Originally Published: September 25, 2013

Florida Panthers: Still looking ahead

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

It's back to the future in South Florida.

Led by second-year winger Jonathan Huberdeau and rookie center Aleksander Barkov, it's all about the kids again for the Florida Panthers.

"For sure we're underdogs because of last year and we're young again this season," Huberdeau told ESPN.com. "It's going to be hard for sure, but if we're all pulling in the same way, it could be a good year."

A surprise playoff spot two seasons ago with a patchwork lineup of mostly veteran add-ons was a pleasant development in South Florida, but the reality was that GM Dale Tallon always had his keen eye on the bigger picture -- being led by the youngsters. Last season's debacle, with the club besieged by injuries and the eventual jettison of veterans, simply allowed the baton to be passed on. It's about the kids again.

"We're going to be young, and we've got some guys coming back that have something to prove. But we need to stay healthy," Tallon told ESPN.com. "If we stay healthy, I think we'll be competitive. It depends how much these kids improve and how fast they improve."

CHANGES
Lots of change in South Florida, and there could be more early in the season. There are rumblings of new ownership in Florida, and if that comes to pass, the Panthers might be in a more stabilized financial position to add to the payroll.

Over the past year, it's all been about cutting down the payroll. Among those gone from last season's roster are Stephen Weiss, Filip Kuba, Peter Mueller, Jack Skille, Tyson Strachan, T.J. Brennan, George Parros and Jose Theodore. The new faces include Scott Gomez, Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb, Mike Mottau, Jesse Winchester and Matt Gilroy. Goalie Tim Thomas, defenseman Tom Gilbert and winger Brad Boyes were also invited to a camp tryout.

Thomas was later signed to a one-year deal, as the Panthers view him as a mentor of sorts for young netminder Jacob Markstrom. But the most important new face of all is Barkov, an 18-year-old from Finland whom the Panthers took second overall in June in Newark, N.J.

"He's a two-way player already. He's educated. He's a very smart kid," said Tallon.

"He's a shy kid, but he looks really good," Huberdeau said of Barkov. "He's a good player, has a lot of skill and he's big."

STRENGTHS
The backbone of this team is the influx of draft picks accumulated since Tallon took over in May 2010.

"It's just starting to come," said Tallon. "It's starting to trickle down now. We've had four drafts now. The cycle is just beginning."

It's all led by Huberdeau, the third overall pick from 2011 who won the Calder Trophy last season as NHL rookie of the year despite not being 100 percent.

"Huberdeau has put on some weight and muscle," said Tallon. "He's healthy now too. He played hurt all of last year."

Other rookies who could make a dent on the roster this year include Nick Bjugstad, Drew Shore and Alex Petrovic, which is not to forget that a youngster such as 21-year-old blueliner Erik Gudbranson already has two NHL seasons under his belt.

WEAKNESSES
Limited by a decreasing payroll, the Panthers were unable to overcome the incredible rash of injuries that hit last season. One by one, key players went down, and so did the team's season.

"We couldn't handle it," said Tallon. "We didn't have enough depth to offset those injuries."

Huberdeau doesn't want to blame last season entirely on injuries, but he admitted it was hard to ignore.

"There's no excuses. You can't put it all on the injuries, but for sure it was harder because of it last year," said Huberdeau. "We had so many injuries; it was strange to see 10 [injured] guys not dressed come into the room after games. But it also gave the younger guys a chance to step up more and some experience in the NHL. A lot of guys played their first NHL game last season."

With the departure of longtime No. 1 center Weiss to Detroit via free agency, the Panthers don't have an obvious candidate to replace him on the top line, at least not until Barkov matures into the player everyone expects. For this season, the No. 1 job is up for grabs.

"We'll have to do it by committee, but we have more choices than we've had," said Tallon.

REALIGNMENT EFFECT
The two clubs that have the most to complain about in the NHL when it comes to realignment are the two Florida teams. Their travel increased dramatically with the move from the former Southeast to the new Atlantic, where they have to make more trips to Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto -- not to mention how much tougher their competition is now. On the other hand, ticket sales should be aided by the addition of four Original Six teams in their division, which is great news for the snowbirds from Boston, New York, Montreal and Toronto who love to vacation in Florida throughout the winter.

PREDICTIONS
LeBrun: You can see where this is all headed long term with Huberdeau, Barkov and Gudbranson leading the way, but it's going to be short-term pain for now. Hard not to think the Panthers won't finish last in the Atlantic Division this season, unless Thomas is the Thomas of 2011 and carries the Panthers. That is if he makes the team.

Burnside: Eighth in Atlantic Division.

Custance: Seventh in Atlantic Division.

Melrose: Seventh in Atlantic Division.

Strang: Sixth in Atlantic Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer

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