Panthers looking to build off banner season

There’s one last order of business to complete before the
Florida Panthers can finally get this season started.

It comes Saturday night, not long before the first dropped puck
of this new and condensed season, and it’s a moment 12 years in the
making. The Panthers will pay homage to last season one more time,
with the hoisting of the banner to commemorate their first
Southeast Division title.

And Panthers coach Kevin Dineen doesn’t think the added pomp and
circumstance will in any way create a distraction.

”We waited seven months to get going,” Dineen said. ”I think
an extra 15 minutes for a really special night will be good for
us.”

In some ways, it’ll be both a reminder of good times and bad for
the Panthers, when that banner gets displayed before Florida’s
season begins against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Yes, the Panthers had their long-awaited breakout season. And
no, winning the Southeast isn’t exactly the franchise’s ultimate
goal, either.

”It’s not a Stanley Cup banner,” Panthers forward Stephen
Weiss said. ”And those are the only ones that really matter at the
end of the day. But certainly, it was a good year for us last year.
We’re proud of winning the Southeast. It’ll be nice to see the
banner go up, but I’m sure it’ll be out of our minds pretty quickly
and we’ll be on to the next challenge.”

Florida’s ride ended last season on home ice, in a
double-overtime, Game 7 thriller against New Jersey. The Devils
wound up going all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. The Panthers
have been waiting to pick up where they left off ever since, first
through the summer and then through the lockout that turned this
season into what will be a 48-game battle of wills.

And to get back to the playoffs, there might not be much room
for error. Florida earned the No. 3 seed in the East last season by
winning the division, but only finished with 94 points – just two
more than Washington and Ottawa, who took the last two spots in the
conference playoff bracket with 92.

”Our guys are a great group of guys,” Panthers general manager
Dale Tallon said. ”There’s a lot of character in our locker room
and we’ve added some more. We’re adding more skill as well. It’s
not going to be easy. Teams are going to be prepared for us. But
the second half, we weren’t a surprise in the second half. This is
a group of guys that want to win … and want to prove to the world
that they can get better and go deeper in the playoffs.”

Florida returns its top four scorers in Tomas Fleischmann,
Weiss, Kris Versteeg and defenseman Brian Campbell, as well as much
of the core from the usual lines that Dineen sent out last season.
Jose Theodore started 51 games last season in goal, and has been
tabbed to be the opening-night starter for the Panthers once
again.

Theodore’s goals-against average last season was 2.46, his best
in four years.

”We built something last year,” Theodore said. ”We’re still
far away from the ultimate goal. But last year was a start.”

But were they really that far from the ultimate goal?

Consider the head-to-head series with the Devils a season ago.
The teams met 11 times, including playoffs, with New Jersey winning
the series 6-5 and outscoring Florida 29-28. And remember, the
Devils won the Eastern Conference title.

”Last year was a big step,” Theodore said. ”Now we’re in the
playoffs. We lost in Game 7, double-overtime. So you’re right, it
was a bounce here or there. But still, you’ve got to learn from
your mistakes. Last year was a solid year, but we want to be
better.”

To do that, the Panthers are going to likely look at a couple of
new faces.

Well, one new, and one older face, to be more specific.

One of the things that held Florida back at times last season
was a lack of scoring depth, which the Panthers are hoping might be
addressed by highly talented rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and veteran
Alexei Kovalev. Huberdeau was born in 1993 – two years after
Kovalev was taken No. 15 overall in the 1991 draft – but they’ve
been paired together at times in training camp.

Kovalev’s spot on the roster isn’t guaranteed, but teammates are
raving about what a player of his skill and resume could add to the
Panthers’ locker room.

”This team already has everything,” Kovalev said. ”There’s
just little things missing. It’s always easier when you score more
goals.”