of the team leaders on and off the ice.

Fast forward to Wednesday’s practice with Kopecky skating on the fourth line with Derek MacKenzie and Shawn Thornton. Suddenly the 32-year-old left wing isn’t taking anything for granted, including health and job security.

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“No, I don’t feel secure. I have to earn it, not only for a job but you’re fighting for ice time,” Kopecky said after practice at the Ice Den. “You have a new coaching staff and you try to earn their trust. It’s simple things, pay attention to details. I don’t think anybody should be secure with a spot here.

“I know [GM Dale Tallon] isn’t afraid to mix up things and he’s showed it. I don’t take for granted I’m going to be on this team.”

Last year Kopecky sustained a serious concussion while playing for Slovakia in the Olympics and was done by Feb. 7. He finished with just four goals and eight assists in 49 games.

“That was one of the worst injuries I ever had because if you break an arm you know you’re on the right track but with the head I was waking up with headaches and couldn’t do much. I couldn’t sleep; I was getting irritated real easily and was very emotional.

“My family got me through it and so did the Panthers’ trainers.”

Kopecky is in the final year of a four-year deal at $3 million per, but he knows that this ownership isn’t afraid to pay NHL salaries in the minors as the demotion of goalie Dan Ellis ($1 million) proved on Tuesday.

Kopecky is feeling heat on his neck from talented young forwards such as Rocco Grimaldi, Quinton Howden and Vincent Trocheck.

“That pushes you to work harder and that pushes the other guys to work harder, so healthy competition makes you all get better,” Kopecky said. “Someone told me that hard work beats talent every time but talent doesn’t beat hard work.

“Once we establish that here, to work hard every shift that could make the difference in the game.”

Kopecky won’t change a successful game, so he said he will continue to get the puck deep, win one-on-one battles in the corners and crash the net for screens, rebounds and tips.

“I haven’t seen enough of him to make comments but we’re counting on him to be a good player for us,” Gallant said. “He’s a solid, two-way player who kills penalties real well and I hope he puts up good numbers for us.”

Kopecky has trained non-stop for the past six months and is both healthy and confident as he heads into his 10th season.

“I’m one of the old guys so I know what I need to do and what my game and strengths are,” Kopecky said. “We have lots of good guys here and there’s no reason we shouldn’t make the playoffs.”

Eblad to play

Not long ago it seemed like a lock that rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the top overall draft pick, would start the season with the Panthers and not be returned to juniors.

No longer. Ekblad, 18, is set to play just his second exhibition game Thursday night against the Lightning. He admittedly had a rocky debut in the 4-1 loss to the Predators on Saturday (minus-2, two turnovers), while also sustaining a minor injury.

“He’s an 18-year-old kid and we know he can be a real good hockey player, but it’s a big step … playing defense in the NHL takes a special player and he’s a special player,” Gallant said. “We’re letting him play game by game and see how he gets along. When he’s ready he’s ready; if he’s not he’s not.

“We don’t have to make a decision tomorrow or next week and as far as I know we can play him up to nine games [in the regular season] and then have to make a decision. We plan on him being on the team, but it’s like any other position. We got to make sure he’s ready. … I like his chances.”

Copyright © 2014, Sun Sentinel

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