Disappointing season gives young Panthers core crucial development

The Florida Panthers won't be playing in the playoffs, but they have known that for a while. But though this season didn't yield a lot of success on the ice, it did give a vibrant group of young, talented players the chance to grow into the NHL game and become poised to do greater things down the road.

Vincent Trocheck is one of the young Panthers players who could take the next step next season.

Robert Mayer / USA TODAY Sports

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Southeast Division championship banner hanging in the rafters here serves as a distant reminder for Erik Gudbranson.

It has been two full years since the Florida Panthers defenseman stepped on ice for a playoff game. And he loathes the feeling.

"There's no worse feeling," Gudbranson said. "We want to be playing right now. This sucks. It's not fun to be finishing your season like this, being in the position we're in."

The season ended long before Saturday's finale here against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a 3-2 loss.

Heading into the Olympic Break, Florida might have had a shot to work a miracle and catch the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings for a playoff spot. But a 7-15-1 record to wrap up the season ended that hope.

Saturday almost seemed like a microcosm of the Panthers' seven-month season wrapped into a concise 60 minutes.

A slow start. Ineffective special teams. Inopportune giveaways. Lack of scoring. A comeback attempt that falls short. The Panthers even played without their leader, Ed Jovanovski, for most of the contest after he was ejected for elbowing Columbus' Corey Tropp.

There may be too many mistakes to pinpoint, but if Florida is to take one thing from this season, its that now may be the time the growing pains come to an end.

The plethora of young, blue-chip talent general manager Dale Tallon amassed has experienced the life of being pros.

They are no longer prospects or rookies with upside and promise.

They are NHL players.

"We didn't make the playoffs," coach Peter Horachek said. "What we did succeed in, I believe, is that we saw a lot of young guys we saw positive things from that we're going to mold that into something positive for next year.

"Not everyone can be on the team next year. We're going to mold the positives. We're going to take the next step, be better organized, more structured, better on both sides of the puck. We have to believe this is the start of a plan that takes you to where you want to be."

When the Panthers opened their season in October, only five players under the age of 24 were in the lineup; on Saturday, that number was 11. And had second-overall pick Aleksander Barkov and defenseman Alex Petrovic not been nursing injuries that number might have larger.

"If we're going to play young players, you're going to have mistakes on the defensive side," Horachek said. "A lot of players have been coming from systems and teams that they've been doing something one way for a number of years."

With the exception of late call ups Vincent Trocheck and Quinton Howden, though, Florida's players under 24 have at least half a season to their credit.

Now, the process of understanding what its like to prepare for and play in the NHL is complete. Next year, it is time for these boys to grow into men.

"I was fortunate enough my first year to get a taste of the playoffs, a taste of being a first-place, division team," the 22-year-old Gudbranson said. "It was difficult. Extremely difficult. You're hurt going into the playoffs. Your body is worn down, and it should be like that.

"That's where the men come out -- in the playoffs."

But this season, these young Panthers were still kids. They've endured the hardship of a long season, the transition to the pro game, the physical wear-and-tear of playing against grown men, the mistakes and consequences.

Gudbranson knows the playoffs are on the horizon. Not this season, but maybe soon.

"I think we all feel that way now. We're just not in that position," he said. "I think giving them that taste [of the NHL] is hopefully going to light a fire inside of them to want to be here next year and not only be here, but be the best possible team we can be and best possible teammates we can be."

Maybe next year.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.

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