SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers aren't happy.
With yet another long summer ahead of them, the Panthers are still very much feeling the sting of a season in which they came up just short, coating their optimistic outlook of the future with a visibly thick layer of frustration during Tuesday's locker cleanout at BB&T Center.
"It's disappointing," said center Vincent Trocheck, who finished with a team-leading 31 goals. "Everybody here had one goal, and that was to make the playoffs and then go on a push. We were really hoping we'd get a little help from some other teams and maybe get in. I think there's a lot of teams that didn't want to play us if we got in."
The Panthers were one of the best teams in the league during the second half of the 2017-18 season, winning their final five games to cap off an incredible 25-8-2 stretch following the All-Star break that propelled the team to 96 points - the third-best campaign in franchise history.
Unfortunately, that late-season surge fell one point short, as Florida became just the second team since the league adopted the shootout in 2005 to miss the playoffs with 96 points, joining the 2014-15 Boston Bruins - a team that has made the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
With 97 points, New Jersey and Columbus claimed the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
"It makes it worse," said captain Derek MacKenzie. "I think the more you think about our situation it only makes it worse… What's so great about this young group of guys is they're so hungry, resilient, they're not happy about it."
For players like MacKenzie, it was hard not to focus on the what-ifs. A point here or point there could have made all the difference for the Panthers down the stretch, as uncharacteristic losses to teams like Edmonton and Ottawa marred a near-perfect finish to their season.
"You just keep looking back at which games you could have done a better job, play better, make an extra save, get an extra point somewhere," goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "That's the type of stuff that goes through your mind right now."
While a few scarce losses in March were still fresh in their minds, the majority of players pointed to the team's 4-8-2 start as the biggest reason the Panthers would be watching the playoffs from home this summer, a stumble right out of the gate that left the club playing catchup all season.
"We always come back to the start," winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. "It's huge to have a good start so at the end you have some points in the bank. We didn't so we tried to catch up the whole last half of the season and the team in front of us didn't give us a chance."
If the Panthers had managed to reach the postseason, they also know they could have done some damage, as their offense (3.29 goals per game) and defense (2.51 goals against per game) both ranked among the top-10 in the league after the All-Star break.
"The message that you're getting from a lot of other teams is 'We're happy we don't have to see you guys in the first round' because they know we've been playing top-notch hockey for a long time," coach Bob Boughner said.
Video: Locker Room Clean-Out Day: Player Reactions Pt. 2
Still, after an 81-point finish in 2016-17, it's clear the Panthers have taken a big step forward.
Looking around the locker room, many of the pieces you need to build a Stanley Cup-winning team are already in place, with second-year defenseman Mike Matheson even going as far as saying Florida's current group has the potential to become perennial contenders, much like Los Angeles or San Jose.
"Those teams have had that success because they've had their key players together for a long period of time," Matheson said. "They've gotten to know each other and really create a bit of a dynasty in that sense. I think we have the capability of doing that here."
Led by 22-year-old center Aleksander Barkov's team-leading 78 points, the Panthers had three forwards under the age of 24 surpass 60 points this season, including Trocheck (24, 75 points) and Huberdeau (24, 69 points).
Keith Yandle, 31, led Florida's defensemen with 56 points while overseeing one of the league's youngest blue lines, which featured 16 goals from 22-year-old Aaron Ekblad and a career-high 27 points from Matheson, who turned just 24 in February.
"We are still disappointed that we're not in the playoffs, but we know that we've had a heck of a year," Boughner said. "I start didn't go as planned, but the way we played as one of the best teams in the NHL in the second half, I think proved to everybody that we have what it takes to be a playoff team. This 96 would've made the playoffs in a lot of years.
"It didn't happen to be this year, but it's a good lesson to be learned that we have to be able to control our own destiny and not have to hope for other teams to lose. It's a goal that we've got to get past next year and 96 is where we finished and let's get to 100-plus next year and take all of the doubt out of it."
With their core in place, the Panthers have their sights on the playoffs and beyond in 2018-19.
"I'm really excited," Panthers President of Hockey Operations & General Manager Dale Tallon said. "We've got great commitment from [Owner] Vinnie Viola, we have a great young coaching staff, we have good scouts, we have a good system in place, we have good young players that finally believe and trust themselves and we'll take this to another level."