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After Summer of Strides, Panthers Believe Their Time is Now

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

SUNRISE, Fla. - "The excitement among everybody is through the roof."

That was Vincent Trocheck's assessment when asked to describe the feeling among Florida Panthers players during the team's annual media day on Thursday morning at BB&T Center.

"Everybody's extremely excited to get back and play," the Panthers center said emphatically, arms crossed with a backwards baseball cap on. "We've taken pretty big strides this summer to put ourselves in a good position to be the team coming into camp that we keep expecting to be."

Viewed as somewhat of an unofficial kickoff to the 2019-20 campaign, Trocheck was one of 61 players that participated in the organization's media-centric festivities. An exhausting gauntlet of headshots, video shoots and more, the event also included the first team meeting of the season.

For a select few, a conversation with reporters was also on the agenda.

Making their way into a jampacked room of cameras and recorders, each player that sat down flashed a smile before fielding a volley of questions. After all, a new season means a fresh start. It's another chance to turn things around and begin a new quest to try and win the Stanley Cup.

As you'd expect, these chats were filled with many of the same words, phrases and statements that you'd hear from any team about to embark on an 82-game grind. There was talk of flipping the page, of playing with higher expectations and learning how to get over the hump as a team.

But for the first time, there was a new topic that kept popping up during each interview: time.

"[The years] are going by quicker," Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manger Dale Tallon said. "You've got to make sure that you're ready to go and keep getting better."

Joining the team in the summer of 2010, Tallon has spent the past decade meticulously building the team's deep and dangerous roster through both the draft and shrewd trades. Once thought of as the "young core," many of those picks are already in or will enter their prime this season.

Heading into his eighth NHL season, Jonathan Huberdeau stands out as the team's longest-tenured player. Right behind him are Aleksander Barkov and Trocheck, who are entering their seventh. On the blue line, Aaron Ekblad is about to begin his sixth and Mike Matheson his fifth.

This isn't a team on the rise anymore.

It's a team that's ready to roar.

"We can't keep saying we're a young team," Trocheck said. "We can't keep saying our age is why we keep making mistakes at this point. Our young guys have been in this league six, seven, eight years. We're veterans at this point. We need to take ownership upon ourselves and take that next step to be a team that everybody doesn't want to be play against."

Over the years, the Panthers have had their ups and their downs. They've gone on incredible winning streaks and endured gut-wrenching skids. They won the Atlantic Division and reached the playoffs in 2015-16 but were knocked out in the opening round by the New York Islanders.

In the time since that early exit - a moment Barkov called "the best experience of our lives" - players have only grown hungrier not only to win, but to win with the current group they have.

"You are with those guys and you're growing up," Barkov said. "Since the first development camp until now, we've been here. We have a really good chance. We all want to win. We all know what we're going to do if you win. You have your dream in your head, but you don't want to think about it all of the time. You need to work for it."

While the players will soon to get to work when training camp begins on Friday at the Panthers IceDen, Tallon's preparation for the upcoming season began back in early April. Given the greenlight from ownership to make necessary changes, he wasted no time in making a splash.

In addition to hiring his longtime friend and three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville as head coach, he also filled the team's few remaining needs in free agency by signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari.

Those moves not only improved the roster, but also lit a fire under the team's stars.

"Everything we did this summer was perfect," Barkov said. "All we needed, we added. I think there's nothing else you could have asked for from Dale or ownership to do. As players, we're excited. We know who we added. They're really good guys and even better players."

Of those four free agent signings, none garnered more buzz than Bobrovsky.

Finishing last season with a franchise-record 264 goals, the Panthers showed that they already have the tools in place to be one of the best offensive teams in the league. Barkov is coming off a year in which he registered a franchise-record 96 points, while players like Huberdeau (92), Evgenii Dadonov (70), Mike Hoffman (70) and Keith Yandle (62) also posted career-best totals.

With all those players returning on offense, Bobrovsky helps give them a defense to match.

A two-time Vezina Trophy winner, the 30-year-old owned a 37-24-1 record with a .913 save percentage and an NHL-leading nine shutouts last season with Columbus, backstopping the club to its first playoff series win, a stunning opening round sweep over top-seeded Tampa Bay.

"I'm excited for this opportunity," said Bobrovsky, who leads all NHL goaltenders with 115 wins over the past three seasons. "It's a new opportunity for me. It's the new chapter in my career and in my life. I'm looking forward to that and I'm very excited.

"We're going to need to come together as a team, as a group, face some challenges, some hurdles and overcome them together. But at the end of the day our goal is a Stanley Cup. I think everybody in the locker room wants to win it and will do their best to achieve it."

As Bobrovsky recently learned, anything can happen if you make the playoffs.

That's the goal for the Panthers this season -- not only to get in, but to make some noise.

"You don't want to just sneak in," Tallon said. "You want to get in, play with momentum all through the season and develop it like a snowball down a mountain. I think once everything gets solid and we start playing together as a unit and we select the team it'll come together quickly."

In his 20 full seasons as a head coach, Quenneville has reached the postseason 18 times.

"It's a heck of an accomplishment making the playoffs," said Quenneville, whose 890 wins stand as the second-most in NHL history. "We're in a tough division and in a tough conference. We've got to find a way. That's consistency is part of it. Getting off to a great start can really facilitate what can happen later. I think these young guys are at that point in their career where there's another step for them to go, taking that ownership of the team and finding a way [to win]."

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