TAMPA — Size, speed and skill.
The Lightning’s Richard Panik possesses all the above, all of which offer what should be the perfect package in a hockey player.
The 23-year-old is still waiting to showcase that at the NHL level.
The 2009 second-round pick put that on display during a 25-game stint with the Lightning last season, picking up five goals and nine points, including a highlight-reel goal in Carolina where he popped the puck over the crease, circled around the back of the net and picked up the loose puck and scored.
That sort of goal comes from confidence combined with the skill Panik possesses.
But this season, after earning a spot on the roster coming out of training camp, the confidence began to erode after he had just two goals and nine assists in 39 games. That led to Panik passing up shot opportunities in the offensive zone and turning over pucks in the defensive zone.
Being handed a two-game suspension in December for a boarding call didn’t help matters as Panik was a frequent healthy scratch before being reassigned to the American Hockey League in mid-January.
After 13 games in Syracuse and an Olympic experience with Slovakia, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound right wing appears to have regained some of that confidence in two games since being recalled by the Lightning.
“He’s way more assertive, he’s using his body, his speed and he’s not turning pucks over as he did a little more regularly in the past and he’s playing the 200-foot game,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “There is nothing wrong with his game. Ever since he went back to the minors and found himself and the Olympics — and he was really good in the minors — he’s done what we wanted him to do up here.’’
While playing for Slovakia, Panik took notice of those around him and how they prepare and get ready for games, in particular Marian Hossa.
“Every game, every guy played hard, so I was watching guys and watching my favorite player, Marian Hossa,’’ Panik said. “Watching him I think I have to gain his preparation for each game. He played hard every shift, so I’m just trying to do that and hopefully it’s going to work for me.’’
Having the chance to dress alongside players such as Zdeno Chara and Hossa offered the chance to see a different locker room perspective and was an important step in Panik rebuilding his game and regaining his confidence.
The difference, at least at this point, is evident in his game on the ice as Panik looks to be back to playing the game instead of thinking the game.
“When you hesitate you lose (your) assets, skating and physical play,’’ associate coach Rick Bowness said.
When Panik was sent down, he understood the reasons. Instead of hanging his head and continuing to doubt himself, he worked on what he was asked to work on. He took that same approach when at the Olympics.
Though it took a few games, Panik returned to being a top-line presence for Syracuse and that eventually led him back to the Lightning.
“I felt great, like a different player (after coming back from the Olympics),’’ Panik said. “I played more with the puck, protecting the puck more, making more plays, so I think it really helped me. I had really good games after the Olympics.’’
That trend has continued in his two games back with Tampa Bay.
NOTE: The Lightning agreed to terms with free-agent forward Yanni Gourde, who will be on an AHL contract for the remainder of the season and a two-way contract for 2014-15 and 2015-16. Gourde, 22, has four goals, 25 points and 26 penalty minutes in 25 games with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks this season.