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Panthers remain positive despite early playoff exit

Young nucleus has Florida excited about contending in future

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers were still dealing with the disappointment of their Eastern Conference First Round series loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday, but feeling confident their memorable season was the start of something big.

The Panthers set records for wins (47) and points (103) in a season, and did so with a Stanley Cup Playoff roster featuring 14 players 25 years old or younger. Veteran Brian Campbell was the only defenseman older who played in Game 6.

"Twelve [wins] in a row, most wins, most points, a lot of great things happened to our franchise this year," Florida general manager Dale Tallon said. "We played very well (in the series against the Islanders). I'm more frustrated for the players because they played well. It's not like we were outmatched or outplayed or didn't play properly or didn't work. We had chances to win every game.

"It's tough to swallow right now, but can't lose sight of what's happened and where we're headed. I'm real positive about the position that we're in and where we're headed and what we have in our system, and players feel the same way."

Video: Gerard Gallant on series loss to Islanders

In winning their first division title since 2012, the Panthers reaped the benefits of hitting on the early first-round draft picks they accumulated in recent years, including 2014 No. 1 pick defenseman Aaron Ekblad, 2013 No. 2 pick center Aleksander Barkov, and former No. 3 picks defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Jonathan Huberdeau.

A few key veterans contributed, none more than goalie Roberto Luongo and forward Jaromir Jagr, but it's the young nucleus that has Tallon and coach Gerard Gallant so optimistic after 11 players made their playoff debut.

"For the most part, we're going to have our good core of our players back," Gallant said. "Obviously when we finish with 103 points and we had the success we had, I think we had a good group of guys, a good mix of veterans and young players and the team was real successful. There's a good, solid of core players coming in.

"If you look at our whole team, how young the team is, there's great young hockey players coming and we should be able to be a good team for a long time."

WHAT THEY SAID: "The future looks really bright, really looks fantastic. I look at the bright side. We've got a great future here for the next 10, 12, 15 years. We've got great assets coming in the system, we have great support from ownership and we're headed in the right direction." -- Tallon

THE BURNING QUESTION: All signs continue to point to Jagr returning next season, but no official announcement came Tuesday. The closest thing was Tallon saying, "He wants to come back. I'm sure we'll come to an agreement of some sort." Jagr, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after signing a one-year contract last April, said only that his agent, Petr Svoboda, would talk with Tallon. Jagr did say about going without a goal in the Islanders series to extend his playoff drought to 37 games, "Even me, at my age, I learned a lot from that and if that happens again, I'm going to be ready, I know that. I'm going to be more ready than I was this year."

Video: Cats Pack Up for the Summer

INJURIES: Center Vincent Trocheck said he was less than 100 percent in the final two games against the Islanders after returning from a foot injury. Center Nick Bjugstad, who sustained a head injury in Game 5 and didn't play in Game 6, said he likely would have been able to play had there been a Game 7. Captain Willie Mitchell is expected to retire because of a concussion that kept the defenseman out of the lineup since Jan. 19. Center Dave Bolland didn't play after Dec. 12 because of a lower-body injury, and Tallon said his medical situation was unresolved.

WHO COULD GO: Panthers impending unrestricted free agents are: F Jaromir Jagr, F Teddy Purcell, F Jiri Hudler, D Brian Campbell, C Willie Mitchell and G Al Montoya.

WHO COULD ARRIVE: Tallon said adding size and grit ranked as the priority for the offseason, as well as finding a way to improve the power play. Defenseman Michael Matheson played his first three NHL games in the regular season before ending the playoffs paired with Ekblad. Forward Lawson Crouse, the Panthers' first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, could make a push for a roster spot.

2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Panthers have five picks in the 2016 NHL Draft; one in the first, fourth and fifth rounds, and two in the sixth. Their second-round pick was sent to the Calgary Flames in the trade for forward Jiri Hudler, their third-round pick went to the Edmonton Oilers in the trade for Purcell, and a third-round pick they acquired from the Minnesota Wild went to the New Jersey Devils in the 2015 trade for Jagr.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Most of the Panthers' 25-and-under players took a big step this season and there's no reason to think the improvement won't continue with another year of experience. The Panthers have a young nucleus in place to make them perennial contenders for a while.

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