30 in 15: Panthers hope youth, additions lead rebound

Monday, 09.16.2013 / 3:00 AM
Mike Battaglino  - NHL.com Staff Writer

It's a feeling the Florida Panthers would much rather do without. But they'll hold on to it, at least for a little while longer.

"I think if you don't remember how it feels, then that's probably not a good thing, because it didn't feel very good at any time or it wasn't acceptable," defenseman Brian Campbell said of last season's lost season.

"… So I think you think about it, but you think about, hopefully, guys have been on winning teams too, so you think about that."

In four short months, a division champion decomposed into the worst team in the NHL, a bright future became a dismal present.

But the Panthers enter 2013-14 expecting a second significant positive turnaround in the span of three seasons.

"I said it two years ago; you listen to a lot of people and they’re laughing at our team, and they might not think we might be able to do anything," forward Kris Versteeg said. "But I think with the guys we've got, we can prove a lot of people wrong this year.''

They will try to do that with the following guys:


Yes, the Panthers finished last with him, but where would they have been without Jonathan Huberdeau last season? And where can he take them this season?

"We're going to rely on him heavily, instead of last year coming in not kind of knowing what to expect out of him," Campbell said. "Now we truly need him to be a force for our team."

The Calder Trophy winner finished second on the Panthers with 31 points, behind Tomas Fleischmann's 35. At 19 years old, Huberdeau did it while dealing with a hip injury he sustained at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in January.

After offseason surgery, he is being kept from contact at the start of training camp, but Huberdeau, who turned 20 in June, is expected to be playing wing on the top line when the season opens Oct. 3 against the Dallas Stars.

Surprisingly, on the other side could be Kris Versteeg, whose return from a four-point, 10-game season and knee surgery in March seemed bleak until significant improvement over the past month.

Center Shawn Matthias -- who last year scored 11 goals in March, three combined in January and February, and none in April -- told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel he plans to be in the middle of the top line, unwilling to concede the spot to prospects Nick Bjugstad, Alexsander Barkov or Vincent Trocheck.

Matthias would be taking the place long held by Stephen Weiss, who signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings.

"I don't want to be a passenger, I want to be a leader," Matthias said. "… I want to be the best player on the team."

Fleischmann would provide offense on the second line; he's scored 96 points (39 goals) playing all 130 games in his two seasons in Florida. Tomas Kopecky, who led the team with a career-high 15 goals in a short season, could man the other wing, centered either by one of the young players or veteran Scott Gomez, whom Dineen said would have a bigger offensive role than he had with the San Jose Sharks.

Bjugstad (one point in 11 NHL games last season) is recovering from a concussion sustained during a prospects tournament, and Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is building up after offseason shoulder surgery. They're part of the young guard that includes Drew Shore (13 points in 43 games), Quinton Howden (no points in 18 games), and Trocheck (the Ontario Hockey League most outstanding player).

Former 43-goal scorer Brad Boyes is in camp on a tryout after a rejuvenating season with the New York Islanders (35 points); he can boost the power play, which among so many negatives was sixth-most successful (20.4 percent) in the NHL. Joey Crabb was acquired to help the penalty kill, which was last (74.2 percent) in the League.

Bobby Butler has a new two-year contract but at 26 may have this one more NHL chance. Veterans Marcel Goc and Scottie Upshall are the top two returning faceoff men, and Sean Bergenheim is back after missing all of last season with a lower-body injury.

"Bringing these extra guys in I think is going to help us a lot," Versteeg said.


Not one of the 13 who played for the Panthers last season had a plus rating.

"We've got a lot of areas to improve on in a short time here at camp," said Campbell, who was a minus-22 playing all 48 games one season after being a minus-9 in all 82.

Half of the top four, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, each are looking to rebound, Kulikov from a second straight injury-shortened season (knee, shoulder), and Gudbranson from a two-season minus-41 rating that's tied for worst among NHL defenseman in that time (Mark Streit).

No one other than Campbell played every game in 2012-13, and Filip Kuba (44) and Tyson Strachan (38) have moved on. A hip injury ended Ed Jovanovski's season in six games, and he's unlikely to be ready to start this one after surgery in April.

In his place, Colby Robak (16 games) and Alex Petrovic (6) got promotions from San Antonio of the American Hockey League.

"The young guys that had the opportunity last year and [came] in and played really well for us," Jovanovski said. "I think for them they're going to be a lot more comfortable this year. Whatever six or seven they go with at the start of the year, I think everybody's capable of doing the job."

Those jobs are scarce. Mike Weaver (27 games, knee) has one, so veterans Brett Clark, Matt Gilroy and Mike Mottau are probably competing for the final regular opening.

"That's steps to ensure some stability on the blue line," Dineen said. "... Certainly somebody like Mike Mottau or Brett Clark have lasted in this game because they're professionals and they carry themselves in a certain way, but more importantly, the can go out there and fill some serviceable minutes."


The crease has been cleared for Jacob Markstrom, the 23-year-old who was the first pick of the second round in the 2008 NHL Draft.

"It's been my main goal since I got here … to be the starting goalie," Markstrom said. "That's nothing to be shy about. I'm here to play and I really want to play, and I really want to play good and help the team win."

Markstrom became the No. 1 in March, ascending to his predestined place from a three-man group that included thirty-somethings Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen.

Markstrom helped the team to its best stretch of the season, going 5-2-0 from March 19-April 2. He finished 8-14-1 with a 3.22 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.

It did not end well -- Markstrom had a 4.01 GAA in 10 April games -- so when asked at training camp how he prepared for this season, he replied, "Worked harder. A lot harder."

"I like his attitude, I like what he's been doing all offseason, and his preparation looks really good," general manager Dale Tallon said. "He learned a lot last year, which is a good thing. ... Marky's a good goalie and I have high expectations for him."

Tallon expected Clemmensen to be the reliable, veteran backup, but knee surgery has him sidelined for three weeks. As a result, veteran Tim Thomas was offered and accepted a professional tryout offer from the team and will be on the ice for the first time Tuesday.

The Panthers also have young Michael Houser in waiting. After overcoming a club-foot condition as a child, the 21-year-old starred for the London Knights in the OHL before playing for Cincinnati in the ECHL last season (17-10-2; 2.55).

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