The oft-dismissed Florida Panthers are ready to earn respect with newly sharpened claws.
Entering training camp, the Panthers were preparing to ice a lineup stocked with blue-chip, but inexperienced prospects. When Florida begins its 20th season Thursday in Dallas against the Stars, it will get its first indication of how much damage its quickly revamped lineup can do.
As the team wrapped up its preseason last weekend, hockey-mad Vincent Viola stepped in to buy the franchise and immediately provided GM Dale Tallon with resources to better the team.
Florida shored up its own end by inking two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and defensemen Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney. Up front, the Panthers added two-time 30-goal scorer and tough guy Krys Barch.
Though not quite the overhaul Florida underwent two seasons ago when it brought in seven free agents, the Panthers will quickly need to find chemistry. Opening the season with an eight-day, four-game road trip could foster bonding, especially with a number of Cats having gone through such an experience in 2011-12.
Well before their ownership change, the Panthers posted billboards reading "WE WILL WIN" along South Florida's major corridors. It is the kind of confidence residents expect to see from the back-to-back NBA Champion Miami Heat, even the hometown favorite Miami Dolphins.
But the Panthers? Getting away with showing swagger?
Not two weeks ago.
Today? Winning does not seem implausible.
Despite the recent influx of veteran players, youth remains at the center of Florida's offense. Barring a sophomore slump, Jonathan Huberdeau is on his way to establishing himself as an elite talent. The addition of first-round pick Alexsander Barkov gives the Panthers a much-needed big, strong center up the middle.
Much of Florida's success relies on all players contributing, starting with back-to-back team points leader Tomas Fleischmann. The Panthers will have Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall and eventually Sean Bergenheim back after injury plagued seasons. Florida would like to see Shawn Matthias build on a breakout year. Scott Gomez and Brad Boyes, considered washed up by many, have the opportunity to rekindle careers.
The Panthers may not have a bonafide superstar in their lineup yet, but they have enough talent to generate production from all four lines.
Protecting its own end is Florida's priority, although recent upgrades should give the Cats one of the league's better transitional defenses. Brian Campbell remains the centerpiece of Florida's blueline in terms of both icetime and offensive production, but he could see workload eased with the addition of Whitney and Gilbert.
The additions will give a healthy Mike Weaver the opportunity to concentrate on what he does best: being a shutdown defenseman.
Expect Erik Gudbranson, who added more even more weight to his 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame, to have a breakout year, exhibiting play similar to what he displayed as a rookie during the 2012 postseason.
Thomas will serve as the team's starter while mentoring 23-year-old Jacob Markstrom. The addition of the elite netminder gives Florida not only a morale boost in the locker room, but a chance to win nightly -- and his teammates have said as much. Markstrom will get a share of playing time, but may eventually find himself back in San Antonio once Scott Clemmensen returns from knee surgery.
Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos manage one of the most efficient budgets in the NHL. Even with its recent signing spree, the Panthers have approximately 10 million in cap space to work with during the season. If Florida finds itself out of playoff race at the trade deadline, it can offer 12 veteran unrestricted free-agents-to-be with contracts under 1.7 million. But should they be vying for a postseason bid, the Panthers have the flexibility, financial resources and bargaining chips to pull off a major deal for a postseason run.
The league will shut down from Feb. 9-25 when a number of NHL players will take part in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Panthers who are potential candidates to be selected for their national teams include: Aleksander Barkov (Finland), Sean Bergenheim (Finland), Nick Bjugstad (United States), Brian Campbell (Canada), Tomas Fleischmann (Czech Republic), Dmitri Kulikov (Russia), Jonathan Huberdeau (Canada), Tomas Kopecky (Slovakia) and Tim Thomas (United States).
Beginning this season, Florida will play in the Atlantic division, comprised of teams from the former Northeast Division (Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto), Detroit and intra-state rival Tampa Bay. The Panthers play 30 game against division rivals, 24 versus the Metropolitan Division and 28 against the Western Conference.
The alignment benefits the Cats from the standpoint of home attendance, with snowbird favorites Montreal, Toronto and Detroit sure to bring in sellout or near-capacity crowds. This formula, however, leads to Florida essentially playing road games at home. But it may also build a grudge within the Cats' locker room that can be channeled into positive results on the ice.
Florida experienced as much when it captured the 2011-12 Southeast Division title, for example, as it went 13-4-3 against Northeast foes.
-- Best case scenario: Third place, Atlantic Division -- Thomas provides the Panthers with the elite netminding it has lacked since Tallon came on board. Florida's defensive corps take care of its own end so well it gives the Cats' offense more freedom to work. Huberdeau continues to show why he's a future star, while Barkov contends for the Calder Trophy. Versteeg, Bergenheim and Upshall rebound from injuries, while Gomez and Boyes show a few down seasons were anomalies. Florida proves Tallon has been right all along -- this team is more like the Southeast Division title squad than last year's bottom feeders.
-- Worst case scenario: Seventh place, Atlantic Division: Thomas' layoff proves to be detrimental in his ability to be a game breaker. Players brought in on one-year contracts to rekindle careers show exactly why no other teams had interest in picking them up. Huberdeau experiences a sophomore slump, while Barkov's transition from Finland to the NHL is not as easy as the Panthers expected. Injuries decimate Florida's lineup once again.