SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers made the biggest improvement in the NHL last season and are counting on their young players to continue that progress.
The Panthers that will open training camp in September will be almost the same team that closed 2014-15 with 91 points, an NHL-best 25-point increase from the previous season. The only veteran addition of note during the offseason was forward Reilly Smith, who came from the Boston Bruins in a trade along with the contract of injured center Marc Savard for forward Jimmy Hayes.
The Panthers stayed very quiet during free agency; the five players they signed each received a two-way contract.
It was quite a contrast from the previous summer, when on July 1 the Panthers signed five established veterans who figure to play prominent roles again this season: Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton, Willie Mitchell and Derek MacKenzie.
This summer turned out to be more about clearing roster space for the young players. Florida made no effort to re-sign its veteran free agents, forwards Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky, and goalie Dan Ellis. They released forward Brad Boyes, who led the Panthers with 21 goals in 2013-14.
The departure of three veteran forwards should open roster spots for some prospects who could be ready for full-time NHL roles, namely Vincent Trocheck and Rocco Grimaldi.
"We just felt again it was blocking our young guys' opportunity to play; Trocheck, Grimaldi, those types of players," general manager Dale Tallon said. "That's where we want to get to. We said that we would do that. Brad did a nice job for us two years ago, and last year was a struggle. We just felt that we wanted to make some room for Grimaldi and Trocheck, and those types of players."
Tallon also said first-round pick Lawson Crouse, the No. 11 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, will be given every opportunity to earn a top-six role.
"I'm not putting pressure on him, I'm just giving him an opportunity that he told us he wanted," Tallon said. "When we interviewed him prior to drafting him, his goal was to play right away. He believed it, so he's going to get every opportunity to earn that spot. We're not hesitant to use kids. We've proven that in the past."
The one exception to the offseason youth movement was the re-signing of 43-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr shortly after last season ended. Jagr had 18 points in 20 games after joining the Panthers in late February in a trade from the New Jersey Devils and teamed with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on a productive top line.
The Panthers were 12-7-2 after Jagr arrived, playing the last 10 games without leading goal-scorer Nick Bjugstad (back injury).
Barkov, Huberdeau and Bjugstad are but three of the young players Tallon hopes can help the Panthers return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy. Center Brandon Pirri scored 19 goals in his last 30 games after bouncing in and out of the lineup. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had his most consistent season and will be entering his seventh season; he turns 25 in late October.
The Panthers' 21-man roster includes 10 players 25 or younger. Though Jagr, 36-year-old goalie Roberto Luongo and 36-year-old defenseman Brian Campbell will be counted on to play key roles again, this is a young team, one Tallon said is on the rise.
"We think we have a very good young team, and with adding some of our own players I think we'll be a better team," Tallon said. "We'll be quicker and more skilled. That's what we're all about.
"We've got young players that are very capable of playing for us next year. We don't want to shut the door on that. We want those guys to get every opportunity to be on our team. I want to be the youngest team in the League and the best team in the League at the same time."
Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent