How Florida Panthers rookie Spencer Knight remains grounded amid his meteoric rise

Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL is a league of time-tested traditions, and one of the players' favorites is the rookie solo lap. Last week, before Florida Panthers goalie Spencer Knight made his NHL debut, it was his turn.

"Usually guys are excited, pumped up, going full speed," said former NHL goaltender Roberto Luongo, who now oversees the Panthers' Goaltending Excellence department. "I was watching Spencer, and he was just like strolling around the rink. Casual."

After the game -- in which the 20-year-old Knight stopped 33 shots in a 5-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets -- Luongo went down to congratulate the rookie in the locker room.

"I was talking to him for a couple minutes, asking him, 'So, how do you feel? Were you nervous?'" Luongo said. "And he was like, 'Oh, no, I was good.'"

Luongo laughed recalling the moment. "I mean, my first game I was so nervous I could barely hold it in," said the 42-year-old, who ranks third all time among NHL goaltenders with 489 wins. "But Spencer was like, 'I just told myself to enjoy the game, and I did.' ... I was like, oh my God, this is great."

Hype and hoopla have surrounded Knight ever since he played for Avon Old Farms prep school as a first-year student. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, a fellow AOF alum, needed an extra year of public school hockey before he was named the starter there. Knight was drafted No. 13 overall by Florida in 2019, which was the highest a goaltender had been selected in nearly a decade.

Expectations only heightened when Knight led Team USA to an upset of Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2021 World Junior Championship, then followed it up by being named a Hobey Baker finalist at Boston College this season.

In March, Knight decided to forgo his junior and senior seasons by signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers. (If you're ready to feel old, Knight -- a Darien, Connecticut, native -- grew up a New York Rangers fan and says Henrik Lundqvist "was definitely my favorite growing up; he was the one who got me into the position.")

Amid all of the noise, Knight has remained grounded. It's not just his mental focus; the 20-year-old seems wise beyond his years.

"The biggest thing for me is finding ways to be a well-rounded person," Knight said. "I'm not defined by hockey. I'm more than that. I think once you see that, mentally it makes it clear for you of everything you're doing. It's like, 'Why do you play hockey? It's because you love the game, and that's what you're good at.' It's a very simple approach, but I just have a passion for helping develop other areas as a person."

Said Luongo, who was equally hyped as the No. 4 overall pick in 1997: "He loves the game, he's hungry, he wants to get better, but it's not the only thing that matters to him in life. And I think that's a great mentality to have, because when you're away from the rink you need to detach yourself as well. That took very long for me. I took everything very serious, took everything to heart. So it took me a long time to be able to balance it out, to be able to put things behind me without letting it affect my day-to-day life. Probably not until my late 20s, or even early 30s until I was able to handle that stuff a bit better.

"It's not easy. He's going to have challenges along the way, but as I've told him many times: It's whoever can put the challenges behind them the quickest are the guys who are going to be the most successful down the road."

The first time Luongo saw Knight on the ice was last year. The Panthers were on a road trip in Boston, so Luongo popped over to Boston College's rink for a practice. "The first thing I noticed was that he practiced for 90 minutes, and let four goals in for all of practice," Luongo said. "I was like, 'Holy smokes, this kid is pretty good.'"

Another thing Luongo noticed: Knight faced every shot as if he were in a game. It's not unusual to see a goalie give full effort on one out of two shots, one out of three shots, during a practice session. Not Knight.

"Those types of habits are what you need to do to succeed, and to take your game to the next level," Luongo said.

It's easy to see why the Panthers are so excited about Knight -- even if they're not quite sure what to do with him. Florida has the highest-paid goalie in the league, Sergei Bobrovsky, who is under contract through 2025-26. The Panthers also have 26-year-old Chris Driedger, whose breakout campaign has been one of the 2021 season's biggest surprises. Florida decided to keep Driedger at the trade deadline, and the expectation is that he will back up Bobrovsky through the playoffs.

Florida wanted to get Knight some NHL game experience, but also some time on the taxi squad and around the team to ease his professional transition.

"We want to make sure we do the right thing by him and not rush him," Luongo said. "But at the same time, we hear he's special, so we want to make sure we don't waste too much of his time, too. That's the key for us the next year or so, figuring that out."

Knight, unsurprisingly, isn't fazed by walking into a complicated situation.

"[Bobrovsky is] a great guy, he's just a really nice person," Knight said. "On the ice, just watching him, I could learn a lot. That's how I can get better. And I don't know, I'm not really worried about what his contract is. To me, it's more just: go play, and things will fall into place. It's not really my say of when I play or all that stuff. It's 'be ready when you're called upon, enjoy yourself, and be pleasant to be around.'"

Asked where he thinks he has developed this mindset, Knight credits his time at Boston College. "Honestly, I think it was going to college at BC, being exposed to all these classes and different people," Knight said. "Our team chaplain, Father Penna, he was just a great guy. I talk to him once a week, and we just talk about life, not hockey."

Knight's parents and two younger sisters were able to travel to Florida to watch his NHL debut. But, as has become normal in this unusual COVID-19 season, the goaltender wasn't really able to experience the moment with them. "I could wave, and see them in the stands," Knight said.

Another cool moment for the goalie, on the night of his debut win over Columbus: "When I came out for warm-ups, Cam Atkinson was stretching in the same area I was stretching. I smiled, and he kind of smiled back. We share the same adviser, he went to BC, he went to Avon, is a Connecticut kid. When I was at Avon, my sophomore year, he'd come back in the summer and shoot on me. And I was like, 'Wow, it's come full circle I guess.'"

As with any big debut, Knight returned to his phone after the game to a ton of messages. But, again as a casualty of a COVID-19 season, he didn't have anyone with whom to celebrate.

"I came back to my hotel room," Knight said. "That was pretty much it. I was kind of like, 'ah, soak it in,' then responded to a few texts. It was kind of late. I got some food and went to bed. Kind of boring, but unfortunately, that's kind of the way it is."

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

The cancellation of the IIHF women's world championship didn't sit well. The decision was ultimately made by the government of Nova Scotia, citing 25 new COVID-19 cases in the province on Wednesday. Hockey Canada and the IIHF have pledged to find alternative dates this summer, and hopefully they do -- because senior-level women haven't competed on the international stage in more than two years.

The way things went down -- hastily, a day before most teams were set to arrive -- is tough to swallow as we watch the men's under-18 world championship kick off in Texas this week, in a tournament that was proactively moved by organizers two months ago due to COVID-19 restrictions in the original location, Michigan. As Canadian defenseman Renata Fast pointed out to me: Nova Scotia has been tight with restrictions throughout the entire pandemic. Hockey Canada had a camp in Nova Scotia in March and while the team was there, the province went into lockdown, which forced them to shut down scrimmages. Shouldn't that have been a red flag?

The U.S. women's national team players are paid salaries, but in many countries, players aren't. Everyone committed to taking off 31 days, with many players and staffers taking time away from their jobs, families and children. They committed to strict COVID-19 testing, isolation in a pre-tournament camp, then doing eight days of isolation upon arriving in Nova Scotia. And now they're being asked to stay nimble and potentially commit to those 31 days sometime in the near future -- potentially, hopefully. Talking to players over the past few days, they're exhausted -- mentally, physically, emotionally. They just want answers.

According to sources, there are some American locations, such as Texas, that are ready to step up as host for a rescheduled tournament. But because Hockey Canada was officially awarded the job of host, sources say the organizers will look to find a solution in Canada first.

When it comes to women's sports, we're always having the chicken or the egg conversation: Are they less popular because there is less visibility, or is there less visibility because they are less popular? The truth is, we'll never know the answer unless we even out the infrastructure, which would let us know women's sports' true value.

Make no mistake: The infrastructure is wildly uneven. When a cancellation like this happens, it disproportionately affects women's players, who simply don't have the same earning opportunity.

"A lot of sponsors do look to the women's world championships as the opportunity for their brands to be supported by the athletes," Team USA captain Kendall Coyne-Schofield explained. "So when the world championships don't go on, the brands don't get the support from their athletes that they expected to, these brands start to look in different directions -- because there is not much programming in women's hockey."

Canadian forward Sarah Nurse told me that last year she had a situation where she wasn't paid on a sponsorship deal because the world championship tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.

"They saw it as me not holding up my end of the agreement," Nurse said. "It's something that's very unfortunate, but probably happens more than you think in women's sports."

Three stars of the week

Jakub Vrana, LW, Detroit Red Wings

After his quartet of tallies against the Stars on Thursday, Vrana became the first Red Wings player to score four even-strength goals in one game since Sergei Fedorov had five against the Capitals in 1996. He has been a nice boost for Detroit, which will now be without captain Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi for the rest of the season.

Cam Talbot, G, Minnesota Wild

There were a ton of great offensive performances for the Wild this week (looking at you, Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala) but let's give some love to the underappreciated Talbot. The 33-year-old won all three of his starts, stopping 101 of 105 shots for a .953 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average. Since March 12, Talbot has been 13-2-2 with a .937 save percentage and two shutouts.

Aleksander Barkov, C, Florida Panthers

The Panthers' captain scored four goals in three games this week, but his overtime winner against the first-place Canes -- and how he scored said goal -- added a little sparkle:

What we liked this week

1. Due to the pandemic, the NHL does not have emergency backup goaltenders -- such as David Ayres and Scott Foster -- on hand at arenas this season. So when the Senators were down to one goalie on the depth chart for Saturday's game -- Anton Forsberg got injured while warming up, and Matt Murray got hurt in the second period -- veteran forward Artem Anisimov was called upon to be ready.

"A lot of people would think of [goaltending coach and former NHL goaltender] Zac Bierk -- but he had three hip surgeries, he's got a bad ear from a shot in the head as a player, so he's not an option," coach DJ Smith explained. "So we really didn't have anyone left."

Smith noted the team also mulled using GM Pierre Dorion as the backup, seeing as he played in net during a Christmas skate a few years ago. It's unclear how seriously they actually considered using the 48-year-old GM.

Anisimov, 32, hasn't had the easiest season. The 13-year pro was put on waivers in March and has played in only 18 games. There are rumors he could go back to the KHL next season. But he clearly is still committed to his team, as he was a good soldier to volunteer for an unenviable job for most:

2. After scoring this goal with a deflection off his face, James Van Riemsdyk exited the game for X-Rays. They came back clear, he returned, and then he scored the game-winner ... right in front of the net. Legend.

3. The Golden Knights are now on a nine-game winning streak, which is the longest in franchise history. OK, so it's not a very long history, but it's one that includes the playoffs in every year of existence. Vegas was also the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season.

What we didn't like this week

1. Jason Robertson's emergence is fun to watch as the surging Dallas Stars try to climb into a playoff spot after a slow start. The winger, 21, became the fastest player in Stars history to record 30 points in his rookie season. The California native is currently riding a seven-game point streak, pushing himself into the Calder Trophy conversation. It has been really fun to watch.

What I don't like: Those saying Robertson should win the award over Kirill Kaprizov, because Kaprizov shouldn't be eligible, given that the 24-year-old Russian played nearly 300 games in the KHL before coming to the NHL. Kaprizov is listed as a rookie by NHL definition. Artemi Panarin (263 KHL games) won the Calder in 2016. We can't change the rules midseason.

Perhaps one day the NHL should change the rule; If you play more than 200 games in another professional league, you are not considered a rookie upon entering the NHL. But Kaprizov is a rookie, and because he leads his team in goals (22) and points (41) he'll likely be first on my ballot. Robertson is likely second.

2. Love the candor, but always hate hearing how a losing season grates on players. The latest example is in Columbus.

3. Does anyone want the fourth playoff spot in the West? Since April 5, the Coyotes, Blues, Kings and Sharks have combined for nine wins and 23 losses. The Yotes are holding on to the fourth spot right now but have played more games (48) than the other three. However, Arizona does have a clear path forward. Six of the Coyotes' final eight games are against the Kings and Sharks; Arizona has gone 12-4-2 against the three California-based teams this season.

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Tuesday, April 27: Carolina Hurricanes at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN+)

After a victory on Saturday (in which the Stars outshot the Red Wings 41-6 after two periods but trailed 1-0) Dallas has won five of six to put heat on Nashville for the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division. The Canes are still vying for the top seed, which could make this a first-round preview. It helps that Carolina earned 14 of 16 points from Florida in their now-completed season series.

Wednesday, April 28: Colorado Avalanche at Vegas Golden Knights, 9:30 p.m.

Both of these teams have already clinched playoff spots, but Colorado is trying to overtake Vegas for the top seed in the West, and the Avs do have two games in hand. These teams haven't played one another in a month, and this game should bring playoff intensity -- especially knowing there's a playoff rematch potentially looming down the road. With this season's unusual format, only one of these teams can make it to the semifinals.

Saturday, May 1: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m.

There is a good chance this game is for first place in the East. Keep an eye on Alex Ovechkin, who has been nursing a lower-body ailment; when the captain was absent for Saturday's game, it was the first time he missed a game due to injury in six years. Ovechkin's next goal will tie Marcel Dionne for fifth on the all-time goal list. Meanwhile, the Pens are the only team in the league with three 20-goal scorers: Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust.

Social media post of the week

The Tampa Bay Lightning finally got their 2020 Stanley Cup rings. They are so extra.