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The Florida Panthers have not had much success over the past two decades. Since the year 2000 they have only made the playoffs once, taking the New Jersey Devils to double overtime in Game 7 of the opening round in 2012.

General Manager Dale Tallon took the team over in 2010 and has been implementing his ‘blueprint’ to make the Panthers a consistent winning team that will compete for not only the postseason, but the Stanley Cup every year.

The process has been slow because the team that Tallon took over was in horrible shape, both at the NHL level and in the farm system.  The entire franchise needed to be rebuilt and he quickly went to work stockpiling draft picks and prospects, laying the foundation to what we’re now seeing with all the young talent in the system and on the Panthers roster.

Last season Florida was the most improved team in the NHL, making a 25-point jump in the standings from the previous year.  It wasn’t enough to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs though, as the team came up just a few points short.

With another year of growing and improving under their belts, the Panthers young core is expected to take another big step forward in the upcoming season.  Of course it helps that the team has some valuable veterans on the roster to help the youngsters along and compliment their skills, with none more important than ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo.

From the suits in the front office to the players in the locker room, there is a lot of confidence that the Panthers will not only make the playoffs this year, but make some noise among the talented Eastern Conference teams that also qualify.

While the consensus among most national writers is that Florida is still ‘a year away’ from being a perennial playoff team, I firmly believe that the team is ready and able to make that happen now.  Here are the top reasons why the Panthers will be a playoff team this season.

The Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr Line

When the Panthers acquired Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline last season they couldn’t have known just how good of a fit he would be on the team.  Jagr was instantly put on a line with two of Florida’s most promising youngsters, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, and the trio flourished almost immediately.

Over the final two months of the season they combined to create one of the top lines in the NHL. Jagr collected 18 points in 20 games with the Panthers, Huberdeau had 21 points in 20 games and Barkov had 15 points in 21 games.

Jagr is known around the hockey world as one of the hardest workers both on and off the ice, and now he’s teaching his legendary ways to Huberdeau and Barkov.  They stay on the ice together after practices and work on different things in order to develop more chemistry. The sky is the limit for this line as Florida went 12-7-2 after the arrival of Jagr, which translates to a 101-point season.

Maturing Youth

Florida is known around the league as having one of the best collections of young players and prospects.  Several of the team’s young studs have been earning their stripes in the NHL over the past few years, and every season they get better and better and this year should be no different.  Brandon Pirri has emerged as one of the best pure goal scorers that the Panthers have ever had, stringing together 19 of his 22 goals last season in a 26-game span.

Nick Bjugstad is a big-bodied power forward with great hands and a lethal shot that led Florida in points for most of last season until a back injury kept him out of the final month. Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi and Quinton Howden are all going to play major parts in the success of the Panthers forward group as each one has his own skillset. Then on defense there are three first round picks in Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov and last year’s NHL rookie of the year Aaron Ekblad.

All-Star Goaltending

Fans across the NHL are well aware of how good Roberto Luongo has been since first coming into the league with the New York Islanders in 1999.   The following year he was traded to the Panthers and while he was bombarded with tons of shots during his five years in Florida, he became known for all the highlight reel saves he would make.

When the Panthers brought him back in a 2013 trade, he picked up right where he left off except this time he had invaluable playoff experience after leading the Vancouver Canucks on several postseason runs, one of which went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

In his first full-season back with the Panthers, Luongo was amongst the league leaders in several goaltending statistics and was selected as an All-Star. Similar to Jagr, Luongo is known for being an extremely hard worker on and off the ice, whether it be during the season or over the summer.

Improved Special Teams

One of the reasons that the Panthers fell short of the playoffs last season was their struggles on special teams.  Florida’s power play was ranked 24th, which was actually an improvement from 30th the year before but still not nearly good enough. Their penalty kill finished the season on a down note after being ranked in the top 10 for most of the year.

When Willie Mitchell went down in early February, the PK unit really began to struggle.  A healthy Mitchell, plus the speed and skills of young players like Aleksander Barkov and Quinton Howden should keep the penalty kill amongst the better ones in the league.

Head coach Gerard Gallant made an important change on the power play during the second half of last season, going with four forwards and one defenseman.  From that point on, the man advantage became a strength of the team.  The power play got even better after Jagr arrived, improving from 16.3 percent to 20.7 percent.  Using that strategy this season should pay off for the Panthers, as they are stacked with skilled young scorers who are at their best when they have room to operate.

Veteran Leadership

While the Panthers bread and butter will be their younger players, the importance of the team’s veterans cannot be underestimated.  Captain Willie Mitchell played a huge role in Aaron Ekblad’s success last season, as did veteran blueliner Brian Campbell. Both will be counted on again this year to help mentor the Panthers young d-men while still playing sound defensive hockey.

When it comes to all-around leaders, look no further than Dave Bolland and Sean Thornton.  Bolland is known as a great locker room guy who works his tail off and provides great guidance and leadership to his teammates, especially the younger guys.

Thornton has been a beloved teammate wherever he’s played during his NHL career.  His work ethic never changes regardless of whether he plays every game or once a week and opposing teams know that if they take liberties with one of Florida’s young stars, Thornton will be quick to come to their defense.

The Panthers will face the Philadelphia Flyers in their season opener at the BB&T Center on Saturday, October 10th at 7 p.m. You can hear every game on Sports Radio 560 WQAM, the radio home of the Florida Panthers.

Follow David on Twitter (@DavidDwork)

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