The Florida Panthers' blueprint of building around their talented high draft picks hasn't changed. What general manager Dale Tallon is hoping is the addition of a coach with NHL experience and veterans who have won the Stanley Cup can get his team out of a two-year funk.
Florida finished last and next-to-last in the overall standings the past two seasons, but Tallon is thinking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014-15.
"My goal is to compete for a playoff spot all the way right to the bitter end," Tallon said. "That's what we're looking to do. I think if everybody has years that live up to their potential and the players develop and come together as a team and with our new coach, our goaltending and another year of experience for our younger guys, I think this team has got the ability if we stay healthy to compete for a spot."
After finishing 27 points away from the last playoff spot last season, it might seem unrealistic to think the Panthers have a chance to return to the postseason for only the second time since 2000. But after his hiring in June, new coach Gerard Gallant compared the situation in Florida to what he saw in Montreal after becoming an assistant coach there in 2012.
The Canadiens missed the playoffs in 2011-12, were back in the postseason the following year and last season made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final.
Gallant not only is looking for the same kind of turnaround he saw in Montreal, he wants the Panthers to play the same style of hockey.
"We've got a lot of skill, we've got a lot of speed, and I always look back at Montreal and they were a team that played fast hockey," Gallant told floridapanthers.com. "And we always used the (term) 'fast hockey.' It's about being first on pucks. It doesn't have to be a physical brand where you're running people over all the time, it's about being first on pucks, paying a price to win those one-on-one battles, and that's the way we want to play. We want to be fast hockey out there."
Shortly after hiring Gallant, who coached the Columbus Blue Jackets for parts of three seasons (2003-04 to 2006-07), the Panthers used the first pick in the 2014 NHL Draft on Ontario Hockey League defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and he will be given every chance in training camp to make the NHL roster.
When free agency began three days after the conclusion of the draft, Tallon was busy. More than anything, he stocked up on veterans with championship pedigree.
Of the six free agents signed on July 1, three have won the Stanley Cup twice. Center Dave Bolland won with the Chicago Blackhawks; defenseman Willie Mitchell won with the Los Angeles Kings; and rugged forward Shawn Thornton won the Stanley Cup once with the Anaheim Ducks and again with the Boston Bruins.
"We've added so much character," Tallon said. "We brought in some Stanley Cup champion guys that are excited about coming to Florida and not only being successful in their own right, but also helping our young guys develop quickly. Obviously it's going to take a little time with new coaching and a lot of new faces. It's going to take a little time to jell, but I like the direction we're headed."
Perhaps the most significant personnel change from the start of last season was goalie Roberto Luongo, who was brought back for a second stint with the Panthers in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks in March.
In his 14 games with the Panthers last season, Luongo had an impressive .924 save percentage, a figure that actually tops his career mark of .919.
Tallon is hesitant to pinpoint how many victories Luongo's presence could mean, but he's quick to say the three-time All-Star goalie should make everybody around him better.
"[His presence] means that our players will have a lot more confidence out front that they know they're going to have solid goaltending, especially our young guys," Tallon said. "They'll know that mistakes will be covered up by his play."
Ultimately, though, the Panthers figure to once again have so much young talent on their roster that they'll only go as far as those promising players can take them.
Nick Bjugstad led the team in scoring as a rookie last season (albeit with 38 points); Jonathan Huberdeau will be looking to bounce back after he followed his Calder-winning 2013 season with a disappointing sophomore effort; and 2013 second pick Aleksander Barkov showed last season an all-around game more befitting a 30-year-old veteran than an 18-year-old rookie.
Those three are key players for the Panthers, as are young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and maybe even Ekblad.
The Panthers have had one of the top two picks each of the past two drafts, which might hold some appeal next year when much-ballyhooed prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will be available for the taking in the 2015 NHL Draft, scheduled for BB&T Center.
The Panthers already have a lot of top prospects. Tallon is anxious to see them come together and blend in with the new veterans.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's a great opportunity for all of us. It's a much better group. I think it's going to be a fun year for us."
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