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.”