Panthers know what changes to make in order to return to playoffs

Panthers center Nick Bjugstad led the team with 38 points in the 2013-14 season.

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SUNRISE, Fla. — In reflecting on the Florida Panthers season, GM Dale Tallon asked the question on everyone’s mind.

”What happend to the team that made the playoffs and won the division two years ago, a year and a half ago?” Tallon said.

One season after finishing at the bottom of the NHL, the Panthers made little improvement in their follow-up campaign, finishing second-to-last in the league. The answers why are abundant.

The Panthers were slow to sign free agents.

Until Vincent Viola took over as team owner in late September, Tallon did not have the finances to pursue top free agents to supplement the team’s youth. The players Florida did sign were only granted contracts after personal tryouts at training camp.

Some of those acquisitions — Tom Gilbert, Brad Boyes — ended up working out for Florida. Gilbert ended up being a solid complement to offensive defenseman Brian Campbell. Boyes led Florida in goals with 21 and proved to be invaluable in the shootout, going 6 for 10 with two game-deciding tallies.

Although a positive influence on Florida’s younger players in the locker room, Scott Gomez struggled to produce on the ice. He appeared in just 46 games, scoring two goals and setting up 10. He was a healthy scratch in 35 contests.

Ryan Whitney appeared in just seven games, however, before being relegated to the minors for the rest of the season.

The Panthers experienced locker room discord early in the season.

Florida entered training camp with the idea that a number of youngsters would take on prominent roles from the outset. But the plan changed after the signing of free agents at the end of camp, shifting roles and responsibilities.

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It showed on the ice.

The Panthers fired coach Kevin Dineen after a 3-9-4 start. Florida was shut out three times during that stretch and held to two or fewer goals in 11 of those contests.

”Those are tough decisions to make. I’ve made them before and moved on. You do what’s best for the organization despite your relationships. It’s never easy. We’ve got to move forward, do what’s right for the Florida Panthers. End of story.”

After the firing, players did not speak out against their former coach, but several noted the positive changes made under new bench boss Peter Horachek to enforce accountability.

”If you play good, you play hard, you battle, you’re going to play,” Tomas Kopecky said in November. ”(Horachek) stressed that from day one. He laid out some ground rules and now I think the guys are buying into that. It’s nice to see all the guys on the same page and battling for each other.”

And this week, Tallon noted issues in the locker room were getting back to the front office.

”We had to do something,” Tallon said. ”The messages we were getting from the players, et cetera, was something had to be done.”

Florida’s veterans failed to produce.

In assessing the Panthers’ offense a week before the season concluded, Horacheck might have simply said ”no offense.” In both senses of the phrase.

”Scottie (Upshall) shouldn’t be our leading scorer, but he his,” Horachek said following Florida’s 3-2 win over Dallas on April 6. ”Tribute to him for working hard and doing what he has to do, but that’s where we are. We know where we have to improve. When your young guys and your first-year players are creating a lot of offense, there’s issues there, too.”

It wasn’t that Horachek felt compelled to dismiss the efforts of Upshall and rookies Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov, who was among the team’s leaders before suffering a knee injury.

At the time, Upshall led Florida in scoring with 36 points. He was surpassed by Bjugstad, a first-year pro who finished with 38 points by season’s end. That mark set a new low for fewest points by a team’s leading scorer since Minnesota’s Scott Pellerin posted 39 in 2000-01.

Of the veterans who remained with Florida after the trade deadline, nearly all finished with some sort of low.

Tomas Fleischmann, who led Florida in scoring each of the past two seasons, mustered a career-low for a full season with just eight goals and 28 points. Defenseman Brian Campbell also posted a low for an 82-game season with just 37 points. Tomas Kopecky managed just 12 points in 49 games before suffering a concussion at the Olympics.

Dmitry Kulikov posted a career-high 19 points, but registered a whopping minus-26 rating and led Florida with 47 giveaways.

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Jonathan Huberdeau, a season removed from capturing the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, suffered a sophomore jinx in which he recorded just nine goals and 19 assists, but in 21 more games than the lockout-shortened campaign of 2012-13.

The Panthers’ goaltending did not hold up.

On paper, the addition of Tim Thomas looked positive. A former Stanley Cup champion and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, Thomas was to bring more stability in net to Florida.

Except the 39-year-old missed three separate stretches in October, November and December due to a nagging groin injury. When he did play, he allowed three or more goals in 22 of his 40 apperances. That proved detrimental to Florida, which struggled all season on offense.

Before being moved to Dallas at the trade deadline, Thomas finished his Panthers tenure with a 16-20-3 record, a 2.87 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage — all of which were among career lows.

Backups Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom did not fare any better in place of Thomas. Both finished with goals-against averages above 3.00 and sub-.900 save percentages. The pair combined for a 7-13-4 record.

By the end of the season, the Panthers depth chart in net had completely changed. Out were Thomas, Clemmensen and Markstrom for Roberto Luongo and Dan Ellis, acquired at the trade deadline.

Special teams were anything but special.

Florida finished last in the league in both power play and penalty killing.

The Panthers converted just 10 percent of their chances with the man advantage and opponents scored 24 percent of the time when Florida played shorthanded.

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”You can’t win without (special teams),” Tallon said. ”Goaltending is the number one and we fixed that. That’s something we don’t have to worry about. But special teams, you can’t win with special teams that are last in both categories. You’ve got to at least be (15th), in the middle of both categories to have a shot.”

Tallon recognized the serious flaws when playing up a man, saying the Cats lack a ”big cannon of a shot” at the point and a ”sniper.”

”Those are two things that probably make a difference,” Tallon said. ”You need someone who can hammer it from the point to stretch the box out and you need someone who can score.”

On the flip side, assistant coach Brian Skrudland noted Florida needs to find players willing to lay down the body when at a disadvantage.

Under Dineen, Florida was just 5 for 54 (9 percent) on the power play and 38 for 48 (79 percent) on the penalty kill. Even with changes under Horachek, the Panthers could not pull out of a special teams tailspin.

”You get on a roll early, and you stay with it and it pretty well carries you through the year,” Tallon said. ”It goes the other way right off the bat, it pretty well doesn’t get fixed unless you make some unbelievable trades and get great players in the deals that are those kind of players. In the history, it is a cyclical thing. You get off to a good start with your power play, you become confident and it seems to flow through the year. If you do it the other way, it goes that way as well.”

Amidst the problems, though, Tallon recognized the core of youth assembled is top-notch and will carry the franchise in the near future.

He feels Bjugstad and Barkov exceeded expectations in their rookie seasons. Huberdeau and defenseman Erik Gudbranson are still projected to develop into elite players. New acquisitions Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri and Dylan Olsen, once buried in Chicago’s farm system, seized NHL opportunities. And there are still numerous blue-chip prospects in Florida’s pipeline.

”I’m moving forward. We’re going to fix it,” Tallon said. ”We’ve got great support from Vinnie Viola and we’re going move forward and add the pieces to help these kids get to the level we need them to get them to.”

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