By Steven "Goldie" Goldstein

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – It’s hockey time in South Florida and perhaps the beginning of the most anticipated season in franchise history.

Bottom line, the Cats are Stanley Cup contenders.

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With their homegrown stars returning, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, and solid players up and down the lineup the Panthers have a chance to make big noise in the NHL.

Of course, they can’t take anything for granted as the division and conference are both loaded and two or three very good teams will miss the playoffs.

The first goal is to get into the postseason.

No easy task playing in the NHL’s best division and great competition overall in the East. But the Panthers have a lot going for them besides their star players led by Barkov, who’s an MVP candidate.

Future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville.

He is a master at having a feel for the game. He knows which players night tonight have their game going and isn’t afraid to shuffle players around.

No nonsense, honest with players, come ready to compete, earn your ice time and have fun doing it. That’s Q, the league’s 2nd all-time winningest coach.

Loaded upfront

As if Barkov and Huberdeau weren’t enough to go along with players added last year like Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe to name a few, general manager Bill Zito traded for a legitimate top-line player in Sam Reinhart. He scored 20-25 goals a year on a team that was at the bottom of the league.

The sky’s the limit especially if he gets a chance on the top line with Barkov and Verhaeghe. Reinhart can play wing or center.

Jumbo Joe

Future hall of farmer, 42-year-old, Joe Thornton signed for one year because he wants to win his first Stanley Cup.

A player with the size, personality, and some of the best stats in NHL history chose the Panthers, that tells you where this team is at right now. And as of now Jumbo still has the monster beard going.

Keep it out of the net

The Panthers dramatically improved in goals allowed last season. With Ekblad and Weegar leading the defense, both took major steps forward last year, the team signed last year’s great waiver pickup Gustav Forsling to a 3 year contract.

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They also re-signed Brandon Montour who came over from Buffalo in a late-season trade.

That likely makes up the top 4 on defense. Radko Gudas is back but after that there is a spot open as a regular defenseman and another as the 7th man. A handful of players will battle it out in camp but it’s possible the solution at a spot is not currently on the team.

It all starts and ends in net.

In hockey, and especially the playoffs, a team is as good as its goaltending.

When all else fails, the goalie has to bail the team out.

The Panthers will score plenty this season. It will be up to veteran Sergei Bobrovsky and 20 year old Spencer Knight to hold up in goal.

Bobrovsky had a better year two than year one in South Florida but another step of improvement is needed.

Knight was fantastic late last season and his game 5 win at home over Tampa is one of the shining moments in team history.

He’s got all the ability in the world, a true professional at age 20 and could be a top NHL goalie. Can he get there this season?

Returning playoff players.

When we last saw the Panthers 2 players most never heard of before last season were making a big impact.

Ryan Lomberg, game 3 hero with the overtime goal, and Mason Marchment are back this season.

Marchment was playing up on the top line with Barkov at times and has a fantastic series against Tampa. Both likely start camp on the 4th line if everyone is healthy.

The Panthers have one of the top groups of forwards in the league.

What’s in a name?

Finally, the Panthers’ home arena has a new name. The previously known as BBT Center is now “FLA Live Arena”. I’ll try to not to say the old name on TV!

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The preseason has home games on September 26, a doubleheader against Nashville at 2 pm and 6 pm, October 1 vs Dallas, and October 9 vs Tampa. The regular season starts October 14 as the Cats host Pittsburgh.

Steven "Goldie" Goldstein