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Panthers gearing up for Stanley Cup run

Additions on defense, young forward group has Florida in prime position for 2016-17 season

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

The battle between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers for hockey supremacy in the Sunshine State is about to heat up.

The Lightning, who went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last season, appear set up to remain among the NHL's elite teams after a successful week that included re-signing captain Steven Stamkos and giving defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy contract extensions.

But the Panthers haven't been sitting by idly while their neighbors to the west have been gearing up for a Cup run. In fact, it would be difficult to find an organization that's gone through more changes this offseason.

The Panthers even redesigned their logo and fired their equipment managers, and that's after they finished first in the Atlantic Division and set a franchise record with 103 points.

Defenseman Jason Demers signed a five-year contract Saturday reportedly worth $22.5 million, an average annual value of $4.5 million. On Sunday Vincent Trocheck, a restricted free agent signed a six-year contract with an annual value of $4.75 million, and Reilly Smith signed a five-year contract extension with an average annual value of $5 million, according to TSN. It was the latest in a series of moves that indicate the Panthers, with their aggressive ownership headed by chairman Vincent Viola, are serious about making a push of their own to win the Stanley Cup.

Video: SJS@DAL: Demers scores shorthanded goal, extends lead

"You can get that feeling," Demers said. "And I think they've done it the right way. It hasn't been rushed. They've kind of let it grow with a lot of young prospects and it's coming to a crest right now. So now is the time to capitalize on it and to build off of last year."

Although the Panthers lost in six games to the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round, last season was arguably their most successful since they reached the Cup Final in 1996 (where they lost to the Colorado Avalanche). Despite not winning a playoff series since that run, the Panthers appear on the verge of breaking through with a collection of young talent that includes defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forwards Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Trocheck and Smith, to go along with 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr.

That's why there was some initial head scratching outside of Sunrise when the Panthers began the offseason by overhauling their front office and scouting staff. It started with Dale Tallon being pushed upstairs as president and associate general manager Tom Rowe replacing him as GM.

Video: Analyzing Ekblad's eight-year extension with Panthers

Longtime director of player personnel Scott Luce, director of amateur scouting Erin Ginnell, and director of hockey operations Mike Dixon were fired. Eric Joyce and Steve Werier, who oversees the analytics department, were each promoted to assistant GM, and Jason Bakula and Toby O'Brien were named co-directors of amateur scouting.

With the Panthers also hiring analytics specialists Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock on a part-time basis to help with the 2016 NHL Draft, their intention to put more emphasis on advanced statistical analysis was obvious.

No doubt Demers' solid possession numbers (he ranked second among Stars defensemen last season with a 54.14 shot attempts percentage) factored into the Panthers' interest.

"We are excited to sign Jason and we are thrilled that he chose Florida," Rowe said. "He will play an integral role on our blue line and will help our transition game and special teams. This is another important signing for us this offseason."

Video: NYR@PIT, Gm2: Yandle buries loose puck, evens game

The addition of Demers, a 28-year-old, right-handed shot, completed a revamping of the Panthers defense. They acquired defenseman Keith Yandle, 29, from the New York Rangers and signed him to a seven-year contract with a reported average annual value of $6.35 million. The Panthers then acquired Mark Pysyk, 24, in a draft-day trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Like the Lightning with Hedman, the Panthers also took care of one of their foundational pieces in signing Ekblad, the 2015 Calder Trophy winner, to an eight-year extension reportedly worth $60 million.

Although the Panthers lost unrestricted free agent defenseman Brian Campbell to the Chicago Blackhawks, with Ekblad, Yandle, Demers and Pysyk they appear well-equipped to play a quick transition, possession game.

"Hopefully, with the additions on the blue line we can move the puck up quick to these skilled forwards," Demers said.

Rowe didn't stop with the defense. With 37-year-old goalie Roberto Luongo coming off hip surgery, he strengthened the goaltending Friday by signing James Reimer to a five-year contract with a reported annual value of $3.4 million after previously acquiring Reto Berra in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche.

Video: Chatting with newest Florida Panther, James Reimer

He also added depth forwards Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault through unrestricted free agency Friday.

The changes throughout the organization following a relatively successful season send a clear message: Qualifying for the playoffs isn't good enough anymore.

The Panthers, like the Lightning, are in a win-now mode, and Demers is looking forward to being a part of it.

"They're a team I've had my eye on and I'm excited," he said. "They've got a lot of young talent. They could be very competitive for a lot of years. They've got a great core in place. … At the end of the day, we're there to win and win championships and they've been building toward that the past two, three years, so it's an exciting time to be in Florida right now."

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