CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are starting to recognize the kids are more than all right.
A little past the quarter mark of a shortened season, Florida has yet to exhibit the consistency that propelled them to a division championship last year. Sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference has made for a lot of frustration, but the Panthers influx of youth has kept the team positive amid struggles.
Rookies Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore, along with linemate Peter Mueller, have combined for a third of Florida’s goals. Their ice time has increased steadily, and they’ve emerged as the team’s second power play unit.
“I just use that term youthful enthusiasm. I find that’s a really contagious thing,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “It’s enjoyable to watch someone start their career and kickstart a lot of people. I think sometimes that feeds some of our older players as well.”
In each of Florida’s wins, its players younger than 25 — which also includes Shawn Matthias, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson — have been a significant factor, collecting four goals and eight assists. Huberdeau and Mueller also provided goals in the Panthers’ first shootout sweep in team history.
Mueller has benefited the most from teaming up with Huberdeau and Shore. A first-round pick in 2006, the winger’s career has been plagued with injury since a 22-goal rookie season. Through 13 games, Mueller has four goals and three assists. The 24-year-old says he feels like a rookie again.
“Off the ice, we’re still learning quite a bit about each other,” Mueller said. “But that comes with time. It’s fun coming to the rink every day knowing you’re going to see some smiles.”
Having more youth in the locker room has also excited Gudbranson, Florida’s only full-time rookie last season.
“It’s kind of tough to hang out with a bunch of married and engaged guys,” Gudbranson said. “Most of the time the young guys get together, go to dinner and whatnot. We still act, sort of, like kids.”
Much of the youngters’ off-ice activities are pretty typical for those in their early 20s: hang out, eat out with friends and watch movies. While they haven’t had as much time to enjoy activities away from the rink due to a compressed schedule, it hasn’t stopped guys such as Huberdeau from pulling some veterans into friendly competition playing video games.
“I played Steeger in FIFA,” Huberdeau said. “He broke the controller because he was mad at me [for winning]. He threw it everywhere. I hate losing. Every time a play a video game I want to win.”
The veterans have had their fun as well, putting Huberdeau and Shore in their place with competition at practice.
With the youngsters talking smack, defenseman Tyson Strachan and Mueller offered a challenge: see which pair can score on slapshots from the opposite ends of the ice. Each duo can use their sticks to deflect their opponents’ attempts away from the net. The first team to three goals wins.
Unfortunately for Huberdeau and Shore, they’ve come up empty so far.
“Mueller and I mopped the floor with those two,” Strachan said. “We’re 2-0 right now.”
It is something the kids, jokingly, don’t want to talk about.
“We tip them in the net too much when we’re supposed to be tipping them out,” Shore said. “Huby and I like to practice how we play.”
“We can play a game you might be good at,” Strachan suggested from across the locker room.
There’s no response. There doesn’t need to be. The game which truly matters is the one Huberdeau and Shore are succeeding at.
Art of the draw
Despite its depth at center, Florida is working to improve in the faceoff circle. The Panthers rank 14th in the league in faceoff win percentage, with a mark just greater 50 percent.
The Panthers’ woes showed during their 6-5 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals Tuesday. Aside from winning just 24 of 68 faceoffs, the Panthers also gave up two goals off the draw.
Florida tightened up its effort in the circle in a 1-0 loss to Montreal, winning 54 percent.
“When you have a few faceoffs that end up in your net like they did the previous game, you can only move forward,” Dineen said. “I think it drives up the awareness. I think we took some pride in that area.”
Jerred Smithson, scratched for the Washington contest, came up with two key faceoff wins in the last minute of regulation to help preserve a shutout going into overtime.
“We really want to clamp down there, whenever there aren’t many seconds left in the game,” Smithson said. “It’s something we’ve got a little more desperate at at the end, keep the puck out and keep the puck moving forward.”
Florida is 3-3-1 when it wins at least half of its draws and 1-3-2 when outperformed in the faceoff cirlce.
The Panthers will be without team captain Ed Jovanovski for at least another two weeks, Dineen said.
Jovanovski suffered a knee injury Jan. 24 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He skated for the first time Friday morning.
“I think he leaves a void for our team both on and off the ice,” Dineen said. “That’s not a reflection on the other players that are a part of our mix. It’s a statement that he brings a lot of things to team intangibles. When he’s not a part of the every day, on the ice, in the dressing room, pre-game, those are areas people certainly have to pick up.”
— Shore picked up his first NHL goal against Washington on Tuesday, but not without some drama. The rookie batted a loose puck out of the air, which led officials to review the play on video. Shore stared at the replay on the arena Jumbotron as he waited for a ruling. “I was like, ‘Finally, I get a little break,'” Shore said. “I’ve been fighting a little bit in the goal scoring department. I was thinking, ‘please don’t [wave it off].'” His goal counted.
— Veteran Jose Theodore continues to show he can bounce back from a bad start. Theodore improved to 1-0-1 in games after an outing in which he allows at least five goals. “When you’re dealing with a professional like Jose, you know he’s waiting for that next opportunity,” Dineen said following Florida’s loss to Montreal. “He was very solid tonight.”
— Kris Versteeg is doubtful for Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay. The winger suffered chest and back injuries after taking a hard hit along the boards from Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
Florida faces intrastate rival Tampa Bay Saturday afternoon before concluding its four-game homestand Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Panthers will have two days off before heading to Pennsylvania for back-to-back contests against the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.