|From left to right: Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad & Erik Gudbranson (Getty Images)
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The message from Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon on the first day of free agency was pretty simple.
"We're going to go with our young guys. That's been the plan all along and that's the way we're going to go," Tallon said during the team's developmental camp this past week.
The Panthers have been stockpiling high-end prospects since Tallon joined the organization in May 2010, and those players began arriving during the past two seasons. Erik Gudbranson, the third pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, was a member of the defense for the 2011-12 Southeast Division champions, while Jonathan Huberdeau, the third pick of the 2011 draft, won the Calder Trophy last season.
A handful of other prospects made their NHL debuts during the 2012-13 season, among them forwards Quinton Howden and Nick Bjugstad, as well as defenseman Alex Petrovic.
Now, however, the Panthers will lean even more on their young players. That was the take after that first day of free agency, when Florida saw center Stephen Weiss, the longest-tenured player on the roster, leave after signing a five-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
"We've got to go in a different direction with our young guys," Tallon said. "The [Aleksander] Barkovs and Bjugstads and [Drew] Shores and [Vincent] Trochecks, those are the guys that are our future. That's what's going to have to get done here."
Barkov was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and the Panthers are hoping he can recuperate from March shoulder surgery quickly enough to make the opening-night roster.
Trocheck, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound right wing, might be a season away, but he's coming off a 2012-13 run that saw him capture the Ontario Hockey League scoring title with 109 points in 63 games split between Saginaw and Plymouth.
Bjugstad (6-6, 215) played the final 11 games of last season with the Panthers after signing his first pro contract following his third season at the University of Minnesota. He finished with one goal and no assists.
"It was an eye-opener for me," Bjugstad, the 19th pick of the 2010 draft, said. "It was more so for me to learn and get a grasp of what the game is like. It was a short time but it was a good experience for me. Probably not the best on paper, but I think it'll help me in the future and this coming training camp confidence-wise. I learned a lot and it was a good experience."
At the very least, Bjugstad ended the season on a high note. After being kept off the score sheet in his first 10 games, he got a goal in a 6-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the season finale.
"Mentally it was good for over the summer knowing that I can produce a little bit, at least, in the NHL," Bjugstad said. "It helps my psyche a little bit."
While he began his pro career at the highest level, Bjugstad might need some seasoning in the American Hockey League before he's able to make an impact for the Panthers. Bjugstad said he was going to focus on his training the rest of the summer to help his chances of starting the season in the NHL.
"I can't control who's playing where," he said. "I just have to make sure I'm training my best and doing whatever I can to make that team at the start. I've got to play with confidence and make sure I'm doing the little things right, playing a good two-way game."
|Drew Shore skates with the puck up the ice in a game last season (Getty Images). |
Shore began last season with San Antonio, the Panthers' AHL affiliate, but never went back after getting a call-up early in the NHL season.
He impressed his coaches from the start with his all-round game, including solid faceoff work, but was slowed down the stretch by a wrist injury that eventually required surgery.
Shore went 17 games without a point late in the season before coming up with a goal and an assist in the final three games.
"It's probably, in terms of hockey, the toughest thing I've ever had to do," Shore said of playing through the injury. "At the same time, I got a chance to play in the NHL and it was something that I wanted to do. I'm just looking forward to being fully healthy coming into training camp and being an offensive guy.
"I want to develop and turn into an offensive player. I think I have the skills and talent to be an offensive player in this League and it was something I really wasn't as successful as I would have liked to have been last year, but it's something I'm confident this year I'm going to take a step forward in."
Howden played the final 17 games with the Panthers after getting a one-game call-up in January.
The 6-2, 189-pound forward failed to record a point, but the 25th pick of the 2010 draft started making an impact with his strong skating in the final games.
"I was frustrated at the time," Howden said. "Everybody wants that goal. But I was helping the team, contributing in ways, and that's all I really wanted to do. As long as I can come back and contribute in those little ways, then that's all I want."
Petrovic, a second-round pick in 2010, got his first taste of the NHL with a six-game stint to end the season.
With the Panthers having bought out veteran Filip Kuba and allowing Tyson Strachan to leave via free agency, Petrovic finds himself with a strong opportunity to join a defense that includes Brian Campbell, Mike Weaver, Ed Jovanovski, Dmitry Kulikov and Gudbranson.
"I'm ready to make that next step," Petrovic said. "Last year gave me confidence that I can play in the game and be effective, too. For me it's just getting stronger in the upper body and coming in with a lot of confidence and just showing them that I'm ready to play here."
While Tallon has high expectations for his young prospects, he also wants them to understand that they will have to earn roster spots.
"I don't care about age. I don't care about anything but performance," Tallon said. "It's what dictates who plays and who doesn't."
When the Panthers reconvene for training camp in September, a lot of attention will be put on veterans coming back from injuries, players like Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim and Ed Jovanovski.
More importantly, the Panthers coaching staff and front office will need to evaluate and determine how many of their blue-chip prospects are ready to be full-time NHL players.
In other words, has the future arrived for the Panthers?
"You got a scent of it last year," Howden said. "Guys went down with injuries [and] you saw me, [Bjugstad, Shore and Petrovic] all make our debuts. It's going to be a good team down the road.
"We're all excited. We've been together now for three years or something and built good chemistry off the ice. Eventually, over time, that's going to continue to build chemistry on the ice. If we all come back and prepare and use our experiences from last year, we should start off on the right foot."
Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent