CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- All of a sudden, the young Florida Panthers aren't so young anymore.
It wasn't that long ago that the Panthers were expected to start the 2013-14 NHL season with a lineup heavy with the blue-chip prospects they've accumulated over the past few years. But the roster has undergone a bit of a face lift in the past week with the signing of four veterans, all of them at least 30 years old.
The reasons behind the sudden transformation of the Panthers are twofold: First and foremost, they have a new owner, Vinnie Viola, who has shown a willingness to spend to acquire players; second, training camp and the preseason showed that some of the blue-chip prospects still need more time to develop before they're ready to make an impact in the NHL.
"There's areas that we have addressed that there was opportunity from within and decisions have been made based on developing players the right way," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "That, in many cases, means going to San Antonio and learning the professional game for our younger players. Other than that, things are falling in place."
Among the Panthers prospects who were sent down to the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League were left wing Quinton Howden, a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft who played in 18 games for the Panthers last season; defenseman Alex Petrovic, a second-round pick in 2010 who appeared in six NHL games in 2012-13; and center Vincent Trocheck, the leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League last season.
In addition, center Nick Bjugstad, who played 11 games for the Panthers last season after closing out his career at the University of Minnesota, is beginning the season on injured reserve after sustaining a concussion in the Panthers' prospect tournament during the first weekend of September.
Wing Kris Versteeg said he expected several weeks ago to be part of a much younger team than the Panthers currently have.
"Vinnie [Viola] comes here and there's a lot of great veterans that were still on the market and we started to swipe them up before they went off the board here," Versteeg said. "At the time, I definitely thought it was going to be a lot younger [team] than it is now. But we still have our young pieces in place."
With the recent newcomers, the Panthers' opening-day roster includes 11 players 30 or older, compared to only six under 25. The latter half-dozen, though, includes some of those young pieces, who happen to be among the best prospects in the organization.
The average age on the opening night roster for the Panthers is 28.9, which according to James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail is tied for third-oldest in the NHL.
The youngest player on the roster is 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, the second pick in the 2013 NHL draft. He's joined by Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, 20; defensemen Erik Gudbranson, 21, and Dmitry Kulikov, 22; center Drew Shore, 22; and goalie Jacob Markstrom, 23.
"You look at these guys like Gudbranson and Kulikov, we still have these young pieces that still can contribute every night," Versteeg said. "The guys that we are sending down are maybe guys that aren't quite ready to make the step yet and need more seasoning. Every organization has that.
"We ended up bringing older guys in that have won before and have had great careers. My expectations is to make the playoffs and to go all the way every time. I know our expectations in this room are a lot higher than anyone on the outside looking in, but I guess that's exactly what we want to be. We want to be underdogs. That's a role we're going to play this year, but after that you want to be a team that's on top and other teams come in intimidated to play every night. That's what this organization is striving for, and with the young guys coming up and with Vinnie, that's what this organization can be in years to come."
Without question, the recent additions have brought a lot of excitement to the Panthers' dressing room. In the span of one week, they have gone from a team with a lot of question marks to one with some solid depth. In many ways, they now resemble the team that won the Southeast Division title in 2011-12.
"Nobody wants to have a rebuilding season," Gudbranson said. "Everybody here wants to win a Stanley Cup this year. We're not spoken about as a highly talented team or we're not even spoken about that much, and it's frustrating because there's guys in this room that'll make a difference."
Versteeg, for his part, acknowledged that is optimism for the season has increased greatly thanks to the additions of Thomas, Boyes, Gilbert and Whitney.
"Obviously, it's just common sense," Versteeg said. "I've always been a guy who kind of shoots for the stars anyway and doesn't give a rat's [butt] what anyone thinks, but you've got to be a realist at times, too. But with the guys we've brought in, I'm excited about it. I'm excited because two years ago no one cared for us very much. We did lose Weisser (Stephen Weiss, now in Detroit), which is a big loss, but I believe we actually have more depth than we did two years ago."
All four of four newcomers were signed to one-year deals, which general manager Dale Tallon said should make them hungry. While he says the additions have made his team deeper, he insisted the Panthers' long-term plan still revolves around their prospects.
"We haven't changed what we're doing," Tallon said. "We just want to make sure that our guys are ready and not force them into action before they are ready.
"It's a good thing. The longer they hone their craft, the better the future looks for us."
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