Glut of veterans have Panthers looking for big things this season
SUNRISE, Fla. — For the first time since 2011, the Florida Panthers have the playoffs on their mind.
After spending the past two seasons in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, the organization invested heavily in improving their roster this offseason, committing more than $80 million to retain young talent and lock up key free agents.
Feel like you’ve heard this before? Well, it should sound familiar.
In his second year as general manager of the Panthers, Dale Tallon partook in a similar spending spree when he shelled out big bucks to acquire several veteran free agents prior to the start of the 2011-12 season. Tasked with getting the organization above the cap floor, Tallon signed players such as Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky and Ed Jovanovski to better the team’s immediate future.
While some of these signings were criticized at first, the investment paid off as the Panthers took the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to Game 7 in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. It was Florida’s first trip to the postseason since 2000.
Heading into the upcoming season, Tallon hopes the team’s money will, once again, be well spent.
"It’s a lot like our second year. A lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm from the players themselves, they’re not stupid," Tallon said. "The players that have been here, they can see what we’ve brought in and they know that we’re deeper at all positions. A good solid mix of players at all positions. We’ve got a good chance to be competitive every night."
With 15 players in training camp older than 30, Tallon is trusting that these newly signed veterans, many of whom have won at least one Stanley Cup, will serve to mentor some of the team’s budding young stars.
"That’s why we brought these guys in here, to show them how to win," Tallon said. "We have six Stanley Cup champions if you count (Willie) Mitchell, (Shawn) Thornton, and Dave (Bolland). It’s going to change the attitude of our locker room, even for the veterans here that haven’t won. The young guys coming up are going to be learning a lot from these guys."
A two-time Stanley Cup champion with Los Angeles, most recently in 2014, defenseman Willie Mitchell feels the Panthers are in situation much like the one he stepped into when he joined the upstart Kings in 2010.
"I tried to make an educated decision back in 2010 when I had a similar opportunity," Mitchell said of signing with the Panthers this offseason. "I picked the L.A. Kings because they were a good, young up-and-coming team that needed a guy that was good on the penalty kill and could play stay-at-home defense. I thought it was the right fit for myself, personally. It’s the same situation here. It’s a good, young up-and-coming team who felt they needed a player exactly like me.
"When it feels right, it’s right."
Following that same feeling to South Florida, Mitchell will begin his 14th NHL season as the elder statesmen on a youthful Panthers defense loaded with former first-round picks such as Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and 2014 No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad.
Not often called upon to lead during his time in Los Angeles, Mitchell is primed to embrace his newfound leadership role with the Panthers and serve as a mentor to the team’s younger players, much like Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens did for him when he began his NHL career with the New Jersey Devils in 1999.
"Some guys are first, second, third, fourth, fifth years," Mitchell said of the Panthers roster. "I just want to be a good teammate. If a young guy has a question he wants to ask me, I’ll answer it.
"I just want to be someone who can be trusted as a teammate and be there for my teammates. That’s what I’ll try and do, I’ll try and create a close, tight locker room."
Mitchell will find a familiar face already entrenched in the Panthers locker room in goaltender Roberto Luongo.
Teammates while in Vancouver, Mitchell, along with several other free agents, credit Luongo as being one of Florida’s most attractive selling points during the offseason.
"The best stretch of goaltending I ever saw was actually my second year in Vancouver with Roberto, who was just incredible," Mitchell said. "There’s no one who wants a Stanley Cup more than Roberto Luongo, I can tell you that."
The Panthers all-time leader in wins, Luongo returned to Florida last season in a pre-deadline deal with Vancouver before finishing out the regular season as the team’s starting netminder.
"It’s huge," Luongo said of the team’s veteran additions. "You need that leadership in the dressing room. Sometimes when you have one or two guys, you need a good core group of guys where you have five, six, seven, eight guys that have been there. That have been in the league a long time and want cups. Especially with a lot of young kids on our team, it’s important to have that veteran leadership and guys that have been there and done that to show them the way."
At 35 years old, Luongo says he feels great but knows that his window to win a Stanley Cup is closing. Having already come close once in his career with Vancouver, Luongo knows that if the team can make the playoffs, anything can happen.
"That’s why we all play the game," Luongo said of his desire to hoist the Cup. "It’s tough every year watching the playoffs and seeing somebody else lift the cup. Some guys have a chance have to win it twice like Willie (Mitchell) did. I came close the one time and it’s right at your fingertips and you let it slip away and I haven’t really been close since then.
"I know what age I’m at and I know that I don’t have 10 or 15 years left in the league. It’s all about dedication and it’s not only myself. We need to get everyone on board in this locker room and I think the first step is to make the playoffs. Once you’re in, you never know what can happen."
So how close are the Panthers to being a playoff team? Luongo believes a return to the postseason could come as early as this season.
"If we can stay relatively healthy and progress like we should be progressing, I think we’ll be in the mix," he said.