|Aleksander Barkov, Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes have been some of the Panthers best players this season (Getty Images).|
It's been quite a turnaround for the Panthers. After winning just three of their first 18 games, the Cats have been one of the league's better teams since.
Veterans like Brad Boyes, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall and Tom Gilbert have been key to the resurgence. Boyes and Gilbert were late pickups in training camp while Bergenheim and Upshall are both healthy and playing the type of hockey they're capable of playing.
All of it has been made possible due to the system, structure and overall environment created by coach Peter Horacheck. He is a good communicator and there is absolutely no confusion about the way he wants his team to play. That goes a long way towards fostering a winning attitude.
Whether it's all enough to overcome the poor start to the season remains to be seen but the setup for next season is taking shape. The Panthers have some key elements in place, mainly at the center position. Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Drew Shore are all young, have skill and have shown their ability.
There are many questions to be answered in goal, on defense and on the wings. The Panthers have numerous free agents to make decisions on. Will that happen during the season? Will the team make moves at the deadline to make a playoff push if they're close enough? Will the Cats make deals with an eye on next season? All these are questions that remain to be answered and many are tough decisions.
With owner Vinnie Viola declaring the Panthers will be a major payroll player spending in the upper threshold of the salary cap, things will be very interesting moving forward. This team is not that far from being a legitimate playoff contender.