NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Gerard Gallant knows what it's like to engineer a quick turnaround.
The Montreal Canadiens hired him as an assistant coach in June 2012 after a season that saw the team finish 15th in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the NHL standings.
Working under Michel Therrien, Gallant helped lead Montreal to a first-place finish in the Northeast Division in 2012-13. Then the Canadiens made it to the Eastern Conference Final last season, sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning and stunning the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in seven games before falling to the New York Rangers in six.
|Extras: B. Pirri
|Extras: A. Petrovic
He's tasked with a similar mission with the Florida Panthers, this time as the 13th coach in franchise history and sixth since 2003-04. Only the Buffalo Sabres (52 points) finished lower in the League standings last season than the Panthers (29-45-8, 66 points). That sparked changes on the ice and behind the bench, where Gallant receives a second chance to lead an NHL team after going 56-76-6 with four ties in parts of three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
One look at the Colorado Avalanche's ascent from 29th in 2012-13 to Central Division champions last season has the Panthers believing they can win now, but they have a lot of ground to make up. Their 188 non-shootout goals and 2.29 goals per game each were 29th, and they had the League's worst power play (10.0 percent) and penalty kill (76.0 percent). Brad Boyes led Florida with 21 goals and Nick Bjugstad's 38 points was the lowest total to ever lead an NHL team in an 82-game schedule.
But with a clean slate, Gallant sees possibilities with the Panthers, just like he did with a Canadiens team that rose so far so fast in two seasons.
"With the salary-cap system in place I think everybody wants to win now, and they want to have a chance to win and compete every night," Gallant said. "That's what every owner and every manager wants from their hockey club. I think the League is so close now. You can turn it around quick."
The Panthers are led at center by Aleksander Barkov, 19, and Bjugstad, 22. Barkov was in the Calder Trophy conversation in late December when he ranked among the top-five rookie scoring leaders and earned a spot with Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. However, a knee injury sustained in Sochi ended his season after 54 games, during which he had eight goals and 24 points.
Now healthy, Barkov will center one of the team's top two lines and could play alongside Jussi Jokinen, his Olympic linemate.
PANTHERS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
"It's quite possible. Players will determine that," Gallant said on a potential Barkov-Jokinen reunion.
"We're going to put the best lineup out possible and will definitely give that a better look at training camp. But things you want to happen sometimes don't happen. Sometimes you put lines together, combinations together, that you really like and they really jell early, so we'll see how things work out."
Left wing Jonathan Huberdeau hopes to rebound from a disappointing second season, when he had nine goals and 28 points in 69 games after he won the Calder Trophy in 2013. The Panthers need Huberdeau to develop into a consistent scorer who can complement Barkov and Bjugstad. Gallant is hoping to see the same Huberdeau he coached at Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where Huberdeau had 177 points in 104 games from 2010 to 2012 and led the Sea Dogs to the Memorial Cup title in 2011.
"They [younger players] are going to be a big part of our hockey club," Gallant said. "It's not like we're bringing young kids in here to play third- or fourth-line roles. These kids are going to have a chance to play top-two or top-three line roles and help our team. They're all high draft choices and they're all guys that we expect to take the next step. We're hoping the next step is going to be this year. They're talented players, and you want to give them every chance to at least have some success."
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon added a group of battle-tested veterans to the young core during the summer. Jokinen signed a four-year, $16 million contract after scoring 21 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Tallon also spent big on Dave Bolland (five years, $27.5 million), a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks who missed 59 games last season with a severed tendon in his left ankle, to center the third line in front of Derek MacKenzie (three years, $3.9 million). Shawn Thornton (two years, $2.4 million) brings more championship experience up front as a Cup winner with the Anaheim Ducks (2007) and Boston Bruins (2011).
"It brings a lot to the locker room, especially for the younger guys," goalie Roberto Luongo told the Panthers website. "They get to see guys who've been there. They've won Cups, they know what it takes. They get to see how they carry themselves on and off the ice. I think it's a good mix. We have some really talented young forwards and some good veterans that have won some Cups and know what it takes to win."
Like on offense, there's nowhere to go for the Panthers' defense but up after finishing 29th in goals-against per game (3.20).
The blue line has potential with a top four of Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and Willie Mitchell, and could be better if Aaron Ekblad makes an immediate impact.
ADDITIONS: C Dave Bolland (free agent, Maple Leafs); LW Jussi Jokinen (free agent, Penguins); LW Shawn Thornton (free agent, Bruins); C Derek MacKenzie (free agent, Blue Jackets); D Willie Mitchell (free agent, Kings); G Al Montoya (free agent, Jets); D Greg Zanon (free agent)
SUBTRACTIONS: D Matt Gilroy (free agent, KHL); D Ed Jovanovski (buyout); C Jesse Winchester (free agent, Avalanche); G Scott Clemmensen (free agent, Devils); D Tom Gilbert (free agent, Canadiens)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: C Vincent Trocheck, C Drew Shore, D Jonathan Racine, D Alex Petrovic, C Quinton Howden, C Rocco Grimaldi
Ekblad, the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, will receive every opportunity to make the Panthers at age 18. At 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Ekblad was the best defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League last season after he had 23 goals and 63 points with the Barrie Colts. He also said he is recovered from a concussion sustained Aug. 6 during Hockey Canada's summer world junior development camp.
"I believe I can be on this team opening night," Ekblad said after signing a three-year, entry-level contract Sept. 3. "I feel like I'm ready. I couldn't be in a better position than where I am. I know Florida is going to have a good team next year and in the upcoming years. I'm excited to be part of that process and to help turn things around there."
Campbell, the Panthers' leader last season with 12 power-play points, is projected to team with Kulikov on the top pairing. Kulikov, who agreed to terms on a three-year contract in July, had career highs last season in goals (eight) and games played (81), but also had a team-worst minus-26 rating and was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career.
"I think our defense can really skate and really move the puck well, and that's important for our hockey club," Gallant said. "Anytime that you've got a group of defensemen that just stay home and play defense, that's not going to help you win hockey games. You need a defense that is involved in your offense and we've got a group that can skate."
Luongo, reacquired by the Panthers one day before the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, will be the starter. His .924 save percentage in 14 starts following the trade was better than the .917 he had in 42 games last season with the Vancouver Canucks, as well as his .919 career mark.
Al Montoya, who was 13-8-3 with a 2.30 goals-against average in 28 games with the Winnipeg Jets last season, signed as a free agent to be the backup.
"We think goaltending is a very strong point of our hockey club," Gallant said. "Roberto's our guy. He's been around a long time, has played a lot of hockey games and is one of the top goalies in the League, so that's going to help our team and help us defensively. He gives your team more confidence. It all starts with goaltending, and we think we got three guys [including Dan Ellis] who are capable of winning games every night."