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Panthers looking to young players to fill lineup

Sunday, 08.17.2014 / 3:00 AM
Corey Masisak  - NHL.com Staff Writer

Other than the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers might be the team among the NHL's bottom-10 finishers from the 2013-14 season most likely to vault into playoff contention in 2014-15.

Florida did not make dramatic improvements through offseason additions, and how the Panthers play for a third coach in less than a year remains to be seen, but there are plenty of exciting young players to build around.

There were signs of serious improvement in the second half of last season, particularly in puck possession, after Peter Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen as coach. Horachek was not retained, though, and Gerard Gallant and his 147 games of NHL head coaching experience remains a bit of a mystery.

It was a curious offseason for the Panthers as well. Jussi Jokinen and Willie Mitchell look like solid additions, but the $27.5 million contract for Dave Bolland was panned as one of the worst of the offseason by a considerable portion of the hockey community. There are lots of prospects on the precipice of becoming NHL regulars, but not a lot of spots available unless veterans on one-way contracts are removed from the equation.

If a few young players turn into stars, Florida can fight for a playoff berth. If more growing pains are needed, it could be another long season.

Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Panthers:

FORWARDS

Jussi Jokinen - Aleksander Barkov - Brad Boyes

Jonathan Huberdeau - Nick Bjugstad - Scottie Upshall

Tomas Fleischmann - Dave Bolland - Sean Bergenheim

Tomas Kopecky - Brandon Pirri - Jimmy Hayes

Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton

Elite centers are the most valuable currency for teams looking to build a championship contender, and the Panthers might have their top two for the next decade in Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. It is easy to envision them becoming one of the top tandems in the League in the next few seasons.

What makes the Bolland contract more perplexing is the addition of Derek MacKenzie and Brandon Pirri's success after arriving in the middle of last season. It's possible that either or even both of them could outperform Bolland if given third-line minutes.

This could be a huge season in Jonathan Huberdeau's development. He played for Gallant with Saint John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Panthers need him to evolve into an elite scorer to complement Barkov and Bjugstad. There are interesting veteran parts on the wing, but none are going to be counted on for elite offensive production.

There are several prospects who could make pushes for jobs during training camp, including Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and Rocco Grimaldi. The Panthers have 11 forwards on one-way contracts plus Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau on their entry-level deals. MacKenzie signed a three-year contract worth $1.3 million per season, and giving Shawn Thornton two years and $2.4 million also was puzzling.

DEFENSEMEN

Brian Campbell - Dmitry Kulikov

Willie Mitchell - Erik Gudbranson

Dylan Olsen - Aaron Ekblad

Colby Robak

Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert comprised one of the NHL's most underrated defense pairings in 2013-14, but Gilbert is gone to Montreal. Four of the nine defensemen who played at least 16 games for the Panthers are no longer with the organization.

Dmitry Kulikov had an incredibly unlucky 2013-14, and might be the best option to pair with Campbell in place of Gilbert. The one to watch is obviously Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson also were high picks but have yet to show elite ability at this level. Ekblad could develop into that type of player and allow them to slot in behind him.

Just like up front, there is a line of prospects waiting for their chance. If Ekblad is ready, there probably is only one roster spot left for one of Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic and Jonathan Racine.

GOALTENDERS

Roberto Luongo

Al Montoya

A full season of Roberto Luongo, not to mention a quality backup like Al Montoya, could do wonders for Florida's goal-prevention problems. Tim Thomas, Jacob Markstrom, Scott Clemmensen and Dan Ellis combined for 68 starts and a dreary .896 save percentage last season, while Luongo logged a .924 in 14 starts after arriving in a trade from the Vancouver Canucks.

Montoya posted a .920 save percentage in 28 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, and has at least a .920 in 20 or more games played in two of the past three full NHL seasons.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Vincent Trocheck, F Drew Shore, D Jonathan Racine, D Alex Petrovic, G Dan Ellis

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: PANTHERS

Undervalued: Jonathan Huberdeau -- Huberdeau never found his groove in 2013-14, was sidelined for three weeks late in the season by injury, and the Panthers finished with the League's second-worst point total. But Florida addressed its needs by signing Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland, who will add scoring depth. The 21-year-old's prorated, 82-game totals from his Calder Trophy-winning season in 2012-13 are 24 goals, 29 assists, 15 power-play points and 191 shots on goal, production that many owners would covet from a fantasy left wing taken in the 15th round or later.

Overvalued: Jussi Jokinen -- Jokinen (C/LW eligible) brings lineup flexibility and veteran leadership to the Panthers. That said, it may be a night-and-day difference for him after spending much of last season with elite forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jokinen could play on a line with fellow Finland native Aleksander Barkov and accelerate the young center's development, but it's unreasonable to expect Jokinen to match his assist (36) and power-play point totals (21) from 2013-14. He found a comfort zone in Pittsburgh where he had to play 15:42 per game; he'll be relied upon more heavily in Florida.

Sleeper: Aaron Ekblad -- Ekblad, the first defenseman drafted No. 1 since Erik Johnson in 2006, will have a chance to transition under the guidance of veteran Brian Campbell (26:57 TOI per game, 3rd in NHL last season). Unless the 18-year-old is severely overmatched during his tryout, Ekblad should remain at the NHL level for the full season and could chip in some points with the man-advantage. The Panthers didn't have a defenseman on their roster with more than two power-play goals last season, so Ekblad could make an immediate impact as a rookie.

Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen

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