A solid mix of talented youth and veteran leadership will help the Florida Panthers reach that next level and contend for a postseason berth.
Florida earned 91 points last season and missed a possible playoff berth by eight points.
"We got a taste of it last year, coming close," Panthers center Nick Bjugstad said. "It definitely leaves a little sour taste in our mouth but also makes us a little more hungry. We're ready for the challenge and some of the younger guys are becoming a little more experienced. We're just super excited for this season."
With a more experienced core of young players, it should be an interesting season for the Panthers.
BEST NEW FACES
Florida shed several veteran players from its roster in order to give younger players a better opportunity. Newcomer Reilly Smith needs to be a better player for Florida than he was for the Boston Bruins. He never reached his potential with the Bruins, so Boston dealt him to the Panthers in exchange for forward Jimmy Hayes during the offseason.
"We loved Big Jimmy. He was a great guy in the locker room and a great player, obviously," Bjugstad said. "But Reilly's a really good player as well. We're looking forward to having him. He's a good playmaker, a skilled player."
In 81 games for the Bruins, Smith recorded 13 goals and 27 assists for 40 points, but he had issues with consistency.
Like most teams, the Panthers need stellar goaltending in order to be successful. Roberto Luongo proved crucial for Florida last season, posting a 28-19-12 record, along with a .921 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average. The veteran netminder turns 37 near the end of this season, which makes the backup role an important one for Florida. Al Montoya was 6-7-2 in 20 games last season, but could have extra motivation this season since it's the final year of his contract.
How much more future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr has remaining is a question every season. The 43-year-old forward fit perfectly with the Panthers after being acquired from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline. The Panthers went 12-7-2 with Jagr in the lineup.
"He came in excited with a positive attitude right away," Bjugstad said. "Some of us younger guys still felt like fans when meeting him. We couldn't believe we were playing with him. He did nothing but help the team."
"There's a reason why [Jagr's] still playing at the age he is right now," Bjugstad said.
The talented core of young players will only get better and there's a lot to like about the Panthers. Bjugstad, who missed the end of last season with a back injury, is healthy and ready to go. Huberdeau, who recently signed a two-year contract, had 15 goals and 39 assists for a team-leading 54 points last season. Barkov posted 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points, and he's poised to increase his offensive output this season, especially playing with Jagr.
"His playmaking ability and his hockey sense is off the charts," Bjugstad said of Barkov. "He's so unselfish. He passes the puck so much and he actually has a really good shot. Utilizing both those skills -- his hockey mind and his shot -- he's turning into a really good player. He's got all the tools in the world and it's just a confidence thing. He came into the league as a really young player and he still did well his rookie year. It's fun to watch him and he's going to develop into a big-time player."
No doubt second-year defenseman Aaron Ekblad should have another standout season. The reigning Calder Trophy winner as the league's top rookie recorded 39 points last season. He truly played like a seasoned veteran and is respected for his maturity and work ethic.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
The Panthers will have a solid contingent at the World Cup of Hockey. Huberdeau (Team North America), Ekblad (Team North America), Bjugstad (USA), Luongo (Canada), Barkov (Finland) and Jussi Jokinen (Finland) could all compete in the tournament.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Jagr, who will earn $3.5 million this season, once again becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. It's highly unlikely he will retire and he could re-sign with Florida. If not, he's always wanted to play for a Canadian team.
Forward Shawn Thornton, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, will also be a UFA this summer. He will earn $2.1 million this season and it's possible the 37-year-old veteran could decide to call it a career. When he does retire, a job in the media world will likely be an option. Defenseman Brian Campbell, who will earn $7.1 million this season, becomes a free agent on July 1. Fellow blueliner Willie Mitchell ($4.25 million) also becomes a UFA, along with goaltender Montoya.
The Panthers will make some serious strides this season and will contend for a playoff berth. Fifth in the Atlantic Division.