SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — When the lockout ended and last season started for the Florida Panthers, there was so much promise.
A banner commemorating the team’s division title was unfurled on opening night, the franchise’s star-in-waiting scored on his first NHL shot and everything looked bright.
That good feeling disappeared in a hurry. The Panthers went from celebrating to collapsing without warning, and wound up finishing the season having given up more goals than any other team while being tied for last in goal-scoring — and posting the worst record in the NHL.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said.
One disaster after another — injuries and scoring droughts, mostly — plagued Florida last season, and the Panthers haven’t forgotten. When camp opened earlier this month, the Panthers talked of both a need to move ahead but the necessity to remember how painful it was to be out of the playoff chase so early last season.
“I think we all pretty well know that we don’t want to have another disaster like last year,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “Guys are professional. They should be able to figure it out and if they don’t figure it out, I’ll figure it out for them.”
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said his team cannot ignore the memory of last season’s freefall. Not counting goals awarded in shootouts, Florida skaters scored 109 times last year, tied with Nashville for the worst total in the league.
“We had to acknowledge what happened as a group. We had to understand that there was ownership by all of us, from the GM to the coaching to the players and I think we all did that,” Dineen said. “I think the commitment was made to be better. There’s been some hard decisions made this summer … but we need to put a team and a style of play on that gives us the best chance to win.”
Changes were made, such as letting longtime Florida forward Stephen Weiss leave through free agency, and bringing Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Tim Thomas into the organization as a veteran influence. Thomas and Jacob Markstrom figure to get the bulk of the work in net early.
Here’s five things to watch from the Panthers this season:
1. HUBERDEAU’S ENCORE: Center Jonathan Huberdeau scored on his first shot of his rookie season, setting the tone for a year where he would win the Calder Trophy — joining a list of recent top-rookie award recipients that includes Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane. Huberdeau scored 31 points in 48 games as a rookie and will likely see a steady stream of first-line defensemen lining up against him this year, so the task of getting the puck into the net figures to only get more difficult.
2. SCORING FROM WHERE?: Ovechkin, the brilliant Washington star, led the NHL with 32 goals last season. That’s three more than the Panthers’ two leading scorers combined. Florida didn’t have anyone rank among the league’s top 42 goal scorers a year ago, and only one Panther ranked among the league’s top 73 players in terms of shooting percentage. The Panthers went 3-25-3 when scoring two goals or less; 12-2-3 otherwise. A healthy Kris Versteeg again will help the cause here.
3. THOMAS’ IMPACT: Clearly, Florida needed help in a lot of areas, and when veteran Scott Clemmensen went down not long before camp because of knee surgery (albeit a relatively minor procedure), the Panthers had no choice but to look at free agents. Bringing in Thomas was an easy decision for the Panthers, especially since the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender said taking last season off left him feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. If he can quickly regain past form, Florida got better in a hurry.
4. NEW SCHEDULE: Last season, the Panthers were in the Southeast Division with Washington, Winnipeg, Carolina and Tampa Bay. Only the Lightning remains on Florida’s division-rival list. Florida is now a member of the Atlantic Division in the realigned NHL, with the Panthers and Lightning joining Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Dineen says he likes Florida’s schedule, but on paper, the Panthers’ new divisional lineup looks a whole lot tougher than the Southeast did.
5. CHANGING TIMES: The Panthers are going through an ownership change (it should be finalized before long), and play in a nontraditional hockey market. Another season where the team is out of playoff contention early might not only hurt the bottom line, but could spark other changes, on and off the ice. With a four-game road trip to open the season, the tone could be set for 2013-14 right away.
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