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30 in 30: Young Panthers look to re-establish success

by Mike Battaglino

You'll have to excuse the Florida Panthers if they seem especially eager for the 2013-14 season to begin.

The sooner they can erase the bad taste of 2012-13, the better.

"I'm excited about our future. The past is the past," general manager Dale Tallon said almost immediately after last season ended. "What happened should be a lesson to everyone that they have to be prepared and ready to play, and they have to compete for jobs, and no one is given a spot here."

The Panthers went from division champion to last in the NHL, a dive caused in part by injuries to almost all of their top players and deficiencies in their conditioning and consistency of effort.

"[We were] blindsided by it all, unexpected obviously, after what happened [in 2011-12]," Tallon told the Panthers website. "The NHL's a tough league, and if you're not prepared and not ready to play and you're not at your best every night, you're not going to win. And we were not at our best on a lot of the nights.

"There were a lot of reasons for it, but if it's going to happen it might as well happen in a shortened season, I guess."

Then, to add insults to the injuries, the Panthers lost the NHL Draft Lottery and saw their franchise leader in games played leave as a free agent.

So when the puck drops Oct. 3, they could be without two of their better players, this after losing an incredible 320-man games over a 48-game schedule, along with 33 on the scoreboard (15-27-6).

Seeking any sunshine from their sorry state of affairs, Florida turned to its fruitful crop of top-level prospects, getting them NHL exposure earlier than planned.

"Because of the injuries and the tough season we had, some of our young guys gained some invaluable experience as far as giving them a leg up on the competition moving forward," Tallon said.

The Panthers are hopeful their fountain of youth can help them in their transfer from the friendly but now-extinct Southeast Division to the realigned Atlantic, where some Original Six NHL heavyweights (Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens) will extend a chilly greeting.

Goaltender Jacob Markstrom, 23, is ascending to the No. 1 job, with free agent Jose Theodore unlikely to return. The top-four defensemen will include 21-year-old Erik Gudbranson and 22-year-old Dmitry Kulikov, with 21-year-old Alex Petrovic likely to earn a roster spot.

Forwards Nick Bjugstad (21), Quinton Howden (21) and Drew Shore (22), who each made his NHL debut last season, could be part of the top six, where 20-year-old Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau already is.

Add to that mix 20-year-old Vincent Trocheck, the Ontario Hockey League's Most Outstanding Player, and 17-year-old Aleksander Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.

"I don't care about age," Tallon said. "I don't care about anything but ability and performance; [that's what] dictates who plays and who doesn't."

Injuries dictate that too. Seventeen Panthers were sidelined at one point last season, including captain Ed Jovanovski (hip) and top-line forward Kris Versteeg (knee). Those two may not be recovered by opening night.

Huberdeau, coming off hip labrum surgery himself, is the face of the franchise with forward Stephen Weiss gone to the Red Wings. Weiss left not only as the Panthers' all-time leader in games played, but also first in assists, second in points and fourth in goals.

Veteran forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias return after productively surviving last season; with Huberdeau, they combined for 55 of the Panthers' 109 goals.


Additions: RW Bobby Butler, RW Joey Crabb, C Scott Gomez, D Matt Gilroy, C Jon Matsumoto, D Mike Mottau, RW Steven Pinizzotto, C Jesse Winchester.

Subtractions: RW Jack Skille, D Tyson Strachan, C Stephen Weiss, D Nolan Yonkman.

UFAs: G Jose Theodore.

Promotion candidates:
G Michael Houser, D Jonathan Racine, C Vincent Trocheck.
Forward Joey Crabb was signed to improve a League-worst penalty kill, and Bobby Butler, Scott Gomez and Jesse Winchester add depth in case the injury bug devours again.

"We do feel we have the pieces here to get better," coach Kevin Dineen said. "… I do believe we have the personnel, from our goaltenders to our scoring players, to be a better hockey team than we were."

The Panthers seemed like a team on the rise after winning the Southeast in 2011-12 with 94 points to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000. Their collection of high draft picks was lined up to foster improvement.

But Florida started last season 1-5-0 after winning the opener, and closed 2-7-0. The Panthers won three games in a row once, went 4-23-4 when allowing the first goal, and finished last in the League in goals-for and goals-against.

"I want to build on what we did [in 2011-12], not tear down everything because we had a 48-game season that wasn't a very effective one," Tallon said.

The GM helped construct the core of the two-time Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks, and he recalled difficult times there coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. Two playoff-free seasons allowed Tallon to draft Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Patrick Kane the following year.

Tallon expects a similar payoff in Florida, someday.

"There's a lot of failure in this business before you have success," he said. "You take the positives from it, you learn from it and you move on. If you don't move on, then you'll be out of work."

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