SUNRISE, Fla. - After cleaning out their lockers at the BB&T Center, Florida Panthers players, filled with a mixture of anger and optimism, greeted the media on Tuesday morning at the BB&T Center.
The discussion quickly turned to how the franchise can make a triumphant return trip to the playoffs next season.
"I don't think it's going to take much at all," said Vincent Trocheck, who led the Panthers in scoring with 54 points. "I think we have the team to do even better than we did last year. It's going to be a few tweaks. If we can come in with the right mindset next year, I think we'll be right back on track.
"I wish the season started next week. It [stinks] to end like this after such a good season last season. We know we have a team here that can go far. Not being able to do so this year, it [stinks]. There's definitely some frustration. We're all hoping to get back as soon as possible."
Only a season removed from an Atlantic Division title and a franchise-record 103 points, the Panthers, who posted a 35-36-11 record this season, believe that their road back to the playoffs is fairly free of obstacles. With a stockpile of budding superstars such as Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Trocheck all locked into long-term contracts, the general consensus among players is that only a few minor changes are needed in order to turn this season's disappointment into a deep postseason run in 2017-18.
"This is some of the best young talent that I've ever had an opportunity to play with," said Panthers Captain Derek MacKenzie. "Not only are they great players on the ice, but they're great people off the ice. Through all of the ups and downs and the things that went on this year, it was the young guys that kept things together and kept us rolling.
"The Barkovs, the Ekblads, the Trochecks -- I know I'm forgetting a bunch of the young guys -- but all those guys are going to be good players. I know they're going to come back in and be ready to go. We just need to be ready to go when the puck drops in October."
Although it was clear that Panthers players would much rather be talking about the silvery shine of the Stanley Cup rather than the silver linings of a season that fell short, there were also plenty of individual and team performances that players pointed to as positives.
Led by MacKenzie, and with a lot of help from several newcomers like Mark Pysyk, Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour, the Panthers owned the NHL's second-ranked penalty kill, converting 85.3 percent of their chances - the organization's most effective PK since 2003-04.
"As a team, you play with a little more confidence that if you take a penalty trying to create something that you have guys there to cover for you," said Sceviour, whose three shorthanded goals were the most by any Panthers skater since Tom Fitzgerald tallied six in 1995-96. "You can play a more aggressive style of game because you know that if something happens, you guys feel comfortable that you can kill off any situation. That definitely helps the team out."
As injuries to key players ravaged the top of Florida's lineup for the majority of the season (Barkov and Huberdeau combined to miss a total of 72 games), under-the-radar free agent singing Jonathan Marchessault emerged as one of the team's breakout stars on offense, becoming the Panthers' first 30-goal scorer since David Booth potted 31 in 2008-09.
"I think I proved that I can play in the NHL," said Marchessault, who had just eight career goals coming into this season. "I'm confident. I'm happy with what I did this year. I'm not the kind of guy that takes a year off or something like that. I know I'm going to come ready to play next year and do the same thing. I always want to beat what I did the year before. I think that's what makes you a better hockey player. I'll be ready."
With the emergence of players like Marchessault and Sceviour, and with core players like Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad returning to full health, the Panthers are confident that the surprising struggles of this past season were nothing more an anomaly, a small bump in the road on their quest for a Stanley Cup.
"We obviously have to go forward from here," Marchessault said. "I think, as a group, everybody has to learn from this year. The expectations were there and we were way below that. We're all going to learn and next year I'm sure we'll be a way better team."
Looking ahead to next season, the belief among players in the locker room seemingly hasn't faltered. The goal moving forward remains the same: just win.
"We like our team. We have good chemistry," said Huberdeau, who had 26 points (10-16-26) in 31 games after returning from injury. "Yeah, it's been a tough season, but next year we're going to come back stronger. We know we have a good group and we know what we can do."