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Panthers looking to young players to fill lineup

NHL.com 30-in30

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

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 MTL 48 32 13 3 128 108 67
2 DET 50 29 12 9 149 129 67
3 TBL 50 31 15 4 163 132 66
4 NYI 49 32 16 1 158 139 65
5 PIT 49 28 13 8 145 125 64
6 WSH 49 25 14 10 144 125 60
7 BOS 49 26 16 7 131 123 59
8 NYR 46 27 15 4 135 111 58
9 FLA 46 21 15 10 114 129 52
10 PHI 50 21 22 7 139 151 49
11 TOR 50 22 24 4 144 155 48
12 OTT 47 19 19 9 129 134 47
13 CBJ 47 21 23 3 119 148 45
14 NJD 49 18 22 9 110 137 45
15 CAR 48 17 25 6 104 125 40
16 BUF 50 14 33 3 94 179 31

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
N. Bjugstad 46 16 13 -1 29
A. Ekblad 46 7 21 6 28
J. Huberdeau 43 9 17 1 26
J. Jokinen 45 4 21 -3 25
B. Boyes 44 10 12 2 22
J. Hayes 38 13 7 1 20
S. Bergenheim 35 8 9 2 17
A. Barkov 35 5 10 -5 15
B. Campbell 46 3 11 -1 14
D. Kulikov 41 1 13 -3 14
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
R. Luongo 18 11 8 .920 2.42
A. Montoya 3 4 2 .891 2.96
 
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