SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers entered the 2012-13 season coming off the first division title in franchise history and a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after an 11-year absence, but many observers expected them to take a step back.
Few could have expected the step back would be this big.
Ravaged by injuries, the Panthers went from winning the Southeast Division to finding themselves with the worst record in the NHL heading into the final 10 days of the regular season.
The problems started early, as the Panthers followed a victory in the season opener with five consecutive losses. They appeared to get back on track by going 3-0-1 in their next four games, but that was followed by another five-game losing streak and the Panthers never got to the .500 mark again this season.
Despite the disappointment, general manager Dale Tallon remains optimistic about the direction of the franchise, which is why he refrained from dealing veteran players -- except for fourth-line center Jerred Smithson -- at the NHL Trade Deadline.
Here are the five biggest reasons why the Panthers missed the playoffs and three reasons why they could be back in the postseason next season.
1. Injuries, injuries and more injuries
The biggest reason the Panthers didn't have the same success this season is that it just wasn't the same team. That was the result of a rash of injuries that started early on and never let up.
The Panthers won their opener despite being without five regulars from last season's team who sat out because of injuries -- forwards Kris Versteeg, Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim, and defensemen Mike Weaver and Erik Gudbranson.
Goc and Bergenheim both were injured playing overseas during the lockout, while Gudbranson was recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in the summer while he was wakeboarding.
Bergenheim never played a game for the Panthers, but he was far from the only one who ended the season on the sidelines. Versteeg (knee), center Stephen Weiss (wrist) and captain Ed Jovanovski (hip) all had season-ending surgeries as well.
2. Out of their league?
Because of all their injuries, the Panthers had to call on their American Hockey League affiliate time and time again.
Not including Gudbranson, who got a brief stint with the San Antonio Rampage before he returned to action with the Panthers Feb. 7, the Panthers have used 13 players who saw action in the AHL at some point this season.
While the young players got some valuable NHL experience, this wasn't exactly a recipe for success.
3. Net losses
Solid goaltending from Theodore and Scott Clemmensen was key in the Panthers winning the Southeast Division in 2011-12, but the two veterans weren't able to duplicate their performance.
The Panthers really could have benefited from one of their goalies stealing a game for them here and there, but on the contrary, Theodore and Clemmensen gave up too many soft goals.
The numbers don't lie: Theodore's save percentage went from .917 in 2011-12 to .893 this season, while Clemmensen's dropped from .913 to .880. Through games of April 15, Theodore and Clemmensen both ranked among the bottom four among the 49 goalies with enough appearances to qualify for the League stats.
Jacob Markstrom took over as the regular goalie after Theodore went down with a groin injury on March 2, and he also had some rough spots.
4. PK problems
The Panthers not only rank last in the NHL in penalty-killing percentage, they're last by more than three percent and their current 73.5 percent efficiency rate would rank as the worst in the League in the last 15 years.
The goaltending problems obviously have come into play here, but so did the lower-body injury that knocked Weaver out of action for 20 games. The veteran defenseman easily is the team's best penalty killer on the back end.
Florida was also never able to find a suitable replacement for steady defenseman Jason Garrison, who left for Vancouver as a free agent last summer.
5. Line dancing
In large part because of their rash of injuries, coach Kevin Dineen juggled his forward lines throughout the season. But he was never able to find a consistently productive line like he had last season with Tomas Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg.
That trio never could get going this season because of the early injury to Versteeg and the struggles of Weiss before he decided to have wrist surgery.
Because of all the players coming in and out of the lineup, it was difficult for any line to develop much continuity. As a result, the Panthers have the worst 5-on-5 goal ratio in the NHL.
Three reasons for optimism for next season:
1. The kids are all right
Tallon said on more than one occasion that the Panthers exceeded their timetable when they won their division title last year. The Panthers weren't really supposed to start reaping the benefits of their stockpiling of blue-chip prospects until this season, with more impact gradually appearing in future years.
As it turned out, several key future pieces got NHL experience this season, starting with Huberdeau, a Calder Trophy candidate. At 19, Huberdeau has shown the kind of offensive skills that could make him the cornerstone of the franchise.
Gudbranson continued his development this season and has the tools to become a front-line player next season. Forward Quinton Howden, like Gudbranson a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, has shown great skating ability in recent weeks and could be in line for a bigger role.
And, of course, there's Markstrom, who has been pegged as the Panthers' goalie of the future for a while and showed enough this season to justify the confidence in him.
2. Better luck next time?
The law of averages will be with the Panthers when next season rolls around when it comes to luck with injuries. Really, things can only get better in that department, right?
Having Bergenheim, Versteeg and Jovanovski back -- Weiss is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and isn't likely to be re-signed -- can only help.
3. On the rise
Along with their collection of young prospects, the Panthers have other young players who appear ready to take a big step forward.
Matthias scored 11 goals in March and already has surpassed his career high. Peter Mueller, signed as a free agent last summer, bounced back after some injury-plagued seasons in Colorado, stayed healthy and flashed some impressive offensive ability. And after a slow start, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov started making an impact at both ends of the ice late in the season.
Matthias and Mueller both are scheduled to be restricted free agents this summer, but they both should figure in the team's plans.
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