The Florida Panthers opened training camp last week and are preparing to play in their first preseason game of the new season on Wednesday night against the Dallas Stars at the BB&T Center.  The Panthers have had a tough go of it in recent years, finishing close to the bottom of the NHL standings in the two seasons since their division championship in 2012.

Despite the poor showings, there are reasons for being optimistic about the Panthers upcoming campaign.  Between the new coaching staff, the revamped roster and influx of young talent, there is a striking similarity between the 2012 playoff team and the one that will begin a new season on October 9 in Tampa.

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Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is hoping that the winds of change will be blowing through Sunrise in the upcoming season and that the team he has been building for the past several years will start to resemble a consistent playoff contender.  There are multiple reasons why a playoff-bound season could be in the cards for the Panthers, so let’s take a look at the top reasons to be excited about Florida Panthers hockey in 2014-15.

New head coach Gerard Gallant

Panthers GM Dale Tallon took his time when going over the possible options for the teams new head coach and seems very happy with his decision to hire Gerard Gallant.  A former NHL player and scoring specialist, Gallant appears to be a perfect fit in Sunrise.  He’s had a lot of success working with younger players, winning multiple championships and honors during his three-year stint as the head coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs in the QMJHL.

Gallant has both head coaching and assistant coaching experience in the NHL and brings his offensive-minded style to a Florida team that has struggled scoring goals over the years.  It will be interesting to see how much Gallant can get out of the Panthers talented young core players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov.

Several players looking to have bounce back seasons

The 2013-14 season was a rough one for the majority of the Panthers roster, including a few players who were being counted on to lead the way on the score sheet.  Guys like Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Huberdeau and Barkov all had high expectations last season but struggles on and off the ice hindered the production of many of the Panthers’ leaders.

(Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This season the Panthers come into training camp completely healthy and the aforementioned players have been putting the work in during the summertime to ensure that don’t have a repeat performance of a season ago.  Fleischmann and Kopecky are as strong as they’ve ever been and are anxious to forget the struggles of last season.  Huberdeau also hit the gym during the offseason, adding 17 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame.  Barkov had his rookie season cut short after suffering a knee injury while playing for Finland during the 2014 Winter Olympics and is ready to leave his mark on the league in his first full NHL season.

Goaltending received a major upgrade

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It’s been several years since the Panthers had any true stability between the pipes.  That changed in a serious and exciting way when Tallon traded for former Panthers star netminder Roberto Luongo towards the end of last season.  Luongo, 35, has been one of the best goaltenders in the NHL for well over a decade and has shown no signs of slowing down.  Having him patrolling the Panthers crease gives them a legitimate chance to win every night.  He’s also a fan favorite in Sunrise despite not playing for the Cats since being traded to Vancouver in 2006.

Florida also upgraded the backup goaltender role by signing Al Montoya and allowing the inconsistent Scott Clemmensen to become a free agent and sign elsewhere.  Montoya, 29, is a former first round pick who has matured into a very solid goalie over the past few seasons and should provide the Panthers with a feeling of comfort when Gallant gives Luongo a night off.

New veteran leaders

When the free agency period began during the summer, new Panthers owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu gave Tallon the green light to spend all the way up to the salary cap.  Tallon had a list of players he wanted to target and seemed extremely happy when he signed six players on the opening day of free agency.  Stanley cup winners, scoring specialists, team players, true veteran leaders…those are the kind of players that Tallon brought aboard in Florida to mix with the talented young core group of players that have been developing over the past few years.

Forwards like Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton will add depth, grit and scoring to the Panthers lines while defenseman Willie Mitchell brings leadership and experience to a very young defensive core.  Bolland, Thornton and Mitchell have all won the Stanley Cup twice in recent years and bring the knowledge that goes along with that to the Panthers dressing room.

(Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Maturing Youth

One thing that Tallon has done since arriving in Florida is stockpiling the franchise with countless young prospects, some of whom are already starting to come into their own.  Huberdeau, Barkov and Bjugstad are the main core of youth that are beginning to show why they are the future of the Panthers.  Huberdeau won the 2013 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and Bjugstad led the team in scoring last season.

Young core defensemen such as Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov are starting to mature into well-rounded players as well.  The Panthers also added d-man Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick in this year’s Entry Draft and he is expected to be on the opening night roster as the 18-year-old appears to be ready to make the jump from junior hockey into the NHL.

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(Source: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

(Source: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

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