CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The NHL may be running behind schedule, but the Florida Panthers are ahead of the game.
Entering the season, the Panthers are not talking about rebuilding or ending a lengthy playoff drought. They are instead discussing advancing deeper into the postseason and winning a championship.
Florida exceeded expectations last season. The Panthers recorded a 22-point improvement in the standings and captured the Southeast Division title under GM Dale Tallon and rookie coach Kevin Dineen.
Last year’s squad endured plenty of adversity in trying to establish the franchise’s identity. Florida overcame a major roster overhaul, more than 300 man-games lost to injury, a late-season skid and a horrendous beginning to its eventual seven-game playoff series against the New Jersey Devils.
The Panthers return this hungry, battle-hardened squad largely intact. And with such little turnover in an energized locker room, Tallon believes he’s got the right foundation for immediate success.
“This is a group of guys that want to win,” Tallon said. “They were disappointed getting beaten in double overtime in Game 7 and they want to prove to the world they can get better and go deeper into the playoffs. It’s a sprint this year, not a lot of time to get ready, but that might be an advantage for us.
“We believe in them. Hopefully they believe in us, that we’re going to win some hockey games and win a championship.”
The Panthers failed to produce a 30-goal scorer — but neither did last year’s Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings — and finished with just one 60-point player. Yet Tallon knows Florida would benefit from more offense, and he is looking to get scoring depth out of youth and players seeking second chances.
Expect Florida’s top line of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann to remain unchanged, especially since the trio accounted for one-third of the Panthers’ goals. That makes them a target for opposing defenses, but Florida will be able to counter with a strong center line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and Alexei Kovalev.
The centerpiece of the trio will be rookie Huberdeau. The third-overall pick in 2011, Huberdeau amassed 89 goals and 133 assists in 134 games at the junior level. His display of offensive creativity at the 2012 World Junior Championship indicates he’s overdue to join the NHL.
Kovalev has yet to sign with the Panthers, although all indications point to him getting inked before opening night. A training camp invite, the 39-year-old has generated plenty of buzz in Florida’s locker room with his skill set.
“He’s a great player,” Huberdeau said. “He’s unbelievable on the ice. He’s got unbelievable hands. It’s great to see him out there and it’s great I can have the chance to play with him.”
Mueller may benefit the most from the combination. Hobbled by injuries the last couple seasons, Mueller is a natural scorer who has been unable to match the 22 goals he scored as a rookie with Phoenix in 2007-08.
“I like up-tempo, a fast pace and offense,” Tallon said. “I like scoring. We’re going to continue to improve that every day and that’s why some of these guys are here.”
Tomas Kopecky, Sean Matthias and Scottie Upshall enter as the team’s third line, as Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim recover from injuries suffered while playing in Europe during the lockout. Florida will also field a more physical checking line with Jerred Smithson centering Jack Skille and George Parros.
Parros brings a much-needed, responsible enforcer to the lineup. One season removed from leading the league in fights with 27, the 6-foot-5 winger tends to stay out of the penalty box when he’s not dropping the gloves.
Defensively, Florida has holes to patch after Jason Garrison departed as a free agent. Also missing to start the season are Dmitry Kulikov, a restricted free agent holdout, and Erik Gudbranson, who continues to recover from a shoulder injury suffered during the lockout.
That opens the door for fourth-year pro Keaton Ellerby, journeyman Tyson Strachan and youngsters Alex Petrovic and Mike Caruso.
Kulikov is capable of playing top minutes and boasts a powerful, but under-utilized shot. He’s most suited to play alongside workhorse Brian Campbell, who ranked second among NHL defensemen with 59 assists last season.
But until he signs, free agent signee Filip Kuba will skate on the top pairing.
Once healthy, Gudbranson should join Mike Weaver on the second pairing. The defensively minded Weaver previously helped Garrison and Kulikov hone their skills in the Panthers’ end. That is the logical next step for Gudbranson, whose potential began to show during Florida’s playoff series against New Jersey.
Ed Jovanovski should help the Panthers behind their blueline and in shorthanded situations.
The area Florida’s brass feels most confident about is its goaltending, which finished 12th in the NHL in goals-against average with a respectable mark of 2.63 last season.
Dineen indicated Jose Theodore will enter the season as the Panthers’ starter, with Scott Clemmensen expected to get a fair share of work. Theodore may see a little less playing time because of the compressed schedule, but the 36-year-old recognizes it is in the team’s best interest.
“You need to get the proper rest and time off,” Theodore said. “But I think [Dineen] has been great at managing the time off. Last year was great, and I’m sure he’s going to pick good spots for proper rest.”
Should his veterans become overworked, Dineen said he is comfortable with giving rookie Jacob Markstrom playing time. The 22-year-old spent the last two seasons with San Antonio, the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, and is the heir apparent to Florida’s starting role.
The Panthers should benefit from an all-Eastern Conference schedule. They collected 33 of 38 wins against foes in the East last season.
The challenge lies within the much-improved Southeast, which accounts for 42 percent of Florida’s calendar. The Panthers were merely on par with their division rivals last season and led the last-place Carolina Hurricanes by just eight points. If Florida cannot distance itself from its own division, it will have to claw for points in the Northeast and Atlantic Division, which produced four, 100-point teams last season.
The Panthers will experience their toughest stretch in March. Florida will play five games in seven nights from March 2-8. Eleven days later, they embark on a season-high, five-game road trip to Carolina, the New York metropolitan area and Toronto.
But every team will face a grueling schedule. The key to Florida’s success, like last season, involves adopting Dineen’s team-centric game plan, gelling quickly and posting a winning record through its first 10 games.
“It’s going to be a sprint,” Fleischmann said. “If we’re going to buy into what coach is going to say and how we’re supposed to play on the ice, it is going to be easy for everybody.”