The Florida Panthers are turning to their cubs.
When Florida opens training camp Wednesday, a significant number of the team's top prospects will be competing for significant roles, not just roster spots.
"It's wide open," Tallon said. "We're going to put the best 23 players we can on the ice regardless of age. Whoever plays the best from here on in, through training camp and all the preseason games -- seven preseason games -- will tell us who is going to stay and who is going to go and who is most capable of handling the pressure mentally."
For most of the youngsters competing for jobs, they've already experienced the rude awakening of transitioning to the NHL game. The Panthers recalled 14 players from its minor league squad last season. Eight players made their NHL debuts.
Florida may have struggled in 2012-13, but it helped fast-track the development of prospects. It has also given Tallon confidence in moving forward with the blue chip talent he's been stockpiling over the last four years.
"We want to build on what we did two seasons ago, forget about what we did last year and use that as a motivator. We're looking for players who want to find solutions, not excuses, who took that as a learning experience and want to move on."
One of those players is Nick Bjugstad, a first-round pick who appeared in 11 games last season.
"I learned a lot while I was here, got to know the guys," Bjugstad says. "That's an important aspect. Just being a part of the team last year was a good deal.
"You can't let up at any point in the game and you've got to be ready for every shift. Consistency, that's a big thing. Ewveryone is the strongest here. It's not like you're playing college kids anymore. It's a different scenario. Guys are just bigger and stronger."
Others expected to get a shot at earning NHL spots include defensemen Alex Petrovic, Mike Caruso and Colby Robak and forwards Aleksander Barkov, Quinton Howden and Vincent Trocheck.
Florida has brought in a number of journeymen, including Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb, Mike Mottau and Matt Gilroy, just in case the youth movement falters initially.
"We don't want to destroy these kids either," Tallon said. "We want to make sure we're doing the right thing and that we don't put them in too quickly and have them lose their confidence or get hurt."
Stephen Weiss, C (Signed with Detroit); Peter Mueller, W (Signed with Kloten (Switzerland)); Jack Skille, W (Signed with Columbus); George Parros, W (Traded to Montreal); Tyson Strachan, D (Signed with Washington); Jose Theodore, G (Free Agent)
Scott Gomez, C - Since cashing in on the free agent market in 2007, Gomez's play has been on the steep decline, first with the New York Rangers, then Montreal Canadiens. At one point the two-time Cup champion went a full year without scoring a goal. The Canadiens were so desperate to dump the pivot's 7.3 million cap hit they petitioned the NHL and NHLPA for an accelerated, post-lockout compliance buyout. Is the 33-year-old really incapable of being half of what he was in New Jersey? Or did playing in two of the NHL's biggest high-pressure markets with even higher expectations cause the center's crash? Florida is on the hook for one year and 900,000. Playing in a relaxed market may be the key to rejuvenating Gomez. If the Panthers can find ideal linemates -- a grinder on one side and a finisher on the other -- to compliment Gomez's playmaking ability, they will end up with a free agent steal.
Alexsander Barkov, C - Florida has avoided saying on the record what everyone knows -- that Barkov will be on the opening night roster. Listen to any of the Panthers' brass talk about the second-overall pick, though, and there is a definite excitement. Florida may have selected the most NHL-ready player in 2013, as Barkov put in two seasons as a teenager with Tappara of the Finnish league. In 2012-13, he not only kept pace with the men, but dominated them, registering 21 goals and 48 points in 53 games. Florida feels so comfortable about Barkov's upcoming transition they held him out of last weekend's rookie tournament. That was partially to keep the now-healthy pivot from aggravating a past shoulder injury, but also to keep him focused on preparing for camp with the men.
Nick Bjugstad, C - The Panthers enter camp with high expectations for Bjugstad, the last of their 2010 first-round picks to make his pro debut. His 11-game stint served as more of a wake-up call than kind introduction to the NHL, but it appeared to have fast-tracked Bjugstad's development. The forward played a role in Team USA's bronze-medal victory at the 2013 World Championship, then earned an invite to the Americans' Olympic orientation camp over in August. The 6-foot-6 Bjugstad estimates he bulked up to about 225 pounds through training this summer. During Florida's rookie tournament, the pivot showed off his scoring touch with four goals and used his size extremely well at both ends of the ice. If Bjugstad continues that kind of display in the preseason, he may very well find himself competing for a spot on one of Florida's top two lines.
Vincent Trocheck, W - The stock of the speedy winger has skyrocketed since the Panthers drafted him in the third round in 2011. Trocheck went from being a 20-goal, 60-point player at the junior level to a 50-goal, 100-point player in two years. Trocheck boasts a competitive and determined nature, which should benefit him as he vies for a spot on Florida's opening night roster. The Panthers could certainly use his offensive talents as well. It is a matter of seeing how quickly Trocheck can adjust to the pro game.
What to watch for
How quickly can the Panthers ice a healthy lineup?
The Panthers were plagued by injury in 2012-13, with more than 300 man-games lost to injury and 10 players requiring surgery at some point. Those issues have carried over to the present as a number of key players come to camp still rehabbing repaired parts. Jonathan Huberdeau (hip) and Barkov (shoulder) are healthy and ready for camp. Drew Shore (wrist), Dmitri Kulikov (shoulder), Kris Versteeg (knee) and Sean Bergenheim (abdominal muscle) could be available by the season opener, depending on how well their ailments hold up during the preseason. Captain Ed Jovanovski (hip) is expected to need additional time before returning to the lineup. The Panthers are also expected to be without Scott Clemmensen for at least the next three weeks after it was revealed the goaltender recently underwent minor knee surgery.
Who will center Florida's top line?
Florida prides itself on being deep down the middle, and they enter this season with plenty of options at center. The question is how the depth chart will fill out, but more importantly, who will center Jonathan Huberdeau? The Calder Trophy winner had a mix of centers last season, including Drew Shore, whom he developed some chemistry with. But Huberdeau, the lightest guy on the team last year, often took a beating in front of the net, so he could also benefit from having Barkov of Bjugstad free up space in front. Gomez, whose game thrives on feeding finishers could also have a shot. There's also the Marcel Goc, whose two-way play could free up Huberdeau a little more defensively.
Who will round out the Panthers defense?
The Panthers top four of Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitri Kulikov and Mike Weaver are set, but there will be at least two slots open on the blue line to start the season. Colby Robak, Mike Caruso and Alex Petrovic all earned playing time in Florida last season. But the Cats also signed Mike Mottau and Matt Gilroy in the offseason. Robak proved reliable in his 16-game stint with Florida, but didn't provide the offense he showed in San Antonio of the American Hockey League. Caruso made the team out of camp last year, but a broken hand cut his season short. Petrovic impressed with his physical play. Mottau and Gilroy appear to be the front-runners because of experience, which gives the Panthers more time to develop the youngsters.