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Panthers looking to young players to fill lineup

NHL.com 30-in30

Thursday, 08.21.2014 / 5:47 PM ET / News
By Corey Masisak  - NHL.com
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Panthers looking to young players to fill lineup

Other than the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers might be the team among the NHL's bottom-10 finishers from the 2013-14 season most likely to vault into playoff contention in 2014-15.

Florida did not make dramatic improvements through offseason additions, and how the Panthers play for a third coach in less than a year remains to be seen, but there are plenty of exciting young players to build around.

There were signs of serious improvement in the second half of last season, particularly in puck possession, after Peter Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen as coach. Horachek was not retained, though, and Gerard Gallant and his 147 games of NHL head coaching experience remains a bit of a mystery.

It was a curious offseason for the Panthers as well. Jussi Jokinen and Willie Mitchell look like solid additions, but the $27.5 million contract for Dave Bolland was panned as one of the worst of the offseason by a considerable portion of the hockey community. There are lots of prospects on the precipice of becoming NHL regulars, but not a lot of spots available unless veterans on one-way contracts are removed from the equation.

If a few young players turn into stars, Florida can fight for a playoff berth. If more growing pains are needed, it could be another long season.

Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Panthers:

FORWARDS

Jussi Jokinen - Aleksander Barkov - Brad Boyes

Jonathan Huberdeau - Nick Bjugstad - Scottie Upshall

Tomas Fleischmann - Dave Bolland - Sean Bergenheim

Tomas Kopecky - Brandon Pirri - Jimmy Hayes

Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton

Elite centers are the most valuable currency for teams looking to build a championship contender, and the Panthers might have their top two for the next decade in Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. It is easy to envision them becoming one of the top tandems in the League in the next few seasons.

What makes the Bolland contract more perplexing is the addition of Derek MacKenzie and Brandon Pirri's success after arriving in the middle of last season. It's possible that either or even both of them could outperform Bolland if given third-line minutes.

This could be a huge season in Jonathan Huberdeau's development. He played for Gallant with Saint John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the Panthers need him to evolve into an elite scorer to complement Barkov and Bjugstad. There are interesting veteran parts on the wing, but none are going to be counted on for elite offensive production.

There are several prospects who could make pushes for jobs during training camp, including Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and Rocco Grimaldi. The Panthers have 11 forwards on one-way contracts plus Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau on their entry-level deals. MacKenzie signed a three-year contract worth $1.3 million per season, and giving Shawn Thornton two years and $2.4 million also was puzzling.

DEFENSEMEN

Dylan Olsen - Aaron Ekblad

Colby Robak

Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert comprised one of the NHL's most underrated defense pairings in 2013-14, but Gilbert is gone to Montreal. Four of the nine defensemen who played at least 16 games for the Panthers are no longer with the organization.

Dmitry Kulikov had an incredibly unlucky 2013-14, and might be the best option to pair with Campbell in place of Gilbert. The one to watch is obviously Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson also were high picks but have yet to show elite ability at this level. Ekblad, who sustained an offseason concussion, could develop into that type of player and allow them to slot in behind him.

Just like up front, there is a line of prospects waiting for their chance. If Ekblad is ready, there probably is only one roster spot left for one of Colby Robak, Alex Petrovic and Jonathan Racine.

GOALTENDERS

Roberto Luongo

Al Montoya

A full season of Roberto Luongo, not to mention a quality backup like Al Montoya, could do wonders for Florida's goal-prevention problems. Tim Thomas, Jacob Markstrom, Scott Clemmensen and Dan Ellis combined for 68 starts and a dreary .896 save percentage last season, while Luongo logged a .924 in 14 starts after arriving in a trade from the Vancouver Canucks.

Montoya posted a .920 save percentage in 28 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, and has at least a .920 in 20 or more games played in two of the past three full NHL seasons.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Vincent Trocheck, F Drew Shore, D Jonathan Racine, D Alex Petrovic, G Dan Ellis

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - WSH 82 56 18 8 252 193 120
2 x - PIT 82 48 26 8 245 203 104
3 y - FLA 82 47 26 9 239 203 103
4 x - NYR 82 46 27 9 236 217 101
5 x - NYI 82 45 27 10 232 216 100
6 x - TBL 82 46 31 5 227 201 97
7 x - PHI 82 41 27 14 214 218 96
8 x - DET 82 41 30 11 211 224 93
9 BOS 82 42 31 9 240 230 93
10 CAR 82 35 31 16 198 226 86
11 OTT 82 38 35 9 236 247 85
12 NJD 82 38 36 8 184 208 84
13 MTL 82 38 38 6 221 236 82
14 BUF 82 35 36 11 201 222 81
15 CBJ 82 34 40 8 219 252 76
16 TOR 82 29 42 11 198 246 69

STATS

2015-2016 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
J. Jagr 79 27 39 23 66
J. Jokinen 81 18 42 25 60
A. Barkov 66 28 31 18 59
J. Huberdeau 76 20 39 17 59
V. Trocheck 76 25 28 15 53
R. Smith 82 25 25 19 50
A. Ekblad 78 15 21 18 36
N. Bjugstad 67 15 19 -8 34
B. Campbell 82 6 25 31 31
B. Pirri 52 11 13 -4 24
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 35 19 6 .922 2.35
A. Montoya 12 7 3 .919 2.18

 
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