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Panthers' X-factors include culture change, Crouse

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- After being the most improved team in the NHL last season, the Florida Panthers are confident they can take the next step in 2015-16 and push their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in more than a decade.

Here are three X-factors that will impact whether the Panthers will be able to accomplish their goal:

Maintaining the status quo: After making a 25-point from 2013-14, the Panthers essentially decided their personnel was good enough as it was and continued improvement from some of their promising young players would propel them into the playoffs in 2015-16.

The Panthers have been big players in the free agent market in recent years, but the seven players they signed this summer played in the American Hockey League last season and were brought in to add organizational depth.

The one new veteran, not including tryout players Martin Havlat and David Booth, is forward Reilly Smith. He was acquired from the Boston Bruins along with the contract of center Marc Savard for right wing Jimmy Hayes.

The Panthers said goodbye to veteran free agents Tomas Kopecky and Scottie Upshall and bought out the contract of Brad Boyes. Their departures will create room for some of the young prospects in the organization, such as Rocco Grimaldi and Vincent Trocheck.

The biggest personnel change from the start of the 2014-15 season will be the presence of Jaromir Jagr, who signed a one-year contract April 12. He had six goals and 18 points in 20 games after being acquired from the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 26.

"We had a lot of young players that made some big steps last year and the next step for them as well is going to be this year," goalie Roberto Luongo said. "We felt that we could have made [the playoffs] last year. We didn't feel like we needed much, especially with younger guys pushing for lineup spots. Once [Jagr] got here last year our offense really got a spark there. We had three lines rolling and contributing, so there was really nowhere to add on the team if you look at our roster."

Changing the culture: The Panthers missed the playoffs in 2014-15 for the 13th time in 14 seasons, finishing seven points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final Eastern Conference wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That's a marked improvement after finishing 30th in the League standings in 2012-13 and 29th in 2013-14.

And after staying mathematically alive for a playoff spot until after their 79th game, the Panthers enter 2015-16 with higher expectations.

With their young nucleus, led by Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau, having gotten some stretch-run experience, the Panthers are thinking postseason.

"The culture that was around here for so many years about missing the playoffs and all that stuff, sometimes that creeps into the locker room and there's not a lot of expectations,"?????????said Luongo, who experienced five seasons without playoff hockey in Florida early in his career before returning in March 2014. "But I?????????think we tried to change that last year and we did a pretty good job of that with all the veterans that we brought in that have won.

"But now it's just a matter of having that expectation that we'll be there. It's not about coming here and playing hockey and just having a good time; it's about expecting to win every night and holding each other accountable. When you're on a winning team you hold each other accountable in the locker room and you don't let things slide."

General manager Dale Tallon's blueprint from the time he took over in May 2010 never wavered. The plan was to build around high draft picks and add veteran leadership in certain spots.

Tallon said from the start it would take some time for the plan to come together. Now he wants to see results.

"[I'm confident] just in the progression, how we've developed over the last few years and now that positioning and the depth chart is getting deeper and deeper, the fact that the character of this team, they were really disappointed after Game 79 last year and I want them to remember what that felt like,"?????????Tallon said. "It felt very disappointing, even though we were the most improved team in the League. But this year teams will be ready for us. So we have to be at our best every night. We need six more, seven more points. And we've got to get to the next level. I'm confident that they will."

Crouse control: The fate of the 2015-16 Panthers likely will depend upon the production of past first-round picks Barkov, Huberdeau and Bjugstad, as well as Calder Trophy-winning defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first pick of the 2014 NHL Draft.

But it certainly wouldn't hurt if they could get a contribution from 2015 first-round pick (No. 11) Lawson Crouse.

Barkov and Ekblad became key players for the Panthers the season they were drafted, and Tallon has said he will give Crouse every chance to prove himself during training camp and the preseason.

Crouse will have to stand out pretty quickly because the Panthers don't appear to have a lot of openings on their forward lines. However, his combination of size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and skating ability makes him an intriguing prospect.

"He's got nine games [before the Panthers can return him to his junior team without starting his entry-level contract], so we can take our time with him or we can send him back,"?????????Tallon said. "We're going to do what's best for his long-term development. We're not going to force him into a situation he's not ready and ruin him. But he's 6-foot-4, 215, and he's just 18. Can skate like the wind."

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