|Forward Drew Shore is one Panthers player who has taken full advantage of his "foot in the door" opportunity, posting ten points in the month of February to lead all NHL rookies (Getty Images)
Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon has always said that it would be a process.
With the way the injuries have hit the Panthers this season and with the way they wanted to build off last season's success as they won the Southeast Division and returned to the playoffs, one might not have faulted Tallon to pull off a trade to help get Florida back on track this season and tinker with that process.
But for Tallon and the rest of the Panthers organization, that quick fix just isn't worth it.
"It's what are you going to give away. We're not going to mortgage our future just to get a band aid right now," said Tallon. "We're going to have to weigh all of our options. I'm on the phone constantly with other General Managers to see what's available there as far as trying to make us better, not only for the present but for the future."
The future and the blueprint? It has certainly been put into fast forward.
Without eight regulars from last season for an extended period of time including forwards Stephen Weiss (season ending wrist surgery), Sean Bergenheim (lower body, season ending surgery), Scottie Upshall (lower body for at least another week) and Kris Versteeg (upper body, could return Friday) as well as defensemen Ed Jovanovski (lower body for at least another week), Dmitry Kulikov (upper body for at least a month) and Mike Weaver (lower body for at least a month) and starting netminder Jose Theodore (lower body at least a month), the Panthers have had to certainly rely on their youngest players more than they wanted to. But the Panthers haven’t used the injury excuse all season because like Tallon, head coach Kevin Dineen and others have said. That's hockey. It’s a chance for someone else.
"Unfortunately we're getting hit hard, we have since the start of the year," said assistant GM Mike Santos. "We have to rely on some of our young players, maybe some of them before they were ready but they're going to have to step up."
While it's not what they had "planned" for the young players such as Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson (third overall picks in the 2011 and 2010 drafts respectively) as well as San Antonio call-ups Drew Shore, Colby Robak and Jacob Markstrom to put so much pressure on at a young age, they certainly are anxious for the chance to contribute and do so quickly.
"That's part of hockey and part of this condensed season and everyone goes through it," said Tallon. "It's opportunity for others to show their worth."
"It's every kid's dream to play in the NHL as quickly as possible," said Robak who picked up his first NHL assist on Tuesday night against the Jets. "To have the opportunity to do it and try make an impact and show you want to stay here as a young guy, it's something you have to take full advantage of."
"I've been building up all year and obviously I've wanted to be here for three years, I've been working hard and here's an opportunity," said Markstrom. "You don't want to see Jose hurt. He's a great guy and a great goalie. He really helped me out last year and this year when I've been up here so you don't want to see a guy like that get hurt but hopefully I get to play and hopefully we win some games."
Huberdeau and Shore have been offensive forces for the Panthers this season; Huberdeau since Game 1 against Caroina and Shore since making his NHL debut in Montreal in late January. The duo, along with 24-year old Peter Mueller have been the Panthers best lines, combining for 37 points (19-18-37) in 21 games while playing mostly as a combination. Huberdeau earned Rookie of the Month honors for February in recording nine points (6-3-9) while Shore was a finalist for the same award in leading all rookies in scoring, recording all 10 of his points (2-8-10) in the month. Markstrom meanwhile has been great in his three starts, allowing seven goals on 102 shots (.931 SV%) along with a 2.36 GAA. Gudbranson has four assists in 14 games while Robak has played in five games this season.
"Fortunately for us some of our young guys have come through in Shore and Mueller and Huberdeau and now Gudbranson's starting to play well," said Tallon. "We'll find a way to get through this."
In Tuesday night's game, the "future" had a huge hand in the "present" in helping the Panthers 4-1 victory over the Jets. After the verterans got the Panthers on the board, Shawn Matthias (who is only 25) scored on a beautiful move that was started with the help of Robak in the defensive zone. Huberdeau scored on his second penalty shot of the season for his team-leading and rookie leading 11th of the season, Gudbranson helped set up the Panthers fourth goal and Markstrom stopped 30 shots, including 18 in the third period to secure his third career victory.
Get used to seeing that.
After the game, Dineen was asked about Huberdeau in particular and what he's seen from him.
|Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates the 4-1 victory over the Jets at the BB&T Center with goaltender Jacob Markstrom (Getty Images)
"It's not the penalty shot goal, although that was a heck of a nice shot," said Dineen. "But it's the effort in moving his feet and fighting that guy off to create the penalty shot...That doesn't come just because, he had to work for it. He did a heck of a job to do that."
These "kids" are growing up and making veteran plays on a more consistent basis. Yes they'll make their mistakes, take penalties at wrong times, give the puck away, make a bad line change, but put in the situation, they're looking to improve the Panthers as well as ramp up their own development.
"We're going to fight to the finish," said Tallon. "You're going to see some of our young kids get some action and hopefully prove that they are worthy of being Florida Panthers."
Tallon said when he started with the franchise that he wanted to eventually see the whole team made up entirely of Panthers draft picks. They're getting there. This is just the first wave of them.
You have players such as Quinton Howden (also made his NHL debut this season) and Alex Petrovic who are first year pros and getting their feet wet in San Antonio. Then you have players like Nick Bjugstad, Mike Matheson, Rocco Grimaldi and Corban Knight in the college ranks and Vincent Trocheck in juniors.
Several publications have ranked the Panthers as the organization with the best pipeline of prospects. This year is just the appetizer. All that they're doing today, this week, end of the season is just the beginning and that's what has the Panthers players excited the most.
"I think it's starting now and it's going to be very soon," said Gudbranson about the youth movement and excitement towards it. "It all goes back to just how excited guys are to be here and the core guys that Dale has picked up the last few years.
"You look at a guy like Vincent Trocheck having a big year in the Ontario Hockey League (second in league in goals (47) and points (100)) right now. Those guys are on the doorstep of making this team or making a difference here. To have that competitiveness and have those guys in the system pushing for a spot is certainly good."
"It's one of those things," said Robak. "The future is bright for the Panthers...It's just a matter of time before things (really) start going."
With that, the guys that are on the team now certainly know it will be more difficult in the future and that's why they want to impress now.
"Every time I get a call up, I'm hoping to play a lot of games and hoping to stick," said Markstrom. "That's the mindset you have to have if you get called up. Like last time just for a quick little couple of days there, if you have that in mind, you can't play good hockey that thinking that you're going to get sent down. Every time you try to play as good as possible and you see how long it lasts."
"It gets you excited. It keeps you on your toes," said Gudbranson. "With all these guys coming up now and playing well, having big seasons, it's good to see. It's great for the development, great for the organization and we're real excited."
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