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Panthers hoping mix of youth, Jagr leads to playoffs

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers made a run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season before falling short, but they're confident they can get over the hump with pretty much the same cast of characters.

What they believe could make the difference is having active NHL scoring leader Jaromir Jagr for an entire season and budding star center Nick Bjugstad back healthy after he missed the end of last season with a back injury.

The offseason featured more subtractions than additions for the Panthers, with the idea being to create space for some of their young prospects.

And in reality, there probably aren't enough openings to accommodate a large group of young players who could be ready to contribute at the NHL level.

"My opening statement (at the start of training camp) was we have 51 guys here, only 23 jobs," general manager Dale Tallon said. "And a lot of them are our own guys. We've got lots of guys for few jobs. So I said, do the math. We want the best team, the best players. We've got good young prospects that are first-year pros and we've got other guys coming, so it's starting to really come together."

Forwards

For all the young talent the Panthers have up front -- Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri, along with prospects Rocco Grimaldi and Vincent Trocheck -- it's Jagr, 43, who clearly draws the most attention.

The Panthers went 12-7-2 in their final 21 games last season after acquiring Jagr in a trade with the New Jersey Devils, a pace that projects to 101 points over an 82-game season.

Jagr had 18 points in 20 games with the Panthers, and his mere presence should continue to have a big impact on his linemates, Barkov and Huberdeau.

"The thing is they got all the tools," Jagr said. "They can score goals, they're good one-on-one. I can help them with the experience. I just told them to take advantage of that, how to play. Because if you don't tell them they're going to find out, but maybe five, six years later. You can make the progress a little bit quicker on them. You tell them, you show them, and they see if it works and you can make them great players a little bit quicker than if they find out on their own."

Huberdeau led the Panthers with 54 points last season and signed a two-year contract as a restricted free agent the day before the start of training camp.

Barkov had 36 points, including 15 in the 21 games after Jagr arrived. He has been a very good two-way player since his rookie season as an 18-year-old, but Tallon says he's due for more offensive production.

"His play has been outstanding, but he hasn't been getting the production," Tallon said. "The numbers haven't really come out yet, so that's just a matter of time before that happens. His game performances are terrific. He hasn't gotten a lot of numbers offensively yet, but I expect that's going to happen, especially if that line stays healthy and stays together."

The other two forwards expected to produce offensively are Bjugstad, who led the Panthers with 24 goals last season despite missing the final 10 games, and Pirri, who had 22 goals in 49 games.

"He's 100 percent and he looks really good in camp," coach Gerard Gallant said of Bjugstad. "He's one of our top players, no doubt. He's like a lot of our young players, he had a great year last year and he'll be better this year hopefully."

The forward group also includes solid two-way veterans Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland, along with penalty-killing specialist Derek MacKenzie.

The only newcomer of note among the forwards is Reilly Smith, who brings speed along with the ability to play center or either wing. He was acquired in the offseason from the Boston Bruins in a trade for forward Jimmy Hayes.

Defensemen

The Panthers were 15th in the NHL in fewest shots allowed last season, a marked improvement from 2013-14, when they finished 24th.

The big story on defense for the Panthers centers on what Aaron Ekblad can do for an encore after winning the Calder Trophy last season.

Ekblad, who turned 19 in February, impressed with his remarkable poise in the defensive zone and produced offensively. He was second among rookie defensemen with 39 points, and first in shots (170) and game-winning goals (four).

Ekblad reported for his second NHL training camp sporting a beard but with the same even-keeled approach.

"I feel a little less anxious, a little less sheer pressure, I guess, to perform," Ekblad said. "However, that pressure last year wasn't glaring. It kind of didn't really faze me too much. I just feel more comfortable here and obviously I don't want to feel too comfortable to the point where I'm sitting back. I want to play the same game that I played last year, play offensively, play defensively and do it well, and be responsible out there."

Ekblad leads the Panthers' young group of defensemen that includes past first-round picks Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov, as well as Alex Petrovic.

The Florida defense also includes veterans Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell. Mitchell, the Panthers captain, is the reliable defender and penalty killer; Campbell is the fast-skating puck mover.

Michael Matheson is the wild card in the equation. The smooth-skating 2012 first-round pick is destined to be a top-four defenseman for the Panthers at some point, but he's likely to start the season in San Antonio of the American Hockey League because of a lack of roster openings.

Goalies

In his first full season back with the Panthers, Roberto Luongo proved he still remains among the better goalies in the NHL.

In 61 appearances, Luongo had a .921 save percentage, which ranked 11th among goalies with at least 40 games. It placed Luongo right alongside the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist (.922) and the Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask (.922).

As with Jagr, the one concern with Luongo is his age; he'll turn 37 in April. That makes the job of backup Al Montoya all the more important.

In his first season with the Panthers, Montoya had his moments, but he finished with a less-than-desirable .892 save percentage.

"I think Montoya had a great summer, stronger, fitter," Tallon said. "He's more committed. He was hurt last year, but he won some big games for us. It's a contract year for him, so he's got to perform well."

Special Teams

The Panthers made some strides on special teams last season, but that wasn't difficult considering they were last in the League in power-play efficiency and penalty killing in 2013-14.

But if they're going to break through and capture that elusive playoff berth, the Panthers likely will have to do better than 24th in each category.

On the power play, the biggest reason for optimism is the presence of Jagr from the start of the season. The Panthers scored at a 16.3 percent clip with the man advantage last season, but they were at 20.7 percent after Jagr joined them in late February. That 20.7 percent figure would have been good for seventh in the League.

On the other end, the Panthers played 16 games last season without Mitchell, who is their best penalty-killing defensemen. It also wouldn't hurt if the Panthers could do better than their League-worst total of one shorthanded goal, an empty-netter.

Coaches

Gallant returns for his second season as Panthers coach with one change on his staff.

Mark Morris, who handled the defense last season after working in the Los Angeles Kings organization, left to take over as head coach of the Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes' AHL affiliate.

Mike Kelly and John Madden return as assistant coaches.

Gallant, who coached the Columbus Blue Jackets for parts of three seasons from 2003-07, was optimistic coming to camp after the best season of his coaching career.

"I think we're a confident team coming into camp," Gallant said. "Last year we came to camp and we didn't know what we had. We had a new coaching staff, we had a lot of new players. I think the year went pretty well for us. We were pretty happy. I think the guys came in this year saying, you know what, it's not about having a good team, it's about getting into the playoffs. I think the guys believe any night they can play any different team and we can beat anybody in the League if we play well."

PROJECTED LINEUP

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr

Brandon Pirri - Nick Bjugstad - Reilly Smith

Jussi Jokinen - Dave Bolland - Vincent Trocheck

Quinton Howden - Derek Mackenzie - Shawn Thornton

Willie Mitchell - Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Campbell - Aaron Ekblad

Steven Kampfer - Erik Gudbranson

Roberto Luongo

Al Montoya

COMING AND GOING

2014-15 record: 38-29-15 (91 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Key additions: F Reilly Smith, LW Lawson Crouse

Key subtractions: RW Brad Boyes, RW Jimmy Hayes, G Dan Ellis, LW Scottie Upshall, D Shane O'Brien, LW Tomas Kopecky

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