SUNRISE (CBSMiami/AP) — There are reasons to believe that things will be different in Sunrise this season.
It’s not like the Florida Panthers are barren of talent.
There’s an elite goaltender in Roberto Luongo feeling as motivated as ever, a two-time Stanley Cup winner in Willie Mitchell now set to help anchor the defense, and a proven power-play performer in Jussi Jokinen brought in this summer to improve the special teams.
So on paper, the roster looks better.
How that will translate to the ice is anyone’s guess.
Awful by just about all available measures a year ago, the Panthers didn’t even wait until the offseason to start yet another rebuilding project. Luongo was brought back in a trade in March, then a slew of new faces were signed in a Florida spending spree in July, and that’s why the Panthers are hoping that this year will make last season’s dreadful results be quickly forgotten.
“The skill on our team is there,” Luongo said. “Skill-wise, we’re there. I think we needed to add the pieces that we did, whether that’s grit, leadership, toughness…those were the pieces that were missing.”
Jokinen, Mitchell and Dave Bolland headlined the free-agent class that Florida targeted, and adding proven players to a young group that includes young forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad should make the Panthers better.
It won’t be easy. Florida struggled to score last season, the power-play and penalty-kill units were beyond abysmal and the Panthers finished 27 points out of a playoff spot.
“It’s going to come by committee right now,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “That’s what we have. Those guys have to step up. But for me, we’ve got to cut down our goals-against first. We’ve got to improve our special teams. And these other guys have to bounce back and have good years. We can’t have guys have bad years like they had.”
The Panthers allowed teams to score on man-advantages 24 percent of the time a year ago, while converting only 10 percent of their own power-play chances.
Both those numbers were league-worsts.
“We’ll change that this year,” said Mitchell, who helped the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup last season. “I think the right pieces are here. I think the right minds are here. I know myself, I take a lot of pride in that. We’ll look to make an impact there.”
Here’s what to know about the Panthers, who open the season at Tampa Bay on Oct. 9:
ONE GOAL: Sounds corny, but if the Panthers get one goal better, their fortunes might turn around in a hurry. Last season, when the Panthers scored three or more goals in regulation, they went 18-8. When they scored two goals or less, they went 3-37. “Doesn’t matter who you are, you can’t be accepting mediocrity and poor play,” Tallon said.
FAST START: Florida lost six of its first eight games last season and never really recovered. The best stretch of the season was taking seven out of eight games in December, but the playoff chase was never within realistic reach and the Panthers finished the season with losses in 10 of their last 13 games.
CHANGING HISTORY: It’s well-chronicled that the Panthers aren’t exactly burgeoning with playoff success. The franchise went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996 and hasn’t won a postseason series since — appearing in the playoffs only three times in that span. But count Luongo among those who think Florida has enough to extend its season past the 82nd game for a change. “The first step is to make the playoffs,” Luongo said. “Once we’re in, anything can happen.”
PLAYERS COACH: Gerard Gallant takes over as Florida’s coach and since he flourished while playing for men who could be described as “player’s coaches,” he’ll aim to be the same way this season. Gallant has a disciplinarian side that he’s not afraid to use, but he’s already tried to foster an approach that has players eager to come to the rink every day.
YOUNG GUYS: Even with some veteran acquisitions, the Panthers know they’ll need Huberdeau and Bjugstad to come up bigger this season if Florida is to make a big rise in the standings. Huberdeau slogged through the sophomore slump last season, struggling to get shots on net — say nothing for actually into the net, which he did only nine times.
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