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Bright Future Has Panthers Already Looking To 2012-13

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils defends the net against a shot by Stephen Weiss #9 of the Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- It was barely 15 minutes after the Florida Panthers had seen their playoff run come to an abrupt and bitter end, and Stephen Weiss already was looking forward to preparing for next season.

For Weiss and his Panthers, the 3-2 double-overtime loss to New Jersey in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals may have marked the end of their season, but what they did to get themselves in that Game 7 in the first place signified the start of something big in Florida.

"This is not where the hockey people predicted us to be at the start of the year," said Weiss, who had endured eight seasons of playoff-less hockey before this year. "We've done some good things. We're obviously disappointed not being able to move on. It's been a fun year, it's been a fun playoff in front of our fans. They've been fantastic. And it stings. It stings to lose at home.

"But we've got some bright years ahead. We've got some kids coming up that are pretty darn good players. It'll be a fun summer training and [we'll] try to do it all over again next year."

The Panthers do appear to have good reason to be optimistic about their future.

They were able to make the playoffs this season by merging more than a dozen veteran newcomers with a small group of holdovers, with rookie Erik Gudbranson tossed into the mix.

But the biggest part of Dale Tallon's vision after taking over as general manager in May of 2010 was building with draft picks. So in the coming years, the team that went to the playoffs in 2011-12 figures to be joined by blue-chip prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Petrovic and Drew Shore.

As Tallon explained it, the Panthers moved ahead of schedule this season.

"That's what's really exciting for me, is the fun begins now," Tallon said at the start of the playoffs. "Moving forward we didn't disrupt our future to get success early here in the present. We have a bright future ahead of us. Now we can keep adding pieces to this core that's really a good strong core now. So we're in good shape as far as the organization is concerned."

One thing is for sure, the Panthers figure to be done with the kind of overhaul they underwent last summer when they piled up the veteran acquisitions.

The team's biggest offseason priority figures to be re-signing defenseman Jason Garrison and right wing Kris Versteeg, who are scheduled to become unrestricted and restricted free agents, respectively.

Other Panthers players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents include veterans Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, John Madden and Scott Clemmensen.

One of those veterans who joined the Panthers last summer was goalie Jose Theodore, and he reflected on the journey that led to them becoming the first team since the two-conference format was adopted in 1974-75 to win a division title after finishing last in the conference the previous year.

"We really jelled well," Theodore said. "It was some of the most fun I've had in a long time. Great bunch of guys. We were on a mission to prove a lot of people wrong. When you play with that little chip on your shoulder, it makes a big difference and I thought this year, the way we fought back that last game is pretty much our identity and our character.

"A lot of people didn't think we were going to make the playoffs, even less clinch the division. The guys showed a lot of character. It's really looking good for the future."

The one thing the Panthers probably won't have next season are the low expectations that were placed on them by hockey analysts before the start of the regular season.

Not that the Panthers ever paid attention to those.

"We had a great year and exceeded a lot of people's expectations, but we did not exceed our own expectations," Versteeg said. "I still can't believe we lost [Game 7]. There is a bitter taste out of this, but also some positives and we will move on."

First-year Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, the long-time NHL player, was prepared after the game for the inevitable question of how he would reflect on the season.

"It's going to take a little time for some reflection on the year," Dineen said. "I will say that 19 years of playing and I absolutely loved coaching in Portland, Maine, six years there, I loved the players I worked with. This year for me -- and it doesn't have anything to do with nice planes and little nicer hotels and getting treated pretty special, which everybody does in the NHL -- I think there was a sincerity in that team that you can't try for. That comes through when they come to the rink, they play together, and that doesn't just happen overnight. That starts in September, and it gives us a good future to build on."

Author: Alain Poupart | Correspondent

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