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Offense, aging veterans key questions for Panthers

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Although a 25-point improvement in 2014-15 was the best in the NHL, the Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons.

The only time in that span they qualified for the postseason was in 2011-12, when the Panthers won the Southeast Division title after a big spending spree in the free agent market. The approach this season is to rely on a young nucleus and hope the maturation process has reached fruition.

Here are three important questions that will determine if the Panthers return to the playoffs:

Can they find enough scoring? Offense has always been a problem for the Panthers, even when they made their surprising run to the division title in 2011-12.

In 21 seasons of existence, the Panthers have ranked 20th or lower in goals scored 16 times. Only once have they finished higher than 13th; they were sixth in the 1999-2000 season with NHL goal-scoring champion Pavel Bure.

When they made the playoffs in 2012, they ranked 20th; in the three seasons since, they've finished 28th, 28th and 25th.

Florida did show progress in the latter stages of last season. The Panthers scored three or more goals in 12 of their final 21 games (57.1 percent) after forward Jaromir Jagr arrived in a trade with the New Jersey Devils, compared with 42.6 percent in their first 61 games.

It would help the Panthers if they could get a breakout season from one of their players. It has been seven seasons since they've had a 30-goal scorer; David Booth had 31 in 2008-09.

After scoring 22 goals in 49 games last season, Brandon Pirri appears to have that kind of potential. The same goes for Nick Bjugstad, who led the Panthers with 24 goals in his second NHL season despite missing 10 games because of a back injury.

Should age be a concern? Given the makeup of their nucleus, it's accurate to call the Panthers a young team. But the reality is they also depend on some players whose careers are winding down.

The one who stands out is goalie Roberto Luongo, who is coming off a solid season but who turned 36 in April. Luongo has yet to show signs of decline, but the combination of his age and his importance makes it crucial it doesn't happen this season.

Defenseman Brian Campbell, who turned 36 in May, has led the Panthers in ice time all four seasons he's been with the team. Also, don't discount the role he played in Aaron Ekblad winning the Calder Trophy last season. Captain Willie Mitchell also logged significant minutes on defense last season; he turned 38 in April.

Lastly, there's Jagr, whose significant contribution to the Panthers late last season has provided a good part of the optimism for 2015-16. Jagr was impressive after arriving from New Jersey, and his legendary work ethic gives him a chance to continue to be productive. But it's also impossible to overlook the fact he's 43 and there will come when he simply can't make an impact anymore.

Will Nick Bjugstad's back hold him back? The third-year forward enjoyed a productive 2014-15 season, but it ended prematurely because of a back injury that required surgery. While all indications are Bjugstad will be ready for the start of training camp, back problems have been known to resurface, and there's no doubt that has to be worrisome for the Panthers.

Bjugstad is one of the key pieces on the Panthers because of his size and scoring ability. Florida needs him in the lineup.

Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent

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