SUNRISE, Fla. — Days before the Florida Panthers opened training camp, Shawn Matthias made a prediction.
“It’s going to show pretty quickly who did the work while we were off,” Matthias said. “If you took any weeks off or thought it was a good time to slack, it is going to show in these 48 games.”
For the Panthers, in this lockout-shortened season, it showed.
One season after Florida found itself atop the Southeast Division with one of its best seasons in franchise history, the team plummeted to last place in the NHL.
“You’re at the bottom of the pile,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “That’s a lot of hockey teams. You’re always looking to try to reinforce some positives for your team, but that is the brutal reality of our situation.”
Statistically, the Panthers struggled in nearly every area. Florida’s 109 goals for were tied with Nashville for the fewest in the NHL. The Cats surrendered a league-high 170 goals — 11 more than 29th-place Carolina. Although Florida ranked sixth on the power play by converting 20.4 percent of their chances, their penalty kill ranked last as they surrendered goals on a quarter of its infractions.
Compared to last year when the Panthers clawed for a point in 57 percent of their games, they earned points in just 37 percent of its contests this season. The 20 percent drop-off represents the greatest year-to-year change, in either direction.
None of that sits well with the second-year coach, who said his summer is going to be a long one.
“That’s something we’ve got to sit on for four months here,” Dineen said.
At the root of Florida’s problems: conditioning.
All too often, locker room talk after losses focused on the lack of a “60-minute games” and all that accompanies such efforts. Mental mistakes. Defensive breakdowns. Few scoring chances.
“There’s a difference between being in shape in the gym and in practicing with seven guys on the ice and being in game shape,” Stephen Weiss said. “I am sure we weren’t exactly where we wanted to be at the start of the season, but at the end of the day, that’s another excuse.”
“If you revisit where we were when training camp started, the reality of what we had to start with at the beginning of the year, you can identify that as one of the issues,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We addressed that with everyone that came through [exit interviews].”
On paper, Florida appeared poised to at least compete for the Southeast Division. The Cats returned a largely intact roster from its previous season and added offensive talent in Jonathan Huberdeau.
But after a 5-1 opening night win against the Carolina Hurricanes, the on-ice reality set in — quickly. Florida dropped its next five games. By the end of February, the Panthers had yet another five-game skid in the books and had been shut out on four occasions.
And in the midst of the losses, injuries kept piling up.
To put Florida’s medical woes into perspective, it is easier to count the number of players who did not get hit by the injury bug than those who did. Only four full-time players — Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, Shawn Matthias and Huberdeau — appeared in all 48 games.
At some point during the season, 17 of the 37 players who appeared on Florida’s roster missed at least one game due to an ailment. Added up, the Panthers lost 331 man-games due to injury, and that figure includes the absence of winger Sean Bergenheim, who missed the entire season with a lower-body injury.
The Panthers were forced to tap into its system all too frequently, recalling 14 players who appeared in games with the San Antonio Rampage, the team’s AHL affiliate, this season. Eight players made their NHL debuts.
“I think our case was a little extreme, unfortunately,” captain Ed Jovanovski said. “So many guys going down at the same time and kind of leaving the responsibility to players that don’t have much NHL experience. It’s tough on them, to throw them into the fire and play big games.”
Among the youngsters forced to shoulder the load were some of Florida’s highly touted draft picks from recent years. Huberdeau and 2009 second-round pick Drew Shore anchored the Panthers’ top line. Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden, both first-round choices in 2010, became regulars during the last third of the season.
Defensively, Florida saw a transition in net as Jacob Markstrom, Florida’s first selection in 2008, took over as the team’s starter when Jose Theodore suffered a groin injury. Blueliner Alex Petrovic, a second-round selection in 2010, averaged just under 19 minutes a game over the final six contests of the season.
With the exception of Markstrom, none had NHL experience coming into the season. Shore, Howden and Petrovic each had a little more than half a season of AHL experience.
“It’s definitely a grind,” Shore said of making the transition to the NHL. “You hear a lot of guys talk about it, but until you go through it, you don’t really understand what it is like.”
Even Huberdeau, a rare bright spot this season who finished tied for the rookie scoring title with 31 points, admitted feeling a little exhausted.
“For sure you get tired by the end,” Huberdeau said. “I’m going to have a lot of time in the summer to rest. I’m going to take a month to just rest and gain some energy, finally.”
Dineen admitted the rookies struggled down the stretch, but sees the adversity as something for the Panthers’ kids to build on.
“There were some good experiences that were had and some hard lessons,” Dineen said. “I think it’s going to make them better players moving forward.”
Those hard lessons extend to veterans, too. For players like Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann and Marcel Goc, it is a rare year in which their team did not make the postseason.
“Sometimes you take for granted how hard it is to make the playoffs,” Kopecky said. “Maybe even this is a good eye opener for me to see when you get into the playoffs, you have to appreciate it even more. Not every year you get a chance to be in the playoffs and fight for the Cup.”
For GM Dale Tallon, this season is already behind him. In comparing the Chicago Blackhawks squad he build from 2005-10 to these Panthers, he sees similarities.
“One year in free agency, we signed nine guys,” Tallon said about Chicago. “They changed the rules and they weren’t very effective in the new rules and we had a terrible year. Then we got great picks and turned it around.”
The Panthers will draft no lower than second in 2013, giving them an opportunity to select NHL-ready talent such as top prospects Nathan McKinnon, Jonathan Drouin or Seth Jones.
As for Dineen, he already planning on making sure none of his players take the offseason too literally. September 11, the day Panthers training camp is slated to open, is already circled on his calendar.
“That is not the starting point. That’s not when we get going,” Dineen said. “They’re aware of that now, and they’ll be aware of it when I make a call in July when I let them know it is coming. They’ll be very aware when I call them in August.”