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Full season of Jagr has Panthers optimistic

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers are hoping they can build on their improvement and strong finish from last season to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2015-16.

The Panthers made few personnel changes in the offseason, confident that their mix of young talent and half-dozen veterans can help them get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12.

Here are four reasons the Panthers should be optimistic about doing so:

Coming of age: The blueprint since Dale Tallon took over as general manager in May 2010 has been to stockpile prospects and let them develop. With forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers have three potential stars they can build around.

Huberdeau led the Panthers in scoring with 54 points last season with a bounce-back performance after the sophomore slump that followed his winning the Calder Trophy in 2013. Bjugstad led the Panthers with 24 goals despite missing the last 10 games because of a back injury, and Barkov had 12 points in his final 13 games.

Pirri prowess: Center Brandon Pirri ended up two goals shy of Bjugstad's total last season playing 49 games. After being acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks in March 2014, Pirri bounced in and out of the lineup early last season and then was sidelined by injuries before he went on a tear starting in mid-January.

Pirri scored 19 goals in a 26-game stretch to join Bjugstad as the only 20-goal scorers on the Panthers.

The burst wasn't totally unexpected. Pirri was a second-round pick (No. 59) by the Blackhawks in the 2009 NHL Draft and had 13 goals in 49 games with Chicago and Florida in 2013-14.

Goaltending in good hands: The Panthers brought Roberto Luongo back to Florida in March 2014 to solidify what had been a shaky goaltending situation. Aside from one tough break, that's just what happened last season.

Luongo played well enough to earn an All-Star Game appearance. More important, he gave the Panthers a chance to win every night.

The one hiccup was an injury in a home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs that was made worse when backup Al Montoya was injured in the game. Montoya was forced to play with a bad groin for a while before Luongo was forced to return to the game after other alternatives were considered.

That bizarre episode aside, Luongo and Montoya gave the Panthers the kind of goaltending they'll need this season to make a return to the playoffs.

The Jagr factor:Jaromir Jagr will be the first to admit he's not the dominating player he was during his prime. But there is no denying the Panthers were a different, and much better, team after they acquired the forward in February.

The Panthers went 12-7-2 after acquiring Jagr in a trade with the New Jersey Devils; that projects to 101 points over an 82-game season. Before getting Jagr, the Panthers were 26-22-13, projected to 87 points over a full season.

Jagr had 18 points in 20 games. More important, his presence seemed to energize new linemates Huberdeau and Barkov. The three formed a productive top line down the stretch.

It was no surprise that the Panthers re-signed Jagr shortly after the end of last season. His leadership alone is valuable, and if he can perform the way he did late last season, he could make a big difference.

Author: Alain Poupart | Correspondent

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