If the Florida Panthers improve this season the way they did in 2011-12, a Stanley Cup can't be far off.
Consider: The Panthers jumped 22 points, nine places and 12 seeds in the Eastern Conference in the standings, made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2000, and won the only division title in franchise history.
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Then, in the first round of the playoffs, they built a 3-2 series lead against the New Jersey Devils before losing Game 6 in overtime and Game 7 in double overtime.
The Devils went on to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
"We gave it our best shot and we were a goal away from moving on," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "Who's to say what would happen in the next series? We don't deal in hypotheticals. We had a good year. We're very positive going into the offseason, but we're not satisfied."
Tallon gave the Panthers an extreme makeover last summer, adding 10 players to the roster and new coach in Kevin Dineen.
"We obviously had a lot of new faces last year and one of those new faces included our head coach," goalie Scott Clemmensen told the team's website. "It created a very fun environment to be in and the team had some relative success throughout the season."
The Panthers have one of the most productive top lines in the League (Stephen Weiss-Kris Versteeg-Tomas Fleischmann) and one of its highest-scoring defensemen (Brian Campbell), with those elements combining for a top-10 power play.
Versteeg, one of last season's newcomers, signed a four-year contract as a free agent to stay in Florida, based in part on its potential to win.
"It feels pretty good. It's been a bit of a whirlwind the last two years but right now security was the No. 1 thing for me. To play in Florida was a No. 1 thing," Versteeg said after agreeing to the contract. "I mean it all came down to wanting to be in Florida and wanting to play here."
That desire to stay is a significant part of Tallon's plan for the franchise.
"We want people that want to be Panthers. It's very important," the GM said. "You don't want to sign people to long-term deals that are kind of iffy that they don't want to be here or they're doubtful that they want to be Panthers."
Campbell, another new face last season, scored a single-team career-high 53 points (tied for second among NHL defensemen) but will be looking for a partner after Jason Garrison left for his hometown Vancouver Canucks.
Filip Kuba was signed as a free agent to fill that spot, and forward Peter Mueller was given a one-year deal to add scoring to the forwards. The team also acquired veteran tough-guy forward George Parros.
PANTHERS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
D Filip Kuba, C Peter Mueller, RW George ParrosSubtractions:
D Jason Garrison, RW Mikael Samuelsson, LW Wojtek Wolski, RW Krystopher BarchUFAs:
LW Marco Sturm, C John MaddenPromotion candidates:
C Jonathan Huberdeau, C Drew Shore, D Colby Robak
"We figure we are going to add some young guys to our lineup and George has had a history of being a real positive influence on young guys on and off the ice," Tallon said. "... He’s got good experience, he's a hard-nosed guy that works hard in practice and is a good model for our young guys and really will add some leadership in the locker room besides."
The other forwards are proven -- Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Tomas Kopecky and Scottie Upshall (each new to the team last season) all have at least five seasons in the League. Veteran defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Mike Weaver mix with young players Keaton Ellerby (23), Dmitry Kulikov (21) and Erik Gudbranson (20).
But unless goalie Roberto Luongo is acquired in a long-rumored trade with Vancouver to supplant the tandem of Clemmensen and Jose Theodore, any noticeable improvement will come from the Panthers' overflowing vault of high-level prospects.
Forward Jonathan Huberdeau, a Calder Trophy favorite, is expected to add significant scoring (he averaged almost two points per game in junior last season), and he could be joined by forward Quinton Howden and defenseman Colby Robak.
"We obviously need some skill," Tallon said on Panthers Vision. "We'd like to add two, three (young players) maybe, but we need some help up front. We need to get some scoring and we've got the young assets and young players that we're going to give them a chance to see if they can do it."
If the Panthers find that secondary scoring and get a boost of enthusiasm from their talented youth, Tallon's vision could be realized more quickly than he imagined.
"I'm really pumped about our future," Tallon said. "We had a great year last year, but our future even looks better. And that's what I'm excited about."
Author: Mike Battaglino | NHL.com Staff Writer