NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Florida Panthers put on their hard hats this summer and went to work reconstructing a team that finished 29th in the overall standings. The Panthers signed six veterans on July 1; three (center Dave Bolland, defenseman Willie Mitchell, forward Shawn Thornton) have played on recent Stanley Cup-winning teams. Top-nine forward Jussi Jokinen and backup goalie Al Montoya also were added to a core that has three youngsters (Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau) on the cusp of stardom and a fourth, 2014 No. 1 draft pick Aaron Ekblad, with a chance to make the team at age 18.
The Panthers also have a new coach in Gerard Gallant, who is optimistic the franchise will return to prominence sooner than later, perhaps as soon as this season.
"We're going to work hard and get to know our players real well and put our game plan in place, and hopefully everything takes off from there," Gallant said. "We think we have a real good core here, and it's just a matter of getting off to a good start and getting confidence in our hockey players."
Here are three things that will have to happen for the Panthers' season to be successful:
1. The power play must improve -- The Panthers' power play took a severe drop last season, from sixth (20.4 percent) in 2012-13 to 30th (10.0 percent). Florida had 29 power-play goals in 48 games in 2012-13 but managed only 27 in 82 games in 2013-14. Defenseman Brian Campbell's 12 points led the power play; no one else reached double digits.
Jokinen had 21 power-play points with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, and his presence on the projected first unit with Huberdeau and Barkov should provide a boost. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, Campbell's partner, had a career-high eight goals last season, with five coming on the man advantage.
"For me, successful power plays are about putting the puck in the net, people going to the net and paying the price to score goals," Gallant said. "You see more power-play goals scored from [defenseman-to-defenseman] point shots, people at the net re-directing, box and screen. We just have to play the puck harder on the power play."
2. Huberdeau must regain his rookie form -- After putting up 31 points in 48 games in 2012-13 to win the Calder Trophy, Huberdeau managed 28 points in 69 games last season and missed time with a concussion. His points per game dropped from 0.65 to 0.41, his shot rate fell from 2.33 per game to 1.56, and he scored one goal in his final 22 games.
Left Wing - FLA
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 28
SOG: 108 | +/-: -5
The pieces are in place for Huberdeau to come back strong. He had one goal, four assists and a plus-5 rating in seven games for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship in May. He's also reunited with Gallant, who coached him with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"I don't think he got off on the right foot," Gallant said. "But we know Jon. He'll bounce back and be a very good player. He's a competitor and that's why you know he's going to be a great player."
3. Gallant must provide stability behind the bench -- Gallant is the 13th coach in franchise history, the sixth since 2003-04 and the third hired by general manager Dale Tallon. The Panthers are hoping Gallant can stick around for a while to oversee the rebuilding program.
"We're planning on having a real good team this year," Gallant said. "It all starts from getting good young players, and we think we've done a great job of that over the last number of years. We have a lot of good young prospects in our organization, and I think Dale went out and got good veteran players on July 1. I think there's a good core of players there and we just think we're going to put it together and hopefully work hard together as a team and turn the organization around, because we don't want to finish in the 27th, 28th or 29th spot next year."